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'I have to do it for my people': witnessing the dangerous but vital jobs in the Ebola crisis

It's my first day in Liberia. It's nine o'clock in the morning and we're on our way to join the Red Cross Safe and Dignified Burial Team. The team, once notified of a death, is responsible for collecting the dead body and disposing of it safely.  

It's a dangerous job but a vital one. The body of an Ebola patient is extremely infectious immediately after death and so it is critical that people do not come into contact with a dead victim. Culture and tradition in many Liberian communities dictate that the body be washed before burial and it has proven a tough habit to break. 

We are greeted by a friendly Irishman who is a national spokesman for the Red Cross mission. He instructs us to put on our gumboots because it's the end of the wet season and things could get messy. It's all starting to feel a little more real now. 

The rest of the burial team is made up of Liberian nationals. We get talking to the lead co-ordinator who tells us that before taking on this role he was a mortician. He seems perfectly qualified. Another tells us that his mother is worried that he has taken on the task but he says he has no choice. "I have to do it for my people." 

The process of identifying the body and disposing of it is nothing short of gruesome. The burial team arrive en masse in a crowded street where a local market is in full swing. They don multiple layers of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the stifling tropical heat, mix the disinfectant and pour it into what appear to be ordinary garden spray units.

They enter a small corrugated shack behind one of the market stalls where a lifeless foot is barely visible. 

A swab is taken from the mouth of the corpse, which will be sent away to assess whether the man died from Ebola or an unrelated illness. The body is sprayed, put into an orange body bag and lodged into the back of a troop carrier. It may be safe but there doesn't seem to be much dignity in this. 

We head off through the marketplace on our way to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We reach a point where the stench of open sewerage and rotting garbage is overpowering. The streets are filled with children and I'm told that all schools are closed until further notice. 

Everywhere there are street signs warning of the dangers of Ebola and on the radio we listen to a strangely upbeat song about the disease. 

Before entering the ministry we have our temperature taken and wash our hands in a weak chlorine solution, which is now the practice before entering most buildings. The deputy minister of foreign affairs tells us about the strong connection between our countries and I learn that many members of the current government have been trained in Australia.

We hear a similar story from members of the National Investment Commission but there is also widespread disappointment around Australia's unprecedented decision to restrict entry to Liberian nationals. 

We finish the day with a briefing from MSF. While there is some positive news in that the number of new cases in the capital Monrovia has stabilised, there are worrying signs about the emergence of new clusters in rural areas. Several new cases are reported in a remote village only accessible by a two-hour walk and there are fears the entire village could be wiped out. The overall situation in Sierra Leone is much worse but it will be a few days before we get to witness that for ourselves. 

Over dinner the operations manager from the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies comes over to introduce himself. He hears that I'm in town and wants me to know of the enormous contribution that Australian health workers are making through his organisation. 

I tell him I agree but only wish the same could be said of our government.

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