On Sunday, August 31, angry youths dug up the coffin of a suspected Ebola patient, who had been buried in their community, and placed it in the middle of the Robertsfield Highway.
The body was reportedly brought to the community by an Armed Forces of Liberia soldier who said his mother had died of pressure. He was allotted land by the commissioner.
The young men of the community realized she had not in fact died of pressure when the body was transported to the community by two vehicles, both of which are assigned to transport Ebola corpses to the crematorium. It was an Ebola corpse.
It horrified them, as it would any of us, to know that an Ebola corpse was being buried in their community. So they probably waited until the police escort had left. Then they began to dig up the casket. There is no indication they touched the body. They seem to have been careful. It was closed. They simply removed the casket from the grave and placed it in the middle of the Robertsfield Highway. The message: Not In Our Backyard.
The story made headlines, sparking outrage. Ninety-nine percent commenting on social media lambasted the young men as being ‘stupid’ for what they had done. Others said they were ‘ignorant’, their action the result of a lack of education.
But the question then becomes ‘What should these young men have done?’ Let us explore some options.
Perhaps they could have called Chris Massaquoi, the police director. No, they did not have his number. He would most likely have said that if the body had been buried safely, then leave it be. Or perhaps he would have said ‘Ok I'm sending somebody down there.’ By nightfall, no one. For the next few days, no one. Tick tock, the body is slowly decaying under the ground in their community. A month. Two months. By then, it is too late to dig up the body with any measure of safety.
Perhaps they could have obstructed the burial. No. Those guys in Johnsonville got bloodied doing just that. The bodies are still in their community. But we cannot leave this body here. Our mothers, our fathers, our brothers, sisters and all of our children live here. If we don't do something, we could all die one by one. Who knows what happened in Dolo Town (not very far away)?
Ok. When they leave, we’ll dig it up this evening. Sigh of relief. Collective sigh of relief. The owner should have taken it to crematorium anyway.
The use of arsenic as a embalming fluid was banned in the United States in the early 1900s. Groundwater samples taken from wells down gradient of cemeteries showed elevated levels of arsenic that made the water unsafe for drinking.
Most Liberians, especially in impoverished communities, still rely on groundwater for everything — washing, cooking, and yes, drinking. No bottled water for them. For families living ‘from hand to mouth’, even the L$5 sac of water is expensive. For two parents and seven children, that amounts to L$45 to drink safe water once a day. If they want to drink safe water twice a day, L$90. Three times, L$270. In the heat of the dry season, drinking safe water five times a day will cost the family L$450 — two days’ food budget. Ground water (known here as ‘well water’) will have to suffice. Papa God, protect us.
But of course, many of those pouring out their outrage, insults and condemnation upon those young men are sitting in the comfort of their plush United States homes with air conditioning, running water and electricity. A far cry from the realities these young men and their families have to face everyday. Some critics blasted them from right here in Liberia, too. But they have reservoirs fed by spring water. That's just for bathing and cooking. For drinking, it's purified bottled water priced at L$65 each. Three or so a day.
If you knew an Ebola body had been buried in that community, would you drink their water? Afraid to even breathe the air, would you even set foot there? Yet we expect them not to have a problem with what happened.
Word of caution to the righteous privileged: ground water does not recognize the height of your fence. Be careful. What happens in those impoverished communities could very well affect you — this being such a small country and all. As one commenter put it, those young men are not necessarily dummies. Theirs was simply a human response. Survival.