HARARE - There was pandemonium in Harare recently when grieving relatives “stole” the remains of a Zimbabwean woman whom local authorities suspect may have died from the dreaded Ebola virus in Conakry, Guinea late last year.
The deceased, Tarisai Gombakomba, who was employed in Guinea as a domestic worker since 2009 by Professor Oumou Younosa Sal — the World Health Organisation’s country representative in Guinea — first complained of shoulder pain and general body weakness in November last year, before she developed blisters on her face which later spread to her whole body.
She died on December 18 last year, after which her remains were packaged in three body bags, covered in zinc metal sheet and then placed in a sealed metal coffin before being flown back to Zimbabwe for burial three weeks ago.
In a circuitous flight, her remains left Guinea Conakry on January 12 aboard an Ethiopian Airlines plane. The remains were flown to France, then Ethiopia and South Africa, before arriving at the Harare International Airport on January 14, 2015 — where they were released into the care of Angel Light Funeral Services, of 152 Harare Street. The remains were later kept at Fidelity Funeral Parlour at corner Jason Moyo Avenue and Harare Street, as Angel Light Funeral Services does not have mortuary facilities.
And in a demonstration of how seriously authorities took the matter, the government dictated where Gombakomba’s remains were to be buried.
They also did not allow her sealed remains to be opened for viewing by relatives, and to be taken to 24 Canaan Mhlanga Road in Mbare, where her funeral wake was held before her burial on January 16.
But Gombakomba’s interment only happened late at night on the drama-filled day when her grieving relatives created serious official pandemonium after they allegedly “stole” her remains from Fidelity Funeral Parlour, intending to bury the deceased in Zimunya rather than in Harare as had been dictated by authorities.
However, quick-thinking authorities were able to intercept the relatives along the way, after police mounted road blocks along the Harare-Mutare Highway and the body was seized from them and taken back to Fidelity Funeral Parlour.
Witnesses say that Gombakomba’s emotional husband and anguished son, who had accompanied the body from Guinea Conakry, allegedly jumped on top of the coffin carrying the deceased as authorities confiscated it back.
The burial was later held in Harare as prescribed by authorities. But although it was scheduled for 4pm on January 16, it only took place at 9pm as her relatives continued to agitate against her burial at Granville Cemetery where arrangements had apparently been long made by the City of Harare for the interment of Ebola victims.
This was despite the fact that the hearse carrying Gombakomba’s remains had left Fidelity at 17:05hrs and arrived at the cemetery 18:05hrs.
She was only finally buried after authorities sought the assistance of Waterfalls police, with the burial only being completed after 10pm.
But Health and Child Care minister David Parirenyatwa claimed yesterday that Gombakomba had died of a malaria drug reaction, and not Ebola.
“It clearly says in the report that the she had died of a reaction she had to anti-malaria drugs she had been taking.
“Yes, the body was sealed and we do not open sealed bodies,” Parirenyatwa said when contacted by the Daily News.
However, the medical records of the deceased, as well as the commendable precautions that authorities took in the entire saga, suggest otherwise.
In addition, local health experts also questioned the treatment that Gombakomba received when she first sought care at a hospital in Guinea Conakry.
According to four pages of a medical report seen by the Daily News yesterday and that was put together by the City of Harare’s department of Health, Gombakomba’s most likely cause of death was the deadly Ebola virus.
“There were suspicions that the deceased, Tarisai Gombakomba could have died of Ebola virus disease. The information was received on 15 January 2015,” said the report compiled on January 19.
Interestingly, Parirenyatwa denied the existence of cholera in Zimbabwe in 2008 and even advised one foreign reporter to “go to hell” over the alleged false information.
But the easily treatable disease went on to wipe out over 4 000 lives under his watch, with President Robert Mugabe going on to reward him with the same ministerial portfolio after the disputed 2013 elections.
Prosper Chonzi, the City of Harare Health Director told the Daily News yesterday that all necessary precautionary measures had been taken in looking after and burying the body.
“We do not receive any specimens or remains from those countries. We have an agreement that when one dies there, they must be interred there.
“Usually when a body is being repatriated, we are alerted but in this case we were not told. We received a tip off that a body was being repatriated and then we sent our team to investigate,” Chonzi said.
Investigations by the Daily News revealed that apart from not allowing Gombakomba’s remains to be viewed by relatives, and dictating that the body be buried at a designated place in Harare, all the people who handled the coffin had been provided with protective clothing by the City of Harare — with all processes of donning of personal protective clothing monitored by trained City Health personnel.
The coffin was also disinfected before handling, and after the removal of the body from the funeral parlour, the parlour premises were also disinfected, with chloride of lime spread in the grave before, during and after the burial process.
In addition, all the vehicles and equipment that went to the grave yard were disinfected and all waste that was generated in the process was incinerated at Chitungwiza Central Hospital on January 17.
On top of that, the 39 people who came in contact with the body, including the husband of the deceased and her son, were all screened and monitored for 21 days.
Although the deceased was given Fansidar, a drug used to treat malaria, when she fell ill, local medical experts say this did not make sense as she is said to have developed blisters on her face which later on spread to the rest of the body — as fever and the development of blisters on the body are symptoms associated with the Ebola virus.
The virus spreads from human-to-human through direct contact of broken skin or mucous membranes through blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected people or dead bodies; and indirect contact with environments contaminated with such fluids.
According to WHO, about 9 000 people have so far succumbed to the disease in Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, the US and Mali, out of the 22 000 cumulative infections reported to date
Out of the reported fatalities, nearly 2 000 people are said to have died in Guinea alone.
However, there have been no confirmed cases of Ebola in Zimbabwe so far.
But last year there was an alert raised when a Democratic Republic of Congo student was quarantined at Wilkins Infectious Diseases Hospital after she presented symptoms associated with the disease, although it later turned out to be malaria.