Africa. Coronavirus and the Missionaries.
The Coronavirus pandemic is spreading across Africa. The virus has gradually attacked almost all its countries.
To date, thousands of victims have been claimed by this emergency which may move from being a matter of health to a social matter. How missionaries are involved.
“Closing the South Sudan borders would mean condemning thousands of people to a state of hunger: this is because food security still depends on imports from nearby countries as well as humanitarian aid. For this reason, the government has asked Uganda to allow free passage to trucks carrying food and fuel,” says Father Christian Carlassare, an Italian Comboni missionary who lives in Juba, speaking of precautionary measures taken by the young African state in response to the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. In recent days, the Minister for Health announced the closure of all airports in the country and the prohibition of all international flights as well as the closure of the borders.
According to data furnished by the UN, around 6 million people, 60% of the population, are in urgent need of humanitarian aid, an increase of 20% compared to last year. “The country will be at a great disadvantage if it has to tackle a pandemic of this sort”, notes Father Christian. During February and the first weeks of March, there was a lot of movement across the borders with contiguous countries: “It is therefore feared that the virus has spread also here in South Sudan – the Comboni priest explains – but it is hoped that the hot climate may limit its spread; however, we will not be sure until after a couple of weeks”. As a precaution, the schools have been closed for a month and all gatherings, even for religious services, have been prohibited. “While community celebrations are suspended – Fr. Carlassare informs us – we need to find other ways of being close to the people who are suffering. For the present, we are not obliged to stay at home. There is just a curfew from six in the evening to six in the morning. During the day we may still visit the families. The small basic communities can continue being active and say their prayers in their families”.
However important, the measures taken seem to fall short of tackling the complex situation in a country like South Sudan, stricken by hunger, poverty and disease: “The first challenge – Fr. Carlassare believes – regards the extremely limited possibility, confined to the capital – of testing people suspected of being infected. Furthermore – he continues – the public health system is not properly equipped: the patients may be isolated but there are no intensive care units with ventilators. We Comboni missionaries are responsible for running the diocesan hospital in Mapuordit where the only ventilator is in the operating theatre”. The second challenge is that of prevention: in Fr. Christian’s opinion “it is very difficult to implement isolation and quarantine in a country like South Sudan, for many reasons, especially – he clarifies – since many families live in huts or houses with only one room that is shared, on average, by five or six persons. Daily life takes place mostly out of doors”. No food is kept in the house except some flour and very little else: “the hygienic conditions in the markets, with their stalls often located in dusty and overcrowded places, leave much to be desired”.
“This pandemic – he concludes – struck us while in a state of weakness and confusion but, at the same time, it has taught us how important and necessary it is to recognise that we all need to comfort one another and that we are all called to pull together since we are all in the same boat”.
In Africa people live in the streets, especially the poorest strata of the population. “Huts are only for sleeping – explains Father Piergiorgio Gamba, an Italian Montfort missionary who has worked in Malawi for more than forty years – the rest of the day is spent outdoors trying to earn just enough to survive by doing odd jobs. How can we even think of making these people stay inside? Making them stay in their houses would mean depriving them of the minimum necessary for survival”.
In South Africa, shortages of food, water and electricity could even cause serious social disorder. The decrees of President Cyril Ramaphosa have obliged schools to close and people to remain in their houses. “The well-off classes – comments Father Pablo Velasquez, a Scalabrini Missionary in Johannesburg – have economic resources and security of employment that protect them and enable them to follow the directives. It is different for the poorer people. For them, not working for days on end means they will have no income. For this reason, the regulations have not been welcomed in the townships”.
Consequently, while the police patrol the residential areas, the shanty towns are surrounded by the military on a war footing. “Closing a township – explains Father Filippo Ferraro, a Scalabrini Missionary in Cape Town – is like sealing a boiling pot: with no outlet, it is in danger of exploding. The migrants (7.5% of the population) are also suffering as it is difficult for them to renew their residence permits and they risk ending up as illegals. They not only cannot work but they have not even enough money to buy food”.
From Ethiopia, Father Nicola de Guio, a Fidei Donum missionary in Adaba, in the Apostolic Prefecture of Robe remarks: “Our missions are small numerically but right from the start we followed the instructions given by the public and religious institutions concerning Covid-19. For some weeks we have been celebrating Mass only at the mission of Adaba where we live, but we can no longer go out to the other two missions at Dodola and Kokossa, at distances of 25Km and 95Km respectively.
We feel very concerned for the whole of the population who have no means of protecting themselves and are living in very precarious
human conditions. ”
In the Central African republic, Father Aurelio Gazzera, a Carmelite missionary, parish priest of Bozoum and head of the diocesan Caritas office, decided to organise a trip to meet those in charge of ten parishes to explain to them how to handle a possible Covid-19 epidemic. “In each parish – Father Aurelio explains – we held a meeting (observing social distancing and the numerical regulations), during which we explained the disease (symptoms, precautions, contagion and risks), encouraging everyone to take this problem seriously. We then got organised, as Christians and members of Caritas, to ensure that the weakest (the elderly, the poor, the sick and the disabled) were provided with assistance and food. Unfortunately, it will not be easy to stop this virus. People here live outdoors. It is necessary for them to go outside to get what they need for their families.“The Central African Republic is a country on its knees. For seven years it has been in the throes of a civil war which, despite peace accords, continues causing violence and political instability. In this already precarious context, the spread of the virus can only bring civil society down even more, claiming many victims and causing price rises for basic foodstuffs (rice, cooking oil, tomatoes) and other necessities (soap, gloves, masks and bleach).
However, it is not possible to carry out such sensitisation action everywhere. In some countries, COVID-19 is not even mentioned. “In Eritrea, officially, there are no cases – notes Abba Mussie Zerai, a priest of Asmara eparchy – In truth, we are not sure whether the virus has reached this country or not. We fear an epidemic. There is the danger that it may spread in the overcrowded prisons and military training camps. The public health structures would not be able to manage the situation if the virus were to spread. The private hospitals and clinics, the only ones that are efficient, were commandeered in recent months by the authorities. What sort of assistance can they offer the citizens?”.
“The fear of dying of hunger is greater than the fear of the virus and my community is in danger of succumbing”. Sister Enza Guccione, an Italian missionary in Nigeria, lives on a small island in the middle of the River Niger. “ We are in the middle of the river, suspended between life and death, subject to events we cannot control », says the religious, foundress of the Emmanuelle Family community, who has decided to dedicate her life to the least of the world.
“If death does not come through Covid-19, hunger will be the enemy number one to be defeated », Sister Enza declares. “The slogan ‘I am staying at home’ in places like Nigeria takes on another meaning. With the Covid-19 alert and the precautionary measures introduced by the local governments, we have entered a high-risk humanitarian phase. All the borders of the country are closed, and we are all too often forcibly told to stay inside our homes. The village is also closed within itself and we cannot go to the other bank of the river as the police there do not allow the boats to dock there and disembark their passengers. The whole market, including the part selling foodstuffs, lies beyond the river”, Sr. Enza says.
“ Here we cannot afford to keep reserves of food – the religious continues – there is no electricity and no refrigerators but, most of all, the people live each day by earning something in the markets so whatever extra they had at home has been used up during the past three weeks of lockdown. Even medicine is becoming a problem. Medicine in the market beyond the river and in reserves is running out. What can we do? The police will not let us in, not even the Sisters. Nobody can go to the city from here. Yesterday, disturbances broke out in the surrounding villages causing some deaths and many injuries. Prices are sky-high. We are fighting an invisible enemy but another more dangerous enemy is on the loose: hunger! The lockdown, to be truthful, can only be tackled by those who have the economic resources to do so, a tiny minority. At this time, the only thing we can do is to pray harder to God.”
Missionary activity is seriously affected by the Covid-19 crisis. “ How can we be missionaries when we can no longer go out to meet people or even establish social contact with the population, as we have done in the past, to announce the Good News?” asks Father Donald Zagore, an Ivorian priest of the Society of African Missions. “It is a challenge we are facing and we have as yet no clear answer. The challenge of finding new ways of evangelising in this context today is the subject of deep reflection among missionaries, especially in rural areas “.
The Ivorian priest emphasises: “In this time of the coronavirus crisis, the family becomes the sacred place par excellence, where the mystery of God is received and lived. Christ became incarnate in a family, making the Holy Family the first domestic church”. “The African pastoral model today – the missionary explains – is still that of the small Christian community. “The tragedy of Covid-19 ought to make us more united with one another. Humanity will win this struggle only by involving itself in a strong dynamic of solidarity between scientific research, and material and spiritual support”, Fr. Zagore continues. “The isolation measures established by the government which include, among other things, the closure of the borders, must be strictly measures of medical prevention – the missionary emphasises – and they must not become methods that promote exclusion or stigmatisation. The Covid-19 pandemic must not become an area in which living together means the sacrifice of one’s identity, social breaks-up or increasingly exclusive nationalism. Today, we must concentrate on the essence of the problem which consists essentially in working and praying for a solution which can save humanity from this tragedy.
In the name of our faith, we must not allow evil to win out in the lives of people. God is more powerful than that”.
Concluding his reflection, the theologian repeats: “For Christianity without churches, the ecclesiological model of the family as a domestic church is still fundamental. A family built upon rock, upon Christ, is a precious gift to the universal Church and to all humanity. Everything has to be rebuilt according to the principle of the family itself”.
Meanwhile, many sisters are working in small rural hospitals in Africa as well as medical clinics, healthcare centres and mobile clinics providing education and medical assistance to those in need. (C.C.)