By Moustapha Diallo, IFRC
Garmai Sumo welcomes us with a pleasant smile. Dressed in an elegant African printed top and basic jeans, she looks radiant with her new hairstyle. “I have put away the gloves, mask and gown. Ebola is now over!” she exclaims, transforming her smile into a real burst of laughter before hastening to add, “but washing my hands remains a daily reflex.”
The young woman of 29 was among the 5,000 volunteers trained and mobilized by the Liberia National Red Cross Society during the Ebola outbreak, displaying courageous efforts to stop the disease through the provision of safe and dignified burials, contact tracing, psychosocial support, and surveillance and social mobilization.
Garmai was the only female on a team of 12 Red Cross volunteers conducting safe and dignified burials (SDB) for Ebola victims, called “Body team 12”. It was one out of 144 teams mobilized across the country. For Garmai, the past year has seen the most intense moments of her life, but also some of the proudest.
A great deal of courage and heroism
“Picking up bodies on the streets, at homes and other places was not an easy task. Sometimes you go, people do not want you take the body as they want to bury themselves their loved ones,” she explains.
It took a great deal of courage for Garmai to join a burial team, as the bodies were potentially extremely contagious. All it would take was one mistake to contract the virus and, in a community burial, to spark another spike in infections.
“I was aware of the level of risk but I was well trained and had the faith that Ebola cannot destroy my country. It destroyed so many lives. It killed doctors, so many people, entire families. Today, some houses are locked up. So we needed people to stop the virus,” says Garmai.
It was not an easy task. In addition to the danger they were facing every day in dealing with the virus, they were insulted or attacked because of fear, rumours and denial in some communities.
“People were hostile but we never gave up. We explained to them, explained to them again, in order to build trust,” explains Garmai.
Between happiness and sadness
For Garmai, who has participated in the burial of more than 500 bodies, the end of the Ebola outbreak in her country is a big relief.
“Even if I don’t have food to eat right now, I am very much satisfied. I am happy to see my country stable, people driving cars, going to work and markets, returning to hospitals.”
However, behind this happiness hides an unspeakable sadness.
“I suffered a lot from stigma. When my friends learned I worked for Ebola, they shunned me, except my mother and my son. Some people refused to sell me food, to collect my money. Even my child was stigmatized at school.”
Over time, some friends have started to understand and have admitted their wrongdoing in shunning Garmai, however, some are still missing. “Up to now and even with the end of Ebola, some of my friends did not come back,” says Garmai who still believes, “it will take time, but they will come back one day.”
The long road to recovery
Now that Ebola is over in Liberia and there are no longer safe and dignified burials to perform, Garmai is using her gained experience in her new job as part of the government’s tuberculosis control programme. However, she still wants to volunteer with the Red Cross as the country begins to heal from Ebola, to help survivors and carry out prevention messages from region to region.
“Some Ebola survivors, in particular those I know, are suffering. Some don’t have mattresses to sleep on. Some orphans are dying of hunger as nobody is taking care of them because of fear,” says Garmai.
She knows that the road to recovery is very long because of indifference and complacency and hopes that awareness can again be raised globally through an Oscar-nominated documentary showcasing her team “Body Team 12” during the Ebola response.
“Although it’s a recognition for all the tremendous efforts made by all Ebola responders and donors in bringing the epidemic to an end in West Africa, it can also be a reminder to stay vigilant and move forward in rebuilding the lives of affected communities,” says Garmai.
“I am very happy for that movie, because at least, the outside world, outside of Liberia, someone, somewhere will watch this video and will know the work we did. It will change lives and perceptions about Ebola. It’s also a reminder for all of us to keep safe. Please, keep safe,” she adds.