Life in the burial teams of Sierra Leone

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Member since March 17, 2015
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Posted by Kamanda, Plan Global Youth Advisory Panel member

The people in Ebola burial teams are risking their lives to fight the disease and deserve our applause – not to be pushed away, blogs Kamanda, one of Plan’s Global Youth Advisory Panel members.

4 February 2015: The burial team is one of the roles in the Ebola response with the greatest risk - but the teams have made an incredible impact in the fight against the disease.

The first time I saw an Ebola burial team was frightening and quite memorable. It was September when I was passing by our cemetery to pay a visit to a friend.

The cemetery was bushy and I was alone. As I approached the curve, I saw 3 of them all in plain white dress from top to bottom. My initial feeling was I had seen dead people, or even angels of death, so I had to walk away hard.

As I became more frightened I prudently pulled off my slippers and ran. At last I met some people who I told about my experience. They mockingly told me: “Man those were the burial team persons you have been hearing of; that is how they dress.”

I realised I had been running from living human beings who are risking their lives to save the lives of many.

Preventing the spread of Ebola

In my community, Port Loko in Sierra Leone, there are 2 categories of burial teams - either from the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society or the District Health Management Team. Both are responsible for responding to death alerts.

Burial team members are people aged 18 to 40, but few are female. Each team is made up of drivers, beneficiaries communicators, swabbers and safe and dignified burial volunteers. Their roles include taking a swab from the deceased’s mouth for an Ebola test, engaging with the deceased’s family members, and washing and burying all corpses, irrespective of the type of disease that killed the deceased.

Initially this was seen as a very risky job hence few people opted to do the job. The disease continued to spread as there were many corpses of people who died from Ebola and other diseases lying in the streets, and our people were unsafely burying on their own.

This contributed immensely towards the spread of the disease as surveys report that 70% of the spread of the disease is as a result of unsafe traditional burial practices.

Discriminated against and marginalised

Now, due to the current effort and increase in the unemployment rate, many are pledging their lives, volunteering for a risk allowance of Le500,000 (US$100) a week. However, these teams are still perceived as being most at risk of having the virus, hence the community people including their family members discriminate against and marginalise them.

A safe and dignified burial officer who leads a team of volunteers told me, “People no longer offer to sell goods to me in some places I used to buy them.”

I challenge anyone to say that doing this work is wrong. To me, the burial teams are the safest of all of us as they always execute their work prudently and follow due procedures.

These people wear double hand gloves and personal protective equipment on their bodies; they wash their hands with chlorine liquid and spray themselves with it, among other precautions, when carrying out their operations. Honestly, I have never heard of a burial team member who either got in contact with the virus or died of it.

A woman joins the burial team

A woman of 27 has been recruited by the Sierra Leone Red Cross to be a part of their burial team in my area.

The involvement of women has come late in this fight, following some strong concerns raised by women and other people in the communities regarding handling of female corpses. The women were not comfortable and happy about the ways men handle female corpses.

The female burial team member told me: “I take it as a challenge to save the lives of my people.” She also said that “being a part of the burial team means a lot to me particularly because 80% of the deaths are female and there was no one to ease the women’s corpses”.

She is the only woman recruited in the burial team so far. She told me “because I am a part of the burial team, my family members ignore me, my friends shun me and because of this it reached to a point I became discouraged. I later gained strength when some women started telling me they want to be part of the burial team.”

How to help the teams

I describe these people as saviours, heroes and heroines, who deserve applause and kudos for their fantastic work. There is no need for us to push them away from us. They are a part of us and besides they are risking their lives to save the lives of many Sierra Leoneans, Africa and the world at large.

There is a need to provide the burial teams with good, safe accommodation and motivational packages, as they are being shunned by their family members and in their respective communities. Some even fear to go back to their communities and live with their families.

Some sort of compensation for them after the outbreak could also be a great boost, recognising that they are a part of the few who risked their lives in this terrible era to save the lives of many.

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