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The Ebola Swab and Burial Teams: Risk versus Patriotic Zeal

OCTOBER 23, 2014 By Patrick J. Kamara

The Ebola outbreak in the country has ravaged the lives of many Sierra Leoneans since its inception in Kissi Tongi Chiefdom, Kailahun District, in May. To combat the disease, the government has created many sub-components that are being spearheaded by the newly renamed National Ebola Response Centre (NERC).

Five months after the government declared the outbreak a public health emergency, there has been a public outcry about the activities of some of the swab and burial teams, who are at the frontline of managing Ebola corpses.

The work of the Ebola burial teams is very challenging. Many claim that they are faced with stigmatization and provocation from members of the public. The teams are responsible for collecting corpses for interment. Whilst in the line of duty, they are sometimes confronted by irate youths who blame them for ‘late arrival of the team’ or the ‘way the corpse is being handled’. Some members of the burial teams have even sustained injuries in the course of scuffles with youth.

Edison Lahai supervises Burial Team No.9 in Freetown. The team works for hours each day to bury corpses in Freetown as new Ebola cases spike in the capital city. He says that he is inspired more by love for country than money to embark on the dangerous task each day. “I work for the Ministry of Health and Sanitation under the Secretariat of the Disease Control and Prevention. When the Ebola outbreak took a dangerous momentum, I left my office to supervise the burial team. This was not because of the money but for the love I have for my country,” he told me at the Kingtom cemetery.

He says he is in sympathy with irate community youths who sometimes barricade streets, reminiscent of the war era, to draw attention to abandoned corpses in their community. “The action they (youths) take is understandable as nobody will be happy to keep a dead body at his residence until it decomposes,” he says before adding: “But we are faced with a situation where we have limited resources to manage a disease of this magnitude. Look at the vehicle (pointing to the burial vehicle) we use, it often develops [mechanical] problems and we are covering a wide area. Let’s assume there was a call for burial at the time the vehicle was in garage yesterday, it would have caused serious problem for us.”

Because of the many challenges they have to grapple with each day, Lahai says: “To some extent, we are not responsible for the delay in collecting corpses as we are the last resort in this process. Our work is chronological; we come in after the swab team returns with an Ebola positive result. So, mostly the swab team consumes much of the time.”

He says the level of risk members of his team has to contend with each day is very high. If the risk is high, the rate at which they are losing friends because of their ‘patriotic’ decision to help with the burial of copses is higher. “Even my landlord has evicted me from my place of abode, but that does not worry me much. What matters is my wife’s continual grumbling for me to leave the job,” he says with melancholy.

Lahai’s story is similar to another burial team supervisor employed by the Red Cross Society. Kelfala Kanu, 25, is a student of Njala University. As schools and colleges are yet to reopen due to the outbreak, he has decided to join the heroic burial team.

Kanu says he is happy to contribute to the battle to defeat the deadly virus, and was quick to say he is not motivated by the salary, which is a little above US$100 (500,000) per week, in view of risk.

“Everybody knows that the disease is very contagious especially when the victim dies. So we the burial teams are at a very high risk. The virus has affected all facets of lives, that’s why we are calling on all Sierra Leoneans to put hands on deck for the eradication of the virus,” he said.

When asked how he feels to be part of the burial team, Kanu reiterated that he is happy with his job and that he would like to serve in even more dangerous zones. He revealed that he took up the job initially as a volunteer and only put on the payroll in August.

Head of grave diggers at the Kingtom cemetery, Abdul Rahman Parker, says their task has been made even harder by the outbreak. He says they hope the authorities will extend the site demarcated for Ebola victims at the cemetery as scores of corpses arrive each day.

In a disclosure which may perhaps not surprise few in the capital, Parker revealed that they have buried over 700 corpses since the start of the outbreak. Though he conceded that not all of the corpses died from Ebola, he estimated that at least 500 were Ebola victims.

“Well there are some corpses that are buried here that are not Ebola related deaths. This development escalated when the government stopped people from burying their relatives. Many bodies are abandoned on the street and for the safety of the community people we take such bodies and bury them here. But honestly, Ebola bodies are more than 500,” he maintained.

Whiles the patriotic zeal and commitment of Ebola burial teams have been applauded by all and sundry, these local heroes – at least for some in Freetown – have been bedevilled by accusations of taking bribes from some bereaved family members in order to falsify swab results. There have been claims that death certificates have been falsified at Connaught Hospital and some families, desperate to give their loved ones a befitting burial, have given money to members of the burial teams.

Mohamed Lenghor is a member of the swab team which collects samples from dead bodies to test for the virus. The swab teams work in tandem with the burial teams, and are key players in the current burial arrangement in the country.

He, however, debunked claims that they take bribes from relatives of deceased persons suspected to have died from Ebola. He admitted though that there have been several attempts to bribe the teams.

“To say we ask for money in order to change specimen results or whatever is a blatant lie, complete lie. In fact some people plead with us to change the result so that they would bury their loved ones even when the result is Ebola positive. It is our refusal that frustrates many people to make such an allegation against us,” he explained.

But Aiah Kamara, a resident of Dwarzark community, west of Freetown, tells this reporter in an exclusive interview at her residence that she wasn’t shown any result to ascertain that her husband died of Ebola. She is still in pain and grief as she refuses to accept that her husband died from the virus, which has killed over a thousand people, according to Ministry of Health figures.

“I am not happy with the behaviour of the burial team that buried my husband. They never presented to me any result to show that my husband died of Ebola, neither did they give me a death certificate or to tell me where my husband was buried,” she explains, still convinced that her Muslim husband would have been buried within twenty-four hours and in accordance with Islamic law, had she compromised with the burial team.

Despite this blip in another commendable role played by the burial and swab teams across the country, as the country battles with the rampaging virus, one cannot deny the fact that the teams are a combination of men of valour and patriotism who have put love for country ahead of money, amidst the likely risk of losing their lives.

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