Irish Red Cross staff in Liberia + west Africa + EbolaStephen Ryan, Monrovia, Liberia

My role in Monrovia is to help the Liberian National Red Cross Society establish a beneficiary communication and community engagement programme as part of their Ebola response. The Liberian Red Cross has been working hard to engage communities here. It is not an easy task. There has been general mistrust, misunderstanding and misinformation about Ebola here and, indeed, all over the world.

Safe and Dignified Burials

Perhaps the most visible aspect of Liberian Red Cross’ response to Ebola has been the work done by the Safe and Dignified Burials teams. Because of the way Ebola is transmitted, it is crucial that the remains of those that have died from the disease are disposed of safely. The dead bodies are highly contagious and the teams must wear fully protective clothing when performing their dangerous work. One mistake, especially when removing the protective clothing, can have consequences that could prove fatal.

Talking to the Bereaved

In the mornings, I join the briefing session of the Safe and Dignified Burials teams before they go in the field. As part of the beneficiary communication programme, each team now has a trained community engagement member. Their job is to talk to bereaved families and explain what will happen to the body of their loved one and record details of the deceased – age, gender, symptoms, etc – using a mobile phone app. They also explain how to prevent infection to the wider communities and answer any questions the family may have.

It is often a delicate task – families want to bury their dead but, for a number of reasons, the government has declared that, for the moment, the bodies of all suspected Ebola fatalities must be cremated, a practice that is quite alien to Liberian culture.

“It’s about keeping people safe”

Melvin, one of the Safe and Dignified Burials team members, told me that his wife worries a lot and the risks of his job and that she prays every day for him to come home safely. He acknowledges her fears but believes that the risks are manageable and it’s a job that must be done.

“It’s about keeping people safe and healthy in my country. If we didn’t do this, more people would get sick. I feel a responsibility to do it.”

Unlike Any Other Disaster

Working here is not like any Red Cross job I have done before. Ebola is not something you can see with the naked eye but the means of transmission are well understood, namely through physical contact with the bodily fluids of people visibly sick with Ebola or those that have died from it.

Most of the people infected with Ebola have been caring for people that are already sick with it, be they patients in a clinic or, more commonly, relatives in their home. But that is not part of my job here and there are simple things we all do to reduce the risks further. We avoid touching others, we wash our hands regularly with chlorinated water, and we monitor our temperature daily for any signs of fever. It really is that simple.

Stephen Ryan has been an overseas delegate of Irish Red Cross since 2007, and has previously worked in support of emergency operations across Europe and Asia Pacific. 

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Read more: Ebola: Giving Affected Communities a Voice