"Rumours make Ebola even worse"

Pierre lives in Granada, a city he chose for its Spanish way of life and beautiful countryside.
Pierre lives in Granada, a city he chose for its Spanish way of life and beautiful countryside. / ALFREDO AGUILAR
  • Pierre Grandidier took part in a Red Cross mission to bury victims and combat false beliefs about the epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Most of the time Pierre Grandidier lives a quiet life in Granada. He works as a self-employed consultant, plays electric guitar and goes running in the mountains. However, two or three times a year he signs up as a humanitarian delegate in the International Red Cross emergency response teams to help the victims of natural disasters. Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013, the floods in Burundi in 2014, the Nepal earthquake in 2015 and Hurricane Matthew in Haiti in 2016 are some of the crises in which he has worked.

Did you bury bodies with your own hands?

No. Local volunteers did that, with specialists who had been in west Africa in the 2014 outbreak, when 11,000 people died. My job in Beni, in the province of North Kivu, was to coordinate the compilation of data and manage the information about those who had died. The problem is that the families wanted to wash the bodies, because that is part of the funeral rite, but it is very dangerous because they are highly contagious. Médicos sin Fronteras runs the Ebola Treatment Centres, and Cruz Roja handles the burials in a dignified and sanitary manner: the bodies have to be put into watertight bags, everything that the deceased person had touched has to be decontaminated and they are buried in a special cemetery. Possible contacts are monitored.

Was there resistance to these measures among the local population?

Yes, that's why it is always so important to explain to people what we are doing and listen to their complaints and suggestions. In this crisis, rumours cause a lot of damage. There has been an armed conflict for the past 20 years and people don't trust the authorities. They think Ebola has been invented by the government or by foreigners, or that it has been emitted by satellites, or it is witchcraft... We have to put paid to these rumours because otherwise people don't protect themselves or get treatment. When the symptoms appear, they go to a medicine man. By the time they get to hospital they are so sick that many never come out alive. That feeds the idea that the Treatment Centres are extermination centres. Sometimes the volunteers are even attacked.

In other emergencies, the people are grateful for assistance...

The thing is that for us it is an emergency, but they don't see it like that. The situation is similar in some ways to 'La Peste', by Albert Camus: in the novel there are dead rats in the street, people with boils or coughing up blood, but the population of Oran don't believe there is an epidemic and won't accept precautionary measures. Fake news does a lot of harm. You have to be careful with sources of information because otherwise we are easy prey for conspiracy theories and we become scared unnecessarily.

It must have been hard...

The delegates are relieved every month or two, because it is very demanding work. Ten or 12 hours a day, with a curfew, shootings at night... It is a contactless operation. For weeks you can't touch absolutely anybody and you have to keep disinfecting your hands all the time.

When you left there, were you afraid you had caught the virus?

The vaccine was optional and I didn't have it, because I didn't want to be debilitated for ten days of my stay. We were living and working in a hotel in Beni, about 30 of us, but there were a lot of meetings with other NGOs, with the authorities, the WHO... While I was there, the WHO plumber caught it. Once you're back home, if you haven't had any incidents of possible contagion, you only have to take your temperature twice a day for three weeks. I was in contact with the Ministry of Health, but I was OK.

When you came back, how did people react when they found out you had been somewhere with Ebola?

I don't know if it was coincidence, but in fact during the first weeks I didn't see many people. They didn't want to hear about such awful things. They listen for five minutes and then go on to the next party, or the next race. Life just goes on for them.

Are you optimistic about the Ebola situation?

When I went, there had been 400 deaths and now there have been more than 1,700. The outbreak in 2014 affected three countries; there were cases in the USA, UK and Spain, and in the end they managed to stop it. Cruz Roja and other organisations are playing a very important part. The problem in the DRC is that, after 20 years of war, people have no hope in their lives. After being in all these places, I often think how lucky I am to live here. I don't understand the people who complain all the time and say Spain doesn't function. I don't accept that.

Background: Born in Metz (France) in 1975, and works in business management. Speaks French, Spanish, English and German.

On holiday in Madagascar with his partner, Jordane, he saw the extreme poverty among the population. In 2012 he began to work with humanitarian delegates through the Benelux Red Cross.

Participates in emergency response teams and works at home on developing a method of distance training for Red Cross personnel.