24 February 2015: I live in Moyamba district, in the Southern Province of Sierra Leone. A few weeks ago, as a young reporter for Plan Sierra Leone, I attended a Sierra Leone Association of Journalists training on the role of the media in Ebola prevention. I learned that 70% of people who contracted the virus got it through touching dead bodies. It is necessary for us to think about the practice of burials presently in the country and count the cost.
At the start of the outbreak, there were misleading messages in the media which contributed to the spread of Ebola. One of the most common messages was that Ebola is incurable. Also people thought the virus could only be spread through animals and not by body fluids.
The media should provide reliable information to ensure a better understanding of how to curb the disease at the community level. By sending out the correct messages about Ebola the media can promote behavioural change, and counter fear and misleading information.
Six critical messages
In the training, we learned about 6 critical messages, called in our local dialect, Leh Wi Dreb Ebola, or Act Against Ebola:
- Treat any death as if it could be Ebola.
- Call 117* and district call centres to report all deaths.
- The dead body should only be handled by people who are trained in safe medical burial practices and are wearing protective equipment.
- Protect yourself.
- Do not touch, wash, or clean the body.
- Do not touch the body fluids of a dead person or anything a person who has died from Ebola has touched.
Burial rites have to be changed
A few days ago a famous man in my community died. He was a teacher in one of the renowned schools in Moyamba district and even composed the school song in 1962. He was also a member of a big secret society in Sierra Leone.
Most people were thinking he would have been given a befitting burial, but because of Ebola the burial team was called. They did not wash the corpse nor did they allow any of his family members to go close to his body.
The burial team dressed the corpse but unfortunately he was placed in a black body bag and lowered in a coffin. The family was not happy about this because they think black symbolises evil.
Disinfectants were sprayed all over the rooms where the deceased and family lived. Neighbours were afraid to even go and sympathise with the bereaved family.
As part of the ceremony, the burial team called on a pastor to offer prayers to lay to rest the late man. Words of condolence were said at a distance from family members and some old boys solemnly sang the school song which the man composed so many years back.
Secret society laws
According to one member of the family, they are now worried they have broken the laws of the society the late man used to be in. Before the outbreak, when a member of a secret society died, only those that were part of that society could take part in the burial process or wash the body of the deceased. Nobody could say that person was dead until that was declared by the head of a secret society.
The family believed that after Ebola the laws of the secret society mean it would hunt them physically and spiritually. Families that took part in safe burials during Ebola need to be protected by laws so they are not penalised.
I spoke to young people in that same community and they said they were worried about the way the dead are treated. One of them said to me: “I will protect myself so that I would not be buried like this. Before now when we saw the corpse, we stood in adoration and honoured the dead.”
The young people say they follow all necessary procedures to protect themselves from Ebola because they wouldn’t like to be buried this way. They consider it strange.
The message is working
It is important to encourage people to understand that at this moment, traditional ways of conducting burials cannot be helpful and if they continue to promote such practices they are putting their own lives at risk, and the entire community at risk of contracting the virus.
In communities where burial activities are mostly connected to religion, it is essential that we engage people by providing information, dialogue and create a platform for community groups to be trained to perform religious burial rites on the corpse in the presence of the bereaved family.
At the moment here in Sierra Leone we still have some people or communities that are still ignoring the messages of safe burials and not reporting dead bodies, but the majority are now actually reporting the dead.
As a result of the high level of illiteracy in our country, many people can easily misinterpret information, which has been the main source of fear and the spread.
The media is so powerful here and I’m sure the relentless efforts of sending out correct and consistent messages will ensure behavioural change and community awareness amongst the grassroots.
* Sierra Leone Ebola hotline