By Alice Urban, Global Communities – Disco Hill, Liberia – There were two important questions on the minds of community leaders when they visited the Disco Hill safe burial site: Will families be able to visit the site to pay respect to their deceased loved ones? And will they be safe? The answer to both questions is yes.
The goal of the site is to provide a designated and accessible place for families to mourn the dead, and disease-prevention measures are followed scrupulously to ensure that visitors are at no risk of infection. Disco Hill is a government-owned, USAID-funded safe burial site operated by U.S.-based nonprofit Global Communities. The site was developed to provide an alternative to Montserrado County’s controversial and offensive cremation policy, which was instituted as a response to the Ebola crisis. Since its opening in late 2014, more than 350 deceased – both Ebola and non-Ebola cases – have received safe, dignified burials at Disco Hill.
On Feb. 5, a group of community leaders representing neighborhoods with some of Monrovia’s highest Ebola caseloads visited the site to better understand its procedures and relay information back to their communities.
“It is a critical thing to come here and see the area. We need to continue to spread the message. Ebola still exists, and we still need to do safe, proper burials,” said West Point District Commissioner Sampson Nyan. Recently posted in West Point two months ago, he is eager to eradicate Ebola from his jurisdiction. “By coming here, we can tell our people that this place is real, that their loved ones won’t be taken to some unknown place,” he said.
West Point, Monrovia’s worst slum, was quarantined in August, a directive that resulted in rioting and suspicion around Ebola prevention programming. This suspicion remains a challenge in eradicating the virus from the country – many Monrovia communities maintain resistance to safe burials and the burial teams that collect them. They fear that the bodies of their loved ones will be sold, abused or thrown away.
Nine community leaders including a governor, deputy governor and two district commissioners toured Disco Hill with Global Communities Environmental Health Advisor George Woryonwon, who explained the burial process and the overall operations of the site.
“These people are important in the issue of safe and dignified burials,” said Woryonwon of the leaders. “They represent areas with some of the highest populations and public health risks. We need them to go back to their communities and help break the cycle of transmission that occurs with unsafe burials.”
The group visited the family gathering area, administrative tents, Muslim and Christian burial grounds and newly-added cold-storage morgue as well as a disinfection site and incinerator for potentially contaminated waste.
“I didn’t really know about the different areas and why it was set up the way it was,” said Williamette Goding, District Commissioner for Bushrod Island. “Now I’ve seen the areas where families can gather and visit. I see they can still come back later to visit the grave. It’s a good use of space.”
Disco Hill maintains strict segregation between visitor areas and places where bodies are stored or prepared for burial. A “red zone,” marked by Ebola treatment unit-style orange fencing designates areas off-limits to those without personal protective equipment, and an assigned team operates the on-site incinerator.
“At this time, all burials are treated as Ebola burials. This reduces the chance of error in a false-negative Ebola test,” Woryonwon explained to the group. “We need families to always call the burial teams for a safe burial. If we do that, we could reach that zero we’re looking for,” he added, referencing the push for a zero-Ebola case Liberia.
Located about 45 minutes outside of Monrovia in Margibi County, the 25-acre site was purchased by the Government of Liberia from the Disco Hill community. A visiting representative expressed concern about the impact of the site on the neighboring community.
“The site employs about 180 local workers,” Woryonwon said. “Global Communities has partnered with the community to assist with water and education needs.” Management of the site, now headed by Global Communities through USAID support, will eventually transition to government oversight.
“That is why you are here,” Woryonwon said to the executive branch-appointed representatives as they cautiously navigated around a row of new, empty graves. “All the way here, this is your land,” he said, gesturing to the site. “We want your engagement in how this place will look, we want you to be a part of its development and success.”
A few paces behind the group, Governor Alice Weah of New Kru Town inched closer to a fresh grave. Peering over, she gingerly snapped a photo with her phone. Nearby, her deputy governor took detailed notes so he could accurately recount the process to his constituents.
Weah plans to call a New Kru Town-wide meeting to show her photos and share her experience. “I’m going to tell them not to be afraid to call the burial team. I have been here, I have seen the place,” she said. “Here, they can come to appreciate, love and honor the dead.”