Ebola is real: the terror and tragedy of body management in Liberia

Publié: 15 septembre 2014 15:13 CET

By Victor Lacken, in Monrovia

When the Red Cross Dead Body Management team arrived in the small community of Banjor, just outside Liberia's capital Monrovia, the wailing began. The team had come to collect the remains of Bandu Johnson, a 27-year old woman who died in her home and her neighbours and relatives cried out in grief.

The team carefully and meticulously prepared for the job, first putting on their special protective suits, then spraying disinfectant all around the small house made of wood and corrugated iron sheeting. Three team members then entered the house and emerged a few minutes later with the body wrapped in heavy plastic sheeting and placed it carefully on the back of a pickup truck, to the sound of more wailing from the women watching the scene. Then more disinfecting, of the body bag, of the truck, of the house, and of every single piece of protective clothing the team removed – the suit, gloves, masks, goggles – all of which will be incinerated. Nothing is left to chance.

Around Monrovia it is written everywhere: ‘Ebola is Real’. On billboards, on posters, on t-shirts and in newspapers. In places like Banjor the reality is clear to see. Ebola has already claimed 21 victims in this small community and the fear is palpable.

As Bandu's body was being removed, her seven-year old son Abraham appeared, carrying his nine-month old sister Beatrice in his arms. He looked bewildered and shocked at the sight of the Red Cross volunteers, dressed like spacemen, taking away his mother's remains. He did not speak and nobody approached him and his sister.

His aunt told us that, during Bandu's last days, the only one to look after her was Abraham because everybody else was afraid to go near her. Now the fear is that the children too are infected, though they show no signs as yet. It can take up to three weeks for Ebola symptoms to reveal themselves – fever, diarrhea, bleeding, rashes – and nobody was taking any chances. The Red Cross will send a contact tracer to monitor all those in the community who have been in contact with Bandu, but for her children it may already be too late.

In the nearby community of Brewersville the body management team collects the remains of 12-year-old Bwaii Doe from his home. Again they don their protective suits, again they spray disinfectant, again they load the boy's body onto a pickup truck. His father is distraught, refusing to believe that Ebola was the cause of death, insisting instead that his son was poisoned. But the Red Cross team is not convinced. Prior to becoming ill, Bwaii had been staying with a local pastor and his family. Ebola killed the pastor and his wife and daughter. All the evidence suggests it killed Bwaii too.

Bwaii's father had cared for him when he became ill. He carried him for miles seeking medical help, but he was too late. He knows now he also may be infected, and that may be the reason for his denial.

This is perhaps the harshest aspect of the Ebola virus that is currently ravaging Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. In countries where healthcare systems are limited and doctors are scarce, it traditionally falls to family members to care for their sick. Because of it's highly contagious nature, these carers often become infected too. Thus the disease not only kills its victims but also it often kills the ones that love and care for them. Whole families are wiped out.

The battle against Ebola goes on and the Red Cross is in the front line, collecting bodies for safe disposal, tracing those that have been in contact with victims, providing psychosocial support and mobilizing whole communities to know the risks and how best to deal with them. They fight not just the disease itself, but also fear and stigma, ignorance and denial. They know it is a battle they cannot afford to lose.