Frontline Stories

Safe and Dignified Burials for Ebola Victims

Maseray is an Ebola survivor. This 53-year-old grandmother is unbowed in her determination to protect her community from the disease despite her husband and sister did not survive. She is the first female Ebola survivor to join World Vision’s burial team in south-central Sierra Leone.

The Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone created a devastating storm: an unprecedented epidemic colliding with a collapsed health care system. In those early days, even the experts were unsure how to contain it. Few people understood that Ebola is spread through contact with infected patients and that the virus stayed in bodily fluids even after death. Health officials organised ''dead body management'' teams, but often it took days for them to arrive. For Muslims who must bury their dead before sundown, the wait was horrifying. And Christians were denied their funeral rites to honour the deceased over several days before burial. Mourners watched helplessly as overwhelmed undertakers loaded their parents, their children into trash bags, never to be seen again. Soon people resisted the authorities – hiding the sick and burying their dead in secret.

Dignity in the time of Ebola

''Life as my family knew it ended when Ebola began,'' Maseray says. Maseray tested positive for Ebola. ''For one month and one day, I laid among the dying and the dead. The pain crippled me and at times I almost gave up fighting the virus. My heart especially broke for the women – naked, exposed – no one to protect their dignity in death. I vowed to God: if I leave here alive I will do something to honour the memory of these sisters.''

Maseray defeated the dehydration that ultimately claims many Ebola patients. At 53, Maseray had two grandchildren to raise, but no one would hire her. In December last year, she heard that World Vision was hiring workers to conduct safe and dignified burials for Ebola victims. As a survivor, she is immune to the disease and faced less risk. Maseray was the first female Ebola survivor to join the team.

Her first burial was a one-year-old baby girl. The team enables families a chance to say a proper farewell while protecting them from disease. As one of only 10 women on the team of around 800 workers, her role is to ensure that women are treated with dignity as they dress and place the body in a protective bag. A minister or an imam presents to pray, and the family walks to the gravesite with the team. It is hard for people to put aside their comforting rituals and traditions of preparing their loved ones for burial themselves. But extreme times call for extreme measures.

Maseray is proud to serve with World Vision, who leads SMART (Social Mobilisation And Respectful Burials Through faith-based alliance), they have trained and equipped over 800 workers to conduct safe and dignified burials for Ebola victims, and preserve sacred faith traditions while preventing family members from infection. Since November 2014, SMART’s 57 teams have buried more than 24,000 people in 10 districts across Sierra Leone.

''We are winning the war on Ebola, but we have not won yet,'' says Leslie Scott, national director of World Vision Sierra Leone. ''We have to get to zero cases so we can advance as a country. At World Vision, we want to move from providing safe and dignified burials to empowering people to lead safe and dignified lives.''

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