Gueckedou, Guinea (dpa) — Burying those who died of Ebola is an extremely dangerous job. The viral load reaches its peak at death, and so does, by proxy, the risk of infection. It is thankless work, too. Burial teams are shunned by their families and threatened by communities who believe they bring demise.
A narrow path leads to a clearing in the rainforest at the outskirts of the remote town of Gueckedou in eastern Guinea. The view onto a lush valley surrounded by green mountains is almost idyllic. But the clearing bears a dark secret.
Under dozens of mounds of lose earth are buried the victims of the worst Ebola outbreak in history, which so far has killed more than 4 900 people across West Africa. Most graves are unmarked, the soil piled up in a hurry. Only few carry simple wooden crosses.
Under the heat of the tropical sun, four Red Cross workers sweat under the weight of a stretcher with a tightly sealed body bag. Inside lies the corpse of a four-year-old girl who died of Ebola that night. She is one of five people to be buried today.
A handful of gravediggers already wait next to the deep holes they have excavated. As soon as a body is lowered into the grave, they dig their shovels into the earth, hurriedly filling it.
They work in silence to the deafening sound of crickets. Thunder rolls in the distance. Voices of playing children softly echo across the valley.
The men are focused. Every movement is executed with precision. The work is dangerous. No one wants to waste time.
“A single mistake can cost one’s life,” says Red Cross Guinea ambulance service supervisor Tamba Millimouno.
Dying has become a lonely affair in Guinea. The national Red Cross was charged with making burials safe after the World Health Organisation (WHO) repeatedly warned that traditional funeral practices are among the obstacles that make it difficult to control the outbreak.
Cremation is for cultural reasons not an option in Guinea. Burials have been turned into an unemotional way of body disposal. There is no family, no prayer, no tears.
“Having no ceremony at all is extremely difficult for the families,” says Ibrahim Traore, another member of the burial crew. “We sometimes let them briefly pray before we pick up the body bag, to make it a little more human.”
Medical aid organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) started taking photographs of patients who die in the treatment centre in Gueckedou, despite the high risk this poses. The body bag is unzipped at the top, colorful cloths and satin flowers are draped around the head.
“See how dignified they look,” says MSF psychologist Reine Lebel, while swiping through a couple of images on her tablet. “We give the photo to the family. It gives them closure.”
Gueckedou lies in Guinea’s Ebola hot zone. The world’s worst outbreak of haemorrhagic fever began in a village just a few kilometres from the town, and quickly spread from here across West Africa.
The WHO recorded 1 553 Ebola cases in Guinea by October 25, of which 926 people have died. But a United Nations source in the capital, Conakry, told dpa the unreported case number could be ten times higher than that.
In Gueckedou prefecture alone, 10 to 15 people die of the virus each week, according to the Red Cross. And the numbers are rising daily, says MSF.
And so Millimouno’s two burial teams of five men each are called out daily to pick up the dead bodies of those who die at home.
Dressed from head to toe in protective gear and armed with large disinfectant spray canisters, the crew meticulously decontaminates houses. Corpses are thoroughly soaked in chlorine before they are lifted into thick body bags. Nobody gets as close as the burial boys.
Some members of his team don’t dare to tell their families and neighbours what kind of job they do. The stigma and myths about the deadly virus remain high, more than ten months since the outbreak began.
“People think burial workers are contaminated. My family thinks I work on a construction site,” one Red Cross staffer tells dpa on condition of anonymity.
The psychological burden of the work weighs heavily. Despite regular debriefings, many of the men struggle with insomnia and nightmares.
Stress also comes from another direction. In many villages, the teams are not welcome. The myth that it is the disinfectant spray that causes Ebola stubbornly persists, regardless of months of sensitisation campaigns.
“Residents have threatened us with machetes and knives. They have thrown stones at us, barricaded roads,” says Traore. “We don’t have Ebola here, people say. You bring us death.”