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Sacking of Kenema Burial Team shames Sierra Leone

DECEMBER 4, 2014  By Joseph Dumbuya

A burial team in protective gear bury the body of a woman suspected to have died from Ebola virus
A burial team in protective gear bury the body of a woman suspected to have died from Ebola virus

The sacking of striking members of the Ebola Burial Team in Kenema by the Chief Executive Officer of the National Ebola Response Centre, Palo Conteh, is wrong and must be condemned.  It is rash, unfair and very unhelpful to the Ebola campaign.

But what they did was wrong. Absolutely! Like Palo and others, I condemn the action of the striking workers, not least because our dead deserve a decent farewell. After all, it is the last opportunity we have to show love and respect as they make their final earthly journey.  Anything short of this, like we saw in Kenema, is reprehensible. But, I must also hasten to say their action is understandable.

I will return to the above later, let me share a few observations on the interview granted by Palo on last Tuesday’s edition of Good Morning Salone on Radio Democracy on the Kenema sackings.

First, I was awe-struck to hear Palo say: ‘I have decided to sack the striking workers in Kenema.’ What is more, he said it in a manner akin to the dark days of military dictatorship. It reminds one of his usual retort to issues bothering on having people adopt the right attitude to Ebola, he would say: “You journalists will be the first to criticize us if we are too hard with the people.” Well there is nothing wrong with being hard with people as long as it is done within the law. For instance enforcing the bylaws is making a world of difference in parts of the country. But anything short of this will be met with stiff resistance.

The curiosity in you would like to know why such a crucial decision was taken singlehandedly by Palo. As far as we know Palo is not heading a one-man business, so he cannot just sack people without discussing and reaching an agreement on the issue with his organization.

At the very least, he should have consulted with senior members of NERC. Even though this is not good enough, it is better than acting unilaterally. I am mindful of the fact that the sacking has the blessing of the Ministry of Health. But this is no excuse for unilateral action.

Also, Palo spoke extensively about the unfortunate action of the burial team but hardly anything about those responsible for the delay in paying their allowances. If anything, these people have committed a more serious offence. Singling out the burial team is akin to a doctor trying to cure the symptoms and not the cause of the disease. No wonder health workers are striking all over the place.

Is this approach meant to divert attention from the more serious issue bothering on corruption and bureaucracy plaguing the system? If the money had been allocated to paying members of the burial team and health workers, why do they have to go on strike before they are paid their allowances?

Also, Palo came across as very angry. This is unacceptable more so for a holder of such a critical office. Of course, we all do feel very strongly about certain things which could get us emotional. But this is no excuse to be angry on air especially for a high profile figure in government.

The way we react to situations, especially difficult ones, gives an idea of the strength of character and intelligence of people. The downside of getting angry is that it interferes with our thought processes and therefore inhibits our ability to think properly. If you hear Pala say repeatedly that the strike is political and yet fail to advance a single reason to back his claim, then you understand what I am talking about.

While Charles Mumbu and others may be in a hurry to demonize the Kenema burial team and support their sacking, we should remind ourselves of a couple of things. First, strike by members of the burial team and other health workers for pay is not uncommon. As I write this piece, health workers in Kono are on strike over the non-payment of allowances. Also, this is not the first time the dead have been treated in a disrespectful manner. As a matter of fact the worst offenders in the country’s decade-long civil war were granted a blanket amnesty.

Also, because the outbreak started in Kailahun District and then to Kenema, both were the very first to put together burial teams for those who died of Ebola. This was unarguably the most difficult decision anybody could make at the time because it was a job nobody wanted to do. Ask Patrick Massaquoi of the Sierra Leonean Red Cross.

Apart from the risk of contracting the disease, they were treated like scumbags by the communities they were serving. Those who took the job were said to have signed their death warrant. They were and continue to be called names and shunned by family and community. Some had to endure being evicted from their homes.

It was the teams in Kailahun and Kenema districts who proved us wrong that yes you can bury the Ebola dead and still not become infected with the disease. It was they who gave courage to others in the other districts including the Western Area to take up the job. We had their praises being sung all over the place. As part of the campaign to have volunteers into the burial team, Dr. Sas Kargbo will not miss an opportunity to announce to the nation that no member of the burial team has become infected with the disease since the outbreak.

This heroism has a downside nobody is talking about and that is the psychological effects of being in the Ebola burial team. This is history repeating itself. We did the same thing after the war when people – fighters and victims – were abandoned to struggle with the psychological effects of the war. The result is that many Sierra Leoneans continue to suffer in silent from mental illness. Unfortunately, there has not been any survey since the end of the war, so we can make-believe it is not there. The members of the burial team are now faced with this reality. Sorry to say the same fate awaits them. It is important but those responsible are pretending it is not. Our leaders are genius, they do not learn lessons.

These people need help to cope with the experiences of the job of burying Ebola dead and the stigma that goes with it. They need help and not sacking, more so now that the job is almost done. This is something Pala ceded to when he said: ‘After all, Kenema is now having very few new cases.’

This statement is bound to hunt him. It leaves one wondering whether the guys were sacked because they treated Ebola dead with disrespect or because the job is almost done. If they were sacked because of displaying dead bodies in a disrespectful manner, why should the Minister allude to the fact that Ebola cases are few and far between in Kenema these days?

A civil society activist, Patrick Tucker, told me the real reason for the sacking is to make way for soldiers to take over and enjoy themselves now that there is not much to do.

Whatever the case, Palo should reverse his decision. You cannot treat people who have sacrificed so much for their country in such a shabby manner. Should this decision stand what kind of message are we sending out to those who are making sacrifices at the moment? What guarantee is there that they will not be used and dumped once the work is done? Again, is this the way we should treat our heroes – people who have sacrificed so much for the nation.

Another reason, why this decision should not stand is that we will definitely need these guys in future. Their experiences will be required for future outbreaks, say five or ten years along the line. Mind you, I’m not relishing another outbreak once the current one is eradicated, at the same time it will be folly to assume we will not have another outbreak in future. For now, what Palo should do is to compile a database of those who have been involved with the campaign because we will definitely need their expertise in future outbreaks.

Granted what these guys did is wrong but it is understandable. They have been roundly condemned by people across the divide. This is enough punishment. What is more, they have apologized for their action and people have forgiven them including the families of the diseased. Nobody should weep more than the bereaved families in Kenema. They should therefore be allowed back to work. After all, we all deserve a second chance.

I agree with Palo there is not much in Kenema because the virus has almost been beaten, thanks to the hard work of the burial team. These guys have been over-worked in the past when they were paid peanut, now that there is less work they deserve some rest until such a time when the disease is declared over. After all, we have a crowd of ‘Professional Advisers’,  ‘Expert Consultants’ and ‘Technical Specialists’ making big money for doing sweet nothing. I hope you do not mind the jaw-breaking titles. Welcome to Sierra Leone.

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