By Mirabelle Enaka Kima, IFRC

On a sunny morning in Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Loondo village in June 2018, a team of eight Red Cross volunteers arrived to perform a safe and dignified burial (SDB), following an alert received the previous day.

The atmosphere was particularly noisy and tense. A large crowd had gathered on both sides of the narrow road at the bereaved family’s main compound, to witness the burial.

Donatien Nzoti, Red Cross SDB team leader in Itipo, said: “So far, everything is going well. We are finalising negotiations with the family. We have to explain the different stages of our intervention to ensure a proper understanding of the process, as it is essential to have the community onboard.

“It took us two days to obtain the family’s consent. But this is part of our work and we have been trained for that. Our first goal is to make sure families understand the disease and the measures needed to protect themselves from infection.”

It can be challenging for the teams to engage with bereaved families, especially when they are confronted with resistance from community members who are unwilling to adhere to the burial protocol. Rumours spreading within communities remain the main obstacle to prevention and containment efforts.

Additionally, deeply-rooted socio-cultural practices, burial rites or consumption of bush meat are considered strong barriers to the adoption of safer behaviours. This is a particular concern within the Batwa ethnic groups, where custom entails that the dead are buried in a hut after digging a small hole and wrapping the corpse in grass. The ceremony involves cleansing the corpse with herbs.

“We try as much as possible to make people understand the dangers around unsafe handling of corpses. This is hard to understand when the disease continues to be considered a myth,” said Donatien.

The Red Cross has trained and deployed 20 SDB and 35 community engagement volunteers in Itipo, who are working in an integrated approach to ensure effective interaction with communities.

The safe burial of people who have died of Ebola is acknowledged as an important intervention for controlling epidemics and was a major component of the 2013-2016 West Africa Ebola response.

Florent Del Pinto, Head of Emergency Operations for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in DRC, said: “Today, while we are entering a period in which surveillance efforts are ramped up, the strategy adopted to prevent further spread of the outbreak involves providing secure burials and household disinfection for all community deaths.

“In order to boost positive results, impact and acceptance we keep a two-way communication with communities, adapting our messages according to the latest rumours we tracked and identifying the most appropriate rituals in order to respect local cultures as much as possible while protecting the families,” he added.

In partnership with the DRC Red Cross, IFRC is appealing for nearly 7.9 million Swiss francs to support 400,000 people over the next six months. The operation focuses on community engagement, infection prevention and control, safe and dignified burials and psychosocial support in the affected health zones.