Ebola the thief

Published: 5 August 2014 17:07 CET

By Katherine Mueller, IFRC

Ebola virus disease is a thief. There is no getting around it. I have witnessed, first hand, the lengths it goes to, to make a name for itself; to make itself notorious; to see itself added to the vocabulary of many – the young, the old, the educated, the non-educated, the city dweller and rural farmer.

In Kailahun district, a region that borders Guinea in eastern Sierra Leone, children now shout and wave ‘Ebola, Ebola, Ebola’ as we pass. This outbreak has already claimed hundreds of lives in the country and shows no signs of abating. It is indiscriminate in choosing its victims. I have watched as infectious disease experts swabbed the inside cheek of a 14 month old girl who had died so they could test for Ebola. Her mother wanted nothing to do with her.

I listened as an elderly man gasped with grief when the blanket covering the body of his son was pulled back, revealing flies and the undeniable stench of death.

I have watched as families refused to have the bodies of their loved ones returned to them for burial. Instead, they are laid to permanent rest in one of the two new cemeteries dug just for Ebola victims, not far from the centre where people go for treatment, if they are lucky enough and get in early. The reality, however, is that most people who cross the threshold of the centre will exit through the back, in a doubled-up body bag.

I have watched as a community has filled in a grave dug for a 70 year old woman before she could be laid to rest. Her neighbours don’t want her buried so close. They incorrectly believe she is still contagious. Instead, using machetes, villagers clear a path deep into the rain forest until a clearing can be found for a new grave to be dug, far from her loved ones.

Ebola is robbing families of people who are precious to them. But it is also robbing them of their chance to say their traditional goodbyes. Here, community burials are the norm. The women of the household generally prepare the body for burial, cleaning it, washing it, dressing it. They hug the body to ensure ancestral lines are continued. With Ebola paying a visit, that is no longer possible.

For those who do not test positive for Ebola, and die from something unrelated, it is a double theft. It is imperative the bodies are treated as if they are positive, which means sending in Red Cross volunteers in outfits that would be suitable for a sci-fi flick. Families stay well back from their dearly departed, full of fear. They only get the test results back after the burial. And by that time, if the results are negative, it is too late to say a proper goodbye.

Having just spent three intense weeks in Kailahun district, the flood gates are now opening and all the emotions which I supressed while there are starting to emerge.

Ebola has robbed me of the blissful ignorance I had about this disease only a few short months ago. For the time I was on the ground, the time before deployment, and the time now following, the majority of conversations are centering on death. Every morning over breakfast we would ask, how many burials today? I have seen more burials during these three weeks, than I have in my entire life – stark, cold, and lonely burials, with no one who was close to the deceased attending.

Ebola has created memories for me which, when I think back on this mission years from now, will be full of death, grief and mistrust. The Red Cross and other organizations are working in an environment where people think we are there to steal the organs of their deceased relatives; that we are there to take their blood; that if we take their sick relatives away, they will not return.

Ebola has robbed me of peaceful sleep. I am now dreaming of the virus, of a big mechanical claw, named Ebola, descending from the sky and trying to pick me up by the head. I am able to shake it off. I know of at least two volunteers on the Red Cross dead body management team (such a technical term for such a personal task) who are also having nightmares. I wonder if the psychosocial support provided to them will be enough to help them cope with what they will be experiencing over the coming months.

Ebola is a thief. But it may not be as adept as it thinks. At least nine people have walked out of the treatment centre, having fought back against this virus and won. And there are signs that life, as it once was, will return to this district. It comes from two year old Jusu, who runs up and wraps his little arms around my knees, or who grabs my hand to walk with him. Technically, we aren’t supposed to touch people, but how can I tell that to Jusu? How can I turn away from a small gesture of tenderness, in a world where humanity has been turned on its head? I can only hope that Jusu’s family is spared the direct effects of Ebola, and that Jusu’s youthful innocence remains intact. That it is something Ebola cannot steal.


Katherine Mueller is the communications manager in Africa for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. She has been deployed to Sierra Leone to support the Red Cross response to the Ebola virus disease outbreak.