Burying Ebola’s victims with dignity: If we don’t do it, who will?

Published: 23 December 2014 14:29 CET

By Moustapha Diallo, IFRC

Mamadi Kourouma, a volunteer with the Red Cross Society of Guinea, is extremely busy this morning. He and his team have hardly finished burying a man who died from Ebola in the cemetery of Dixin, in the heart of the Guinean capital, when his phone rings again. Kourouma is told to return immediately to the MSF treatment centre in Donka, where a family has just authorized the burial of one of their sons, another victim to this highly contagious and indiscriminate disease.

"This is the fourth burial this morning," says Kourouma. He looks exhausted. “My team has had an average of two burials every day since September.”

Volunteering with the Red Cross since 2009, Kourouma, 27, is in charge of one of the safe and dignified burial teams in Conakry. He is the youngest among his team of five: Dr Mamadi Keita, Nabilaye Camara, Benjamin Kourouma and Alseyni Bangoura. They have become unseparated brothers, since the outbreak reached the doorstep of the capital.

“It’s been three months since we are together. I now spend more time with them than with my own family members. Also, since we are engaged in burials, many of our friends are shunning us,” says Kourouma.

In Conakry, and in many other regions affected by Ebola, fear is sometimes visible on people’s faces. Despite outreach efforts, many hide their noses when they cross a burial team carrying a deceased person, as if Ebola can be spread through the air. Stigma is also rampant and follows those who are volunteering to respond to Ebola, people like Kourouma. The suspicious and wary looks of neighbours, and lifelong friends who disappear when they realize the job Kourouma and his team are doing.  

Explain, explain and explain again

Kourouma does not condemn them. “This a disease that brings fear, which is why we never get tired of explaining, explaining again, always explaining about how a person contracts the virus and how they can prevent it.”

The young man is studying medicine at the university and was part of the sensitization teams before being trained on safe and dignified burials three months ago.

“We received good trainings on the disease before going on the ground to meet communities and educate people,” says Kourouma.

However, the level of risk is higher with burials as Ebola dead bodies are very contagious, and adequate measures need to be taken to avoid the further spread of the virus within communities. Kourouma and his team wear protective equipment including a suit, goggles and gloves every time they are called to collect and bury a person who has died from Ebola. Here, again, they must sensitize people, because it only takes one mistake at a community burial, someone who has touched or washed a body, to spark another spike in infections.

“Someone has to do the work and people are frightened. We have been trained to manage these bodies in order to avoid new infections. If we do not do it, who will?” explains Kourouma.

Despite the danger he is facing every day, Kourouma is not scared.

“We strive to comply with strict rules when managing dead bodies and before we return home, we disinfect ourselves with a chlorine solution.” This is how he protects himself, his family, and his girlfriend.

“In the beginning, my girlfriend shunned me and was frightened when we were together. She did not accept to be closer to me, but now after educating her, she has changed her attitude. As a volunteer, she understands that I could not remain idle and leave my community continuing to die. Now she wants to join the Red Cross,” adds Kourouma with a large smile.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has launched a revised emergency appeal of 28.69 million Swiss francs to reach more than 11 million people who could be affected by the Ebola outbreak in Guinea. In total, IFRC has launched 16 Ebola operations in response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, targeting 39 million people. For more details on the Red Cross regional Ebola response, visit www.ifrc.org/ebola-crisis.