Dreaming of Ebola

Publicado: 29 julio 2014 11:30 CET

By Katherine Mueller, IFRC



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.

It’s been about a week since I arrived in Kailahun town in eastern Sierra Leone. During those eight days, I have witnessed eight burials, and one retrieval of a body which lay close to what passes as the main road. Aside from the one woman who was 70 years old, everyone else was young, from a 14 month old little girl to the 27 year old man whose wife had taken their child and fled.

It’s a small sampling of the hundreds of lives the Ebola virus disease has sunk its teeth into in this country. People who, at such young ages, should be strong and vibrant with their entire lives ahead of them, are being knocked down by this invisible outbreak. Who are these people? What are their stories? We manage to get scant information from relatives or friends, but it is usually very clinical – their name, age, how long they were sick.

I am usually able to distance myself from what I see, perhaps because I am looking through the lens of a camera most of the time. Today, however, it was a lot less technical and a lot more emotional and it took considerable effort to keep the tears from flowing. Seeing the bodies in what became their final resting position, and not just the weighted down body bags; the flies; the stench of a body that has been lying for two or three days in the heat and humidity, covered in blankets, waiting for burial; the little body of a toddler who barely got a chance to begin her story. The sound of women wailing, grieving the loss of their loved ones. Today, one of the bodies took his last breath, exhaling a cloud of putrid air upon being moved from his bed. Understandably, it froze the Red Cross team of volunteers, called in to ensure the body was safe for burial.

These volunteers don’t have a medical or health background. A couple of months ago, they were construction workers, motorbike taxi drivers, and students. Now, they are having dreams, or, perhaps more accurately, nightmares about Ebola. One dreamt that Ebola came in the shape of little beads which he was desperately trying to open in a bid to destroy the virus. He did not succeed. Another talks of a man he buried coming and sitting on his bed. He tries to get away but the man gives chase.

There is no question these teams are needed. There are only three doctors in the entire Kailahun district, serving a population of more than 460,000. They rely heavily on health care workers, but they too, are succumbing to this outbreak.

Which means the task of community burials falls on the shoulders of the Red Cross volunteers. It is an extremely challenging venture, with working days often lasting ten or 12 hours. It can take hours just to get to the village, driving on what are essentially little more than dirt paths. The team meets with the village chief, to explain what is going to happen so he, in turn, can inform the community. And the communities are interested. Everyone comes out and hovers nearby, still extremely wary of Ebola yet creeping closer to get a good look, many armed with mobile phones to document every single step the team takes. It is extremely hot in the personal protective equipment the team must wear for their own safety. They are often working in dark and cramped quarters, sometimes with bodies which have begun decomposing.  The community is often scared that the body, even after being disinfected, is still contaminated, and does not allow it to be buried nearby. This requires the Red Cross team to carry the deceased sometimes far into the rain forest, where men with machetes clear a path and then a clearing for the burial. They take the job seriously, paying respect to those who have passed and participating in community prayers prior laying the person to rest.

It is important to remember that not all the bodies being found test positive for Ebola, but they have to be treated as if they are ‘hot’. The consequences of not doing so could literally be deadly, not just for the dead body management team of the Red Cross, but for community members themselves, both the young and the old.