By Mirabelle Enaka Kima, IFRC
Sekou Camara, 20, was among the first to volunteer to conduct safe and dignified burials with the Red Cross Society of Guinea when the Ebola outbreak began two years ago. Despite his young age, Sekou Camara dedicated himself to fighting Ebola, acquiring valuable experience along the way. When the outbreak was declared over, Sekou was ready for a new challenge and turned his sights to surveillance activities.
Volunteering became a passion for Sekou five years ago when he joined the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement. An orphan, Sekou grew up with his grandmother, and because of their modest living conditions, was forced to end his education after completing primary school. The local committee of the Red Cross in Kaloum became his second home where he distinguished himself through his diligence to volunteer service. “I consider the Red Cross as my second family because there I found the love and warmness of a home. It is with great pleasure and satisfaction that I bring my modest contributions to relief efforts,” says Sekou with his usual smile.
From the beginning of the Ebola outbreak, the young man was eager to be part of the safe and dignified burial teams (SDB). Aware of the risk of infection and stigma which he was going to face, he persevered.
“I was scared to accept Camara on the SDB teams because the work was extremely difficult and delicate. The risk of infection was high and permanent, as well as the pressure on the teams,” says Mamady Kourouma, Red Cross supervisor for the Kaloum local committee in Conakry. “However, seeing his enthusiasm and determination, I finally accepted him onto the team.”
For almost two years, Sekou was involved alongside other volunteers in laying people to rest, safely and with dignity, never showing any sign of exhaustion. “As soon as a warning was given, we had to go into the community, meet the affected families, talk with them and bury the deceased,” he explains.
“All deaths were managed in the same way. However, engaging in dialogue with the bereaved families was one challenge we faced a lot, especially when we were confronted by people who did not want to adhere to the burial protocols. We were often threatened and, in some rare cases, we faced violence. Managing these situations required calmness of mind and courage, which we exercised.”
The added value of trained volunteers in recovery
Following the end of the outbreak in late 2015, the country entered into a heightened surveillance phase. The Red Cross deployed a team of ten volunteers to the Ignace Deen hospital mortuary in Conakry to ensure swabbing and rapid diagnosis tests are done properly on hospital and community deaths, as part of the health control mechanisms put in place.
“Concerning community deaths, once the warning is received, joint field surveillance teams investigate and, depending on their conclusions, swabbing is applied on the dead body,” explains Mohamed Lamine, a medical student and Red Cross volunteer.
“On average, we test 20 bodies daily from the hospital and community. The samples are taken to mandatory laboratories. We apply the same infection control rules as for safe and dignified burials. Putting on the personal protection equipment is compulsory,” adds Mohamed.
The relationship with the mortuary began when Red Cross teams were deployed to the hospital at the beginning of the outbreak. “We positioned two response teams at the mortuary to manage community alerts and ensure safe and dignified burials for hospital cases. After the declaration of the end of Ebola in December, we maintained one team to render the same services,” says Mamady Kourouma.
Sekou Camara and his colleagues are among the 124 volunteers involved in ongoing health surveillance actions. These teams have been trained on sampling and rapid diagnosis test methods, in addition to their already acquired skills on safe and dignified burials, communications practices, and infection, prevention and control.
Sekou is proud to have achieved his humanitarian goals. With his experience, he is a valuable resource for the Red Cross, capable of supporting community event-based surveillance programmes designed to strengthen disaster preparedness and response capacities at the community level.
However, like most of the volunteers involved in the operation, Camara must face new challenges. Having been on the front lines of the response, he now suffers social exclusion.
As part of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) recovery programme, a partnership has been developed with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), aimed at strengthening the resilience of communities and reintegrating Red Cross volunteers into their communities.
One of the priorities of the project is to promote access of Ebola survivors and Red Cross volunteers to basic social services, including psychosocial support. The programme aims to support 1,008 Ebola survivors, 2,000 Red Cross volunteers, and 15,000 people affected by the Ebola virus disease.