The ongoing global pandemic has highlighted the work of humanitarian organisations around the world. The United Nations estimates that 274 million people will require humanitarian assistance and protection in 2022. Throughout this year, we will celebrate the selfless acts of humanity by a select number of individuals while appreciating the ongoing work of thousands of humanitarian workers across the globe.
Mrs Roseyln Nugba-Ballah was a professional nurse with the Liberian Red Cross in 2014. Her concern for the social and economic wellbeing of Liberian women during the worst-ever outbreak of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) saw her take charge of the 140 volunteers who formed the Safe and Dignified Burial Team. The virus causes blood clotting, internal bleeding, inflammation and tissue damage, and is spread from human to human through contact with the body fluids of infected people. Over 28,000 cases were reported during the outbreak, with 11,000 reported deaths. Since the virus was infectious both during clinical treatment and long after the death of a patient, the casualty lists included medical professionals and those who prepared the bodies for burial.
Ballah’s team worked mainly in Liberia’s most populous county Montserrado, which includes the capital city Monrovia, to ensure the collection and cremation from homes or off the streets of the bodies of those who had died from Ebola. The safe treatment of 2,234 bodies between July and October 2014 helped to contain the pandemic, and Ebola case numbers in Montserrado significantly decreased from mid-September 2014.
Recognised for her Acts of Selflessness
Mr Jerome Clarke, the President of the Liberian Red Cross, acknowledged the commitment of Ballah and her volunteers who offered ‘hope and support to humanity during a dangerous period of Ebola’. The Safe and Dignified Burial Team were faced with both the physical dangers associated with Ebola and the psychological stresses of dealing with such large numbers of victims. They also faced social discrimination due to the perception that anyone associated with the pandemic would themselves become infected and die, while local communities favoured burial over cremation. On occasion, team members had been chased away by communities wielding machetes and other deadly weapons.
Mrs Ballah was awarded the Florence Nightingale Medal in 2017. Bernard Metraux, the Head of Mission of the ICRC, described her as ‘a true and committed patriot who responded appropriately when her nation needed her the most.’ Her team were ‘the real drivers of the success in the war against Ebola, avoiding the spread of the disease – this led to saving thousands of lives.’ Ballah responded that the award ‘is for all of us. We all worked for it, and we deserve it together… we were focused and committed to our duties, and at the end of the day we all served our country and made it safe.’
Florence Nightingale Medal
The Florence Nightingale Medal was instituted in 1912 by the International Committee of the Red Cross. The medal recognises nurses or nursing aides who have demonstrated “exceptional courage and devotion to the wounded, sick or disabled or to civilian victims of a conflict or disaster” or “exemplary services or a creative and pioneering spirit in the areas of public health or nursing education”.
The first awards of the Florence Nightingale Medal were made in 1920, when 42 medals were made to nurses whose war service included France, Belgium, Russia, Italy, Rumania and the Balkans. A study of the first 95 years of the medal concluded that the majority of recipients were professional registered or specialist female nurses, which reflected the international demographics of the nursing profession. Few posthumous or post-career awards were made, as the intention was to recognise practising nurses. While the early awards tended to recognise war service by nurses, awards were also made for work in the fields of public health, nursing education and disaster relief. Indeed, awards in the latter categories have steadily increased since the Second World War, while the percentage of awards for the provision of aid in war and conflict has decreased.
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Dr Aaron Fox is a New Zealand-based military and security intelligence historian. He trained as an historian at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, before directing medallic policy for the New Zealand Defence Force. He later worked as a senior local government manager, and as a specialist advisor to the renowned Weta/Te Papa exhibition ‘Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War’. His current projects include a biography of the notable New Zealand soldier and politician, Brigadier James Hargest.