Nigerian Catholics providing COVID-19 relief to poor communities

Nigeria—Africa’s most populous country—has the highest number of coronavirus cases in the West African region.

Bishop Paulinus Ezeokafor of Awka diocese and bishop Peter Ebele Okpaleke of Ekwulobia diocese in Nigeria's southeast region distributing relief and food supplies to parishioners. (Photo: Fr Martin Anusi)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – In Nigeria, Catholic parishes and communities are providing relief materials and supplies to the poor and vulnerable people in the rural areas since the COVID-19 pandemic started. The Church in the country has also been supporting government’s wide efforts and raising awareness on safety measures to combat the virus.

The pandemic and lockdown restrictions imposed by government have affected the livelihood of many Nigerians especially those who run small businesses. In Nigeria, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) contribute 48 percent of the GDP, 96 percent of businesses and 84 percent of employment.

Nigeria—Africa’s most populous country—has the highest number of coronavirus cases in the West African region. The first case was reported on February 27 when an Italian man who flew into the country tested positive. By June 4, there were 11, 516 confirmed cases with 3, 535 recoveries and 323 deaths, according to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).

Nigeria has a weak and often inaccessible health system, and this has become a source of worry to experts. The NCDC for instance, recently reported that no Nigerian state has enough hospital beds to treat patients—and there are only 3,500 bed spaces for COVID-19 patients nationwide.

The World Health Organisation and other global health bodies have expressed concern that the pandemic will be devastating for the African continent. The WHO estimates that between 83, 000 and 190, 000 people in Africa could die of COVID-19 and as many as 44 million people could be infected in the first year if containment measures fail.

But the church is responding to the needs of the people. In the diocese of Enugu, located in Nigeria’s southeast region, bishop Callistus Onaga is overseeing and supervising the distribution of relief and food parcels to over 52 local parishes and deaneries in the state. This is done in collaboration with the state government which made some of the items available to the church.

“Today we are going to distribute some relief items to communities to help our people in their different deaneries and parishes,” Onaga said during the distribution.

To observe some safety measures and avoid crowd contact during the distribution, Onaga invited priests of different parishes who came with a pick-up truck to the diocese to collect their own share of the items.

“We had a problem on how to distribute it to them with the population and to avoid people having contact because of coronavirus,” he said. “To avoid that, we are distributing them to different villages and deaneries so that it will reduce the number of contacts and reach people that urgently need them and not just to a particular group of people.”

Additionally, the diocese is giving each parish N150, 000 ($388) which would be shared among the poorest members of their church. A priest at the diocese, Victor Eze said the money would be given to the poorest among them and that each parishioner would receive N5, 000 ($13).

“This will help them alleviate the sufferings of the pandemic because people are at their homes and don’t have any means of earning an income for their families and dependents,” Onaga said.

Parishioners queue up to receive the relief items from their diocese. (Photo: Fr Martin Anusi)

Beyond the distribution of food and other supplies to parishioners, the diocese is also producing face masks and hand sanitizers in large quantity in collaboration with the Catholic-run Universities in the region. Onaga said the reason is to make them available and affordable to the most vulnerable among them especially at the rural areas.

“We provided villagers and parishioners with sanitizers and face masks. We used our universities to mass produce them because those in the villages are more vulnerable. So, what we are trying to do now is to make sure that they keep and maintain basic hygiene and hand washing concepts. We started producing sanitizers for people for free because some people started increasing the price in the market.”

Through a newspaper run by the diocese, information on coronavirus, mode of transmission and how to keep safe is shared with parishioners so they can be informed and make important decisions about the pandemic.

Chibuike Aniedo is a parishioner in the diocese. He said his parish received some of the relief packages and food parcels during the distribution.

“The church is really fulfilling its ministry of helping the society and providing guidance when needed,” he said. “The items might not be enough, but it shows that the church cares in taking care of the needs of the poor among us.”

In Nsukka diocese – another diocese in the region, bishop Godfrey Onah has provided relief and food supplies of more than N10 million ($25, 808) since the pandemic started. Of the 160 parishes in the diocese, Onah recently gave each N20, 000 ($52) to each parish through their priests to distribute to the poor and vulnerable among them.

“He would also ask us to augment whatever he is giving so as to reach a greater number of people in the parish,” Fr Donatus Ajibo, a priest in the diocese says. “The items are for those in need of it and not for everybody because some people can provide and take care of their needs and their families.”

Fr Martin Anusi is the communications director of the Catholic diocese of Awka, southeast of the country. Since the pandemic started and leading to closure of churches and places of worship, Anusi said the diocese has been mobilizing and disseminating information to parishioners in their homes so they can be informed and adhere to safety measures against the virus. The diocese also distributed relief materials to them to help in taking care of their most basic needs.

“The church in Awka distributed 1000 bags of rice to all the deaneries and parishes in the diocese,” Anusi said. “Of course, we know it can never be enough but that’s a way to show people that the church cares even in this moment of need. Not even the government can provide everything that will satisfy everybody.”

Apart from the distribution of relief items and supplies to parishioners, the Catholic community in Nigeria has offered support in different ways.

Back in May, the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria donated 425 church-run hospitals, clinics, and health facilities to the government. The hospitals, which will be used as isolation centers for coronavirus patients, was handed over to the presidential task force that coordinates pandemic across the country.

The bishops also sent priests who have expertise in epidemics as volunteers to help in government-wide efforts to control the spread of the pandemic.

“The church is always at the forefront in rendering help not just in words of mouth but in concrete terms,” Anusi adds. “That is why the church didn’t go through the government in distributing the items but directly to the people. The deans from every denary were there to collect their own share because the bishop insisted and told the people if any parish does not receive, they should contact him through his phone numbers.”

Anusi said what the church is trying to do is to lead the way so that others – philanthropists, individuals and NGOs will be motivated and encouraged to give. This has been working.

“At one of the parishes, by the time you knew it, everybody was coming in to contribute. Some parishioners who are wealthy added their own contributions to what the diocese gave. Other parishes replicated this approach because people saw the goodwill of the church and they felt they should come in too.”

He continued: “Nobody can satisfy everyone, but if people contribute their own, then it will go a long way because this is some kind of evangelization that the church is doing.”

Last month, the bishop of the diocese, Paulinus Ezeokafor appealed to priests respond to the pandemic by helping their parishioners and those in need.

“Many priests responded to that request,” Anusi said. “They decided also to reach out to some wealthy people in their communities and parishes for collaboration and so many people responded. What the church is doing is motivating others to help and the response of the church had a multiplier effect on the people and especially the rich people too.”

In a recent report, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said 40 percent of Nigerians lived below its poverty line of $381.75 a year between 2018 – 2019. This represents 82.9 million people, the NBS says.

Onaga says the solution to the pandemic lies in praying to God for help because no one can do it alone. He says everybody should be involved “because this is the time that solidarity and advocacy is much needed.”

“Only God can solve the problem because as it seems now the whole world is in a state of confusion and don’t know what to do anymore,” he says. “Let us lead good lives and hope on God to solve this global problem. With this pandemic, God wants to tell us that he is still in charge of this world and there is nothing we can do without him.”

The archbishop of Onitsha archdiocese, Valerian Okeke during the distribution of relief materials to his parishioners. (Photo: Onitsha Archdiocese)

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About Patrick Egwu 14 Articles
Patrick Egwu is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Nigeria who reports on global health, education, religion, conflict and other development issues in Nigeria and sub-Saharan Africa.

1 Comment

  1. How wonderful an example of charity by Nigerian Catholic clergy unlike our more guarded response in America. Priests going out bravely into the field doing hands on care during the pandemic. Missionaries from Europe and Am spent their lives to plant the seeds of faith. I’ve been impressed by the enthusiasm of Nigerian priests who now come to W NYS as missionaries. Apparently the fire of the Holy Spirit inflames the younger African Church.

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