World·Special Report

Ebola virus in Liberia creates body recovery dangers

The wail of an ambulance doesn't always mean help is on the way in Liberia's capital. Instead, it often signals the arrival of a "dead body management team" tasked with safely collecting and disposing of the corpses of people who died in confirmed or suspected cases of Ebola.

Workers struggle to gather and dispose of corpses as outbreak spreads

It’s a sad fact of life in Monrovia, Liberia, these days.

The wail of an ambulance siren doesn’t mean help is on the way. More often than not, it signals that a convoy carrying the "dead body management team" is about to arrive.

On Monday, CBC News rode along in one of those convoys. The weather was miserable. The task at hand was even more so.

Overnight, the Liberian Red Cross had received a list of names: 19 people whose lives may have been taken by Ebola, the disease that has galloped across West Africa and claimed more than 3,000 lives, according to the most recent figures from the World Health Organization.

In thick Monday-morning traffic and a heavy downpour, the ambulance and the siren really just clear a quick path for the young men riding in the vehicles farther behind. 

They are the ones who will suit up in full protective gear, enter the private homes of grieving families and haul away a body to the flatbed truck that makes up the rear of the convoy.

On this day, six Red Cross teams spread out across the Liberian capital. Victor Lacken of the International Federation of the Red Cross tells us Monrovia clearly needs more. 

“We’re behind the curve on this,” he says.

The team we accompany is led by Alex Wiah, a mortician by trade who says most of the victims he’s seen recently are female. “It’s because women do most of the caring for people who are sick.”

CBC's Adrienne Arsenault talks to team leader Alex Wiah. He’s a mortician by trade but admits this job, handling Ebola victims, is particularly tough. 'It hurts because they are our family,' he says. (Stephenie Jenzer/CBC)

And sure enough, the first name on the list given to Wiah's team is a woman.

We travel to a part of the city known as Waterside, a short walk from the poor neighbourhoods of West Point where the Ebola outbreak led to an unpopular quarantine in August.

The team suits up and climbs a slippery, rocky slope to the home of Teresa Jacobs, her husband and three children. 

Neighbours say she’d been sick for years, suffered from a liver disease and did not die from Ebola.

Still, the new reality in Monrovia dictates all of the very ill should be isolated. 

A community Ebola awareness group advised her husband to keep his wife from seeing her kids and locked the gate to a room where her body was left after she passed away.  

And in the end, they called the body management team.

Lacken explains that sometimes in a household or community, there’s concern about the stigma attached to the disease. 

The Red Cross has organized six teams that pick up bodies across the Liberian capital. The organization's Victor Lacken says more are needed. "We are behind the curve on this." (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

“Sometimes it’s a bit of denial,” he says. “People don’t like to admit a person in the house has Ebola.”

As the Red Cross team carefully yet quickly hauls away the body of Jacobs, neighbours gather to watch and some cry out in sorrow. 

Her body will end up at the crematorium, along with all the others who were on the Red Cross list this day. 

Tomorrow there will be another one. Everyone hopes it will be shorter. 

In all likelihood, it will not.