Some families affected by Ebola in Liberia pay bribes to keep the bodies

Health workers scrambling to contain the deadly Ebola virus in Liberia now have to contend with an outbreak of corruption among those detailed to collect the bodies of victims.

The Wall Street Journal reports that retrieval teams are accepting bribes from families of Ebola victims to issue death certificates that say their loved ones died of other causes, allowing them to keep their bodies for a traditional burial.

“The family says the person is not an Ebola patient, and [the retrieval team] pull them away from the other people,” Vincent Chounse, a community outreach worker on the outskirts of Monrovia, told the paper. “Then they say, ‘We can give you a certificate from the Ministry of Health that it wasn’t Ebola.’ Sometimes it is $40. Sometimes it is $50. … Then they offer bags to them and [the family] carry on their own thing.” A teenager in Montserrado told the Journal he saw the father of his neighbor pay $150 for a certificate that said his son’s corpse was Ebola-free.

Government Information Minister Lewis Brown told the paper his office has received reports of health workers issuing fake death certificates, but he added that no burial team has “a capacity to go and issue certificates.”

According to the World Health Organization, more than 4,000 Ebola cases have been reported in Liberia, resulting in 2,316 deaths since the outbreak began.

But local health officials say the numbers are not adding up.

“We are not receiving the amount of community calls that we should be,” Agnes “Cokie” van der Velde, who oversees body collection teams for Doctors Without Borders, told the paper.

The grim task of removing bodies infected with Ebola is critical, health officials say, because the dead are a major source of contagion.

Working against them is the stigma associated with Ebola among West Africans, and the desire for the family to have a traditional burial. Often, communities will assume that one person infected with the disease means his or her entire family is infected and therefore is discriminated against and shunned.

Van der Velde said while she was not aware of body retrieval teams accepting bribes, they are nonetheless in a tricky position. “We try to be very respectful, but in the end what we’re doing is taking their loved one, zipping them in a bag and taking them away.”

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Dan Mullin is an active writer and editor for the Pluto Daily who covered the 2014 Ebola Outbreak. Mullin attended the Wake Forest School of Medicine before leaving to pursue his lifelong science goal of allowing humans to live forever via a computer/brain transfer.