In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a Red Cross volunteer wearing surgical scrubs helps another volunteer get dressed in a protective suit that covers his whole body and eyes to avoid Ebola

Protective clothing for safe burial, © Baron Nkoy/ICRC

Your country is at war and has been for years. And there are not just two armies fighting, but instead around 30 armed groups.

Anywhere and everywhere can be a battlefield and nobody knows when the next round of violence will break out.

They don’t just attack each other – kidnappings, random shootings and sexual assaults are common.

Elections are a month away. You feel it’s likely that tensions will get worse.

Then people start to die from a disease you’ve never seen or heard of before.

People suddenly arrive from other towns, or even other countries and continents.

They tell you to change how you have always done things so you and your family won’t get ill. But you don’t know if what they are saying is true.

Even the name they use for this mystery disease is new to you: Ebola.

When Ebola and conflict collide

For people in North Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of Congo, also known as the DRC, life may feel a lot like this.

Years of conflict have taken a terrible toll and it’s hard to trust anyone. Health care is basic at best, and people have few sources of accurate information beyond their family and neighbours.

But North Kivu is now in the middle of its first-ever Ebola outbreak.

Previous outbreaks in the DRC were stopped by helping people understand how to avoid getting infected. But the climate of fear and mistrust in North Kivu is making this very difficult and Ebola is spreading.

Urgent changes are needed but one of the biggest involves something very intimate: how people bury their dead loved ones.

Bury the dead to protect the living

Ebola is spread through an infected person’s body fluids such as blood, or things like blankets and clothes contaminated with these fluids.

A body can still be infectious for several days after someone has died of Ebola.

But it is the custom in the DRC for people to bury their dead family members themselves.

The Red Cross has been working in North Kivu since Ebola was first found there in August 2018. With 150,000 volunteers, the Democratic Republic of Congo Red Cross is able to reach a lot of people.

Many of the volunteers support their own communities, so people may be more likely to believe them.

We’ve also sent in specialists from Red Cross organisations around the world. Thuong Nguyen, a mapping and data expert from the British Red Cross, is one.

“The Red Cross is concentrating on helping give safe and dignified burials to those who have died of Ebola,” she said.

The first step is negotiating with the family so that they understand and give their permission for what will happen during the burial.

Then volunteer safe burial teams wearing protective clothing take the dead from their homes. The bodies are wrapped in a protective covering as well so that neither the burial team nor the family will be infected with Ebola.

“The main challenge is helping people understand why they need to bury people differently,” Thuong said. “At the same time, we are very respectful of their customs. The volunteers are part of this.

“We’re also working with local leaders and religious groups, including church leaders and Muslim imams, who share important information about burials through daily prayers.”

Ready to help thanks to the Disaster Fund

The British Red Cross Disaster Fund is there so that we can help as soon as there is a crisis anywhere in the world.

Money from the fund is supporting our work on safe and dignified burials in the DRC.

The Red Cross is also helping health centres to treat patients and use a new vaccine to prevent new cases. Although there is no cure for Ebola, early treatment can improve chances of survival. There is also a new experimental vaccine.

But the best treatment is stopping Ebola’s spread. So we will keep helping people understand why they must say goodbye to their loved ones in a different way.

“At first, people didn’t want to change,” Thuong said. “I feel that people probably find what we are doing very strange.

“But we’re also bringing a lot of knowledge and information that wasn’t there before. And we’re trying to do it for the long term.”

Please support the Disaster Fund so we can do more in DRC and wherever we are needed most.