How rumours drove the Ebola outbreak
Some communities didn't want us to change the way they bury people – some people don’t believe the virus is real
By Thuong Nguyen
Last updated 4 August 2023
I was in the Democratic Republic of Congo at the start of the Ebola outbreak. A year and a half later, the crisis seems to be ending. But the team I worked with are still doing crucial work to help keep people safe from this deadly disease.
I’m not a doctor. My job was to collate and analyse data. It’s not something that sounds obvious but we needed a way to measure and understand how the operation was going.
It was clear from an early stage that this outbreak would be challenging. Some communities didn’t want us to change the way they buried people – despite the risks associated with handling the dead. Some people didn’t believe the virus was real.
WE NEEDED TO UNDERSTAND THIS BETTER, SO WE SET UP A SYSTEM TO MAP RUMOURS AND FEEDBACK.
We needed to understand this better, so we set up a system to map rumours and feedback. Volunteers collated weekly data which we analysed to see how we could adapt our operations. The thinking was that if we could see where resistance or rumours were building up, we could act to prevent a local outbreak getting worse.
So far, the Red Cross has collected over 33,000 pieces of community feedback. By looking at the beliefs and feedback, volunteers can adjust what they do. For example, a transparent body bag was developed to help counter rumours that the bags contained rubble instead of people.
Eighteen months later, many of the challenges remain. There is no quick fix. Many people continue to believe the outbreak is fake. It’s not like you can just check things with a reliable source of information. There is little technology in rural areas. You hear something from your neighbour and you believe it.
The Red Cross ‘safe and dignified’ burial teams played a hugely important role. We know that people continue to be infectious for as long as seven days after their death from Ebola. Victims needed to be buried immediately and by people who are appropriately dressed and trained.
Yet doing so interferes with traditional burial rituals at a very sensitive time for families. Most of the time, our teams are accepted and can work with families for a safe burial. Other times, they’re refused access. In the worst cases, the refusal becomes violent. Volunteers, carrying out the riskiest work, escape infection from Ebola – only to be hospitalised after attacks.
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