NAIROBI, Kenya (CWR) – Catholic bishops in Africa are emphasizing hope during the coronavirus outbreak, as they also issue guidelines to help Catholics cope with the pandemic.
The pandemic was confirmed to have spread in Africa sometime in mid-February. According to ministries of health, most of the cases were imported into the continent from the UK and USA through airports, seas and other border crossings.
Soon after, governments started announcing lockdowns, curfews, and restricted movements aimed at slowing down the spread of the virus. Episcopal conferences and dioceses unveiled measures in line with those of governments and accepted government directives to close churches, schools, and colleges.
Both public officials and church leaders are concerned that Africa’s weak healthcare systems will not be able to cope in the event of major outbreaks. With fears growing that systems are insufficient, lacking equipment and well-trained personnel, Church leaders want congregations to strictly observe government preventive measures.
On Sunday, bishops and priests celebrated Easter masses in empty churches after the preventive measures kept their followers at home. By the Easter weekend, cases had reached 16,000 with nearly 900 dying from the virus. Over 3,000 are reported to be recovered.
Still, Easter messages reached the congregations after the masses were broadcast live by radio and television stations.
“Everything seems gloomy, dark and frightening like an extended Good Friday, but we must never give up… [The] Easter message is that God does not forget or forsake us, and the darkest hour is just before dawn,” said Nigerian Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Abuja.
Kenyan Archbishop Anthony Muheria of Nyeri, in a televised sermon, urged the citizens to follow Jesus Christ’s example of selflessness on the eve of COVID-19.
“We have become too selfish….during this pandemic, instead of showing love and protecting others, we think only of our businesses…” said Muheria. “Easter is a time to give a tunic, if you have two, one lunch if you have two… give a rent waiver…forgo half of your savings….”
When the pandemic began emerging in Africa, it triggered tensions, fears and panic. Within weeks, it had disrupted normal church life, with some cases being reported among Catholic clergy.
“We pray that our risen and loving Lord will calm our fears, and quell the rising panic, so that we can focus on what we can do for one another, in solidarity,” said Fr. James Oyet Latansio, a Catholic priest who is the general secretary of the South Sudan Council of Churches.
Latansio said the despite Christians being unable to come together to worship, there is no doubting God’s presence among them.
“For those who may be tempted to explain the current situation as [caused by God], the Easter message convoys that God is loving, the source of life – the God of life and love,” said Latansio.
Before shutting their churches, the bishops had also banned handshakes, emptied holy water fonts, and asked their congregations to observe social distancing. Water containers with soap had also been placed at church entrances, with priests being advised to observe highest levels of hygiene while administering Communion or undertaking various church activities.
But the deadly nature of COVID-19 was highlighted on March 25 when Bishop Angelo Moreschi, Ethiopia’s Gambella region apostolic vicar and a missionary, died of the disease while in Italy. Bishop Moreschi had travelled to Italy for treatment, but as he was about to return to Ethiopia he contracted the virus and died in Brescia, which has been one of the epicenters in Europe of the pandemic.
Also on March 31, Cardinal Philippe Ouedraogo of Ghana contracted the virus has since been undergoing treatment in Accra, the Ghanian capital, according to local sources.
“We are living in difficult and scary times, especially when we cannot easily identify who is infected,” said Archbishop John Kwofie of Accra, Ghana, while giving an update on the state of the cardinal.
“Let us not throw away reason by believing that our faith will save us from coronavirus, even when we act irresponsibly,” added Kwofie.
African bishops, like bishops throughout the world, have stressed preventative measures as necessary to help congregations survive the pandemic.
At the same time, some African Episcopal conferences have kept their churches open despite worldwide closures. Tanzanian Catholic Church bishops urged strong observance of COVID-19 preventive measures while, over the weekend, thousands turned up in churches for Easter celebrations.
On March 22, according to reports, President John Pombe Magufuli, a Catholic, told churches and mosques to continue gathering to praise and glorify God. “The coronavirus cannot survive in the Eucharistic body of Christ. It will soon be burnt away,” he was quoted as saying.
Tanzania has kept restrictions low while bolstering resources, and taking preventive and testing measures.
Burundi, Tanzania’s southwest neighbor, is yet another country where churches and mosques, markets, and restaurants are still in operation. The delayed arrival of the COVID-19 is being attributed by some to God protection in the tiny majority Catholic East African country.
The ruling party, CNDD-FDD, has told the people not to worry about the virus, even as it kills thousands across the globe. The party has allowed the people to go on with normal life, even agreeing to proceed with general elections slated for May 20.
“Do not be afraid. God love Burundi and if there are people who have tested positive, it is so that God can manifest his power in Burundi,” General Evariste Ndayishimiye was quoted by the AFP as saying.
In the two countries with a low number of cases, key leaders have told the people that their faith plus preventive measures will protect them.
Meanwhile, as the BBC has noted, the population of Africa is very young (less than 2% of population is over 65) and “in general lockdowns may be simply unworkable in the continent”.
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