“There was always the chance of you contracting it.” Every fever, headache, or sore throat made her extra aware of what she was doing, she says.
The weather compounded the stress: The sweltering heat outside coupled with the heat inside their isolation suits. The impermeable hazmat suits, layers of synthetic material, along with gowns, goggles, and gloves, were difficult to put on and get out of, she says.
Getting the bodies wasn’t an easy task either. Families, wailing in grief, sometimes stopped the team from taking the deceased away. At times, they were threatened. Two men told Sumo and her colleagues that they would burn down their car, if they came closer.
“I was scared,” Sumo admits. “But they are not angry with us. They don’t know where you’re going to take the body. They want closure. We don’t blame them. We have to cooperate.”
Roselyn Nugba Ballah, a supervisor for the Liberian Red Cross who is responsible for safe and dignified burials, told me in an email that the job credentials were basic: “Willingness to do this dangerous job and at least [the ability to] read and write, since there were forms to be filled in.”
Sumo filled those criteria and was notably the only woman on the team, a trait, she says was needed. “Women are mothers, sisters. We are soft people.” The men, she jokes, were frightened by the blood.
But she, too, was scared in the beginning.
“At first, I was confused. What kind of sickness is this? Blood coming out everywhere.” Sumo started collecting bodies when only about 200 cases of Ebola had been reported in Liberia. Three months later, there had been 14,000 cases.
“This was completely new for us,” writes Ballah, explaining that local Red Cross authorities like herself had to lean on their international counterparts for guidance. “We have dead-body management expertise within the International Red Cross. So we were able to draw on that and adapt to the crisis we were facing.”
The Ebola epidemic produced a series of firsts, she admits. “Ebola took everyone by surprise, and we found it very difficult to get our footing in getting the situation under control.” While it may seem obvious, she says, “One of the key lessons was the importance of being prepared.”
That meant putting together a body team for the first time. The training was just one day long, followed by seven days of supervised field visits. The whole ethos of the team was very “learn-as-you-go.”
Ballah breaks it down. The training began with a straightforward discussion about Ebola. “What it is, mode of transmission, prevention, and control,” she writes, noting the basics.
Then came a demonstration on how to dispose of the bodies while being mindful of traditional and religious customs. The day rounded out with the practicalities of putting on the personal protective equipment, or “PPE.” After that, they were thrown into the field immediately to stop the spread of the virus.