Bat­tles over safe Ebola buri­als rage in Congo

Some fam­i­lies re­ject in­ter­ven­tion of health work­ers.


BENI, Congo — A run­away hearse car­ry­ing an Ebola vic­tim has be­come the lat­est ex­am­ple of some­times vi­o­lent com­mu­nity re­sis­tance com­pli­cat­ing ef­forts to con­tain a Congo out­break — and caus­ing a wor­ry­ing new rise in cases.

The deadly virus’ ap­pear­ance for the first time in the far north­east has sparked fear. Sus­pected con­tacts of in­fected peo­ple have tried to slip away. Res­i­dents have as­saulted health teams. The rate of new Ebola cases has more than dou­bled since the start of this month, ex­perts say.

Safe buri­als are par­tic­u­larly sen­si­tive as some out­raged fam­ily mem­bers re­ject the in­ter­ven­tion of health work­ers in the deeply per­sonal mo­ment, even as they put their own lives at risk.

On Wed­nes­day, a wary peace was ne­go­ti­ated over the body of an Ebola vic­tim, one of 95 deaths among 172 con­firmed cases so far, Congo’s health min­istry said. Her fam­ily de­manded that an ac­quain­tance drive the hearse, while they agreed to wear pro­tec­tive gear to carry the cas­ket. A po­lice ve­hi­cle would fol­low.

On the way to the ceme­tery, how­ever, the hearse peeled away “at full speed,” the min­istry said. A vi­o­lent con­fronta­tion fol­lowed with lo­cal youth once the hearse was found at the fam­ily’s own burial plot else­where. The pro­ces­sion even­tu­ally reached the ceme­tery by day’s end.

The next day, with a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of what was at stake, sev­eral fam­ily mem­bers ap­peared vol­un­tar­ily at a hos­pi­tal for Ebola vac­ci­na­tions, the min­istry said.

“They swore no one had ma­nip­u­lated the corpse,” it added. Ebola spreads via bod­ily flu­ids of those in­fected, in­clud­ing the dead.

The Beni com­mu­nity where the con­fronta­tion oc­curred is at the cen­ter of Ebola con­tain­ment ef­forts. To the alarm of the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion and oth­ers, it is also where com­mu­nity re­sis­tance has been the most persistent — and where many of the new cases are found.

Chronic mis­trust af­ter years of rebel at­tacks is part of the “toxic mix” in Beni, WHO’S emer­gen­cies chief, Peter Salama, said in a Twit­ter post.

So far, the Ebola work in Beni has been sus­pended twice since the out­break was de­clared on Aug. 1. A “dead city” of mourn­ing in re­sponse to a rebel at­tack caused the first. Wed­nes­day’s vi­o­lence caused the sec­ond. With each pause, cru­cial ef­forts to track thou­sands of pos­si­ble Ebola con­tacts can slide, risk­ing fur­ther in­fec­tions.

De­fend­ing them­selves, Beni res­i­dents have pointed out the shock of hav­ing one of the world’s most no­to­ri­ous dis­eases ap­pear along with strangers in bio­haz­ard suits who tell them how to say good­bye to loved ones killed by the virus.

“Un­til now we didn’t know enough about Ebola and we felt marginal­ized when Red Cross agents came in and took the corpse and buried it with­out fam­ily mem­bers play­ing a role,” Beni res­i­dent Pa­trick Kyana, who said a friend lost his fa­ther to the virus, told The As­so­ci­ated Press. “It’s very dif­fi­cult. Imag­ine that your son dies and some­one re­fuses to let you as­sist in his burial. In Africa we re­spect death greatly.”

Un­til re­cently many peo­ple in Beni didn’t be­lieve that Ebola ex­isted, think­ing it was a gov­ern­ment plot to fur­ther de­lay pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, Kiz­ito Hangi, pres­i­dent of Beni’s civil so­ci­ety, told the AP.

Now the pop­u­la­tion has started to catch on and co­op­er­ate, Hangi said. “The prob­lem was that the health work­ers all came from out­side, but lo­cal spe­cial­ists have been in­cluded to per­suade and in­form peo­ple in lo­cal lan­guages.”

The head of emer­gency Ebola op­er­a­tions with the In­ter­na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of Red Cross and Red Cres­cent So­ci­eties, Jamie Lesueur, ac­knowl­edged the prob­lem. In early Oc­to­ber two Red Cross vol­un­teers were se­verely in­jured in an at­tack dur­ing safe buri­als in the com­mu­nity of Butemo. an­other vol­un­teer was in­jured in Septem­ber by peo­ple throw­ing stones.

“It raised a lot of ques­tions for all of us. Where is the vi­o­lence com­ing from?” he said. They have stepped up ef­forts to col­lab­o­rate with com­mu­ni­ties and be clearer about mes­sag­ing while work­ing within cul­tural norms as best as pos­si­ble.

“Of course there are lim­i­ta­tions,” Lesueur said. “Some peo­ple like to view the corpse as it is buried but with Ebola it is dif­fi­cult to open up the body bag.” In the emo­tion­ally charged en­vi­ron­ment where fam­i­lies have lost loved ones, a mis­step could quickly raise ten­sions.

While Congo’s gov­ern­ment is act­ing to give more pro­tec­tion to its own safe burial teams in Beni, Lesueur noted that the “mil­i­ta­riza­tion” of sim­i­lar ef­forts in the far dead­lier Ebola out­break in West Africa a few years ago led some res­i­dents to hide or not re­port deaths from the virus.

“I don’t think that will be the case in this event” but ev­ery­one re­mem­bers that les­son, he said.

With its po­si­tion of neu­tral­ity the Red Cross doesn’t use armed guards in any case, Lesueur added. “Com­mu­nity ac­cep­tance, that’s our se­cu­rity.”


A health worker sprays dis­in­fec­tant on his col­league af­ter work­ing at an Ebola treat­ment cen­ter in Beni, Eastern Congo, in Septem­ber.

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