A leader in the fight against ebola in Sierra Leone says that hope is the first thing you need to fight the so-far incurable illness. If you have hope, he says, you can overcome ebola. And a great strength of the Catholic Church is offering that hope.
This was the reflection offered Tuesday by the director of Caritas Sierra Leone, Edward John Bull. He was speaking at a conference held by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace on “The Catholic Church’s Response to the Ebola Crisis,”
“If you have hope, you can overcome Ebola. If not, then it’s easy to just pass away,” Bull reflected.
Speakers on the epidemic and what is being done by Caritas and the broader Church included Monsignor Robert J. Vitillo, Caritas Internationalis Special Advisor for Health, who recently returned from Liberia; Father Peter Konteh of Caritas Freetown, Sierra Leone, who participated via Skype; Doctor Timothy Flanigan, professor of Infectious Diseases, Brown University School of Medicine, and permanent deacon in Providence, Rhode Island, who has been in Liberia for the past month; and other representatives of Caritas in the affected countries.
Earlier in the day, 50 Catholic Church experts from around the world discussed the Church’s coordinated response to the epidemic.
According to a WHO report released earlier this week, about 14,500 people have been infected, or are probable cases of ebola victims, and there have been 7,000 deaths.
At least half of those deaths have been in Liberia, with the other half about equally distributed between Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Bull noted that ebola is spreading at different rates in different countries. Although Sierra Leone is experiencing a greater rate of increase in cases now, overtaking Liberia with an estimated 60 new cases per day, Liberia still has the most cumulative deaths to date.
It was also noted that many underestimate how many deaths are from other diseases in the region, such as malaria, which can’t be treated due to shut-down facilities. Doctors in the region are frustrated, saying they could be doing more, but can’t, given shut-down facilities and restrictions.
When quarantined, villagers are confined to their homes for 21 days. If there is even a symptom of ebola suspected even on the 21st day, another 21-day quarantine begins, officials explained.
Preventing ebola is the focus for Caritas in West Africa. To achieve this, the officials stressed, diocesan teams are going to towns and villages carrying megaphones and bringing bleach, soap, and posters to tell people about basic hygiene and teach them how ebola is transmitted.
For example, in Guinea, Caritas began an ebola prevention program, which to date, has reached more than 100,000 people. In addition, Caritas Guinea has partnered with a major cell phone company to spread messages about prevention via text messages.
Through training sessions, Caritas not only teaches community volunteers about the disease, but also distributes materials, such as buckets and soap, to bring back to their communities.
Also, Caritas, along with other Church groups, are training health care workers about how to protect themselves and use personal protective equipment, often provided or paid for by Caritas Netherlands or Caritas USA.
Similar to its efforts over the years to stop the spread of HIV, Caritas is using the same diocesan efforts of clinics and communications outlets to fight ebola.
To illustrate, on 19 radio stations, Caritas broadcasts information on how to prevent HIV. Now, on those same stations, the organization is broadcasting anti-ebola messages.
Many of those who have worked to fight HIV are also acting as outreach staff for Ebola awareness. This, the speakers noted, is effective, given the workers are often already known and trusted in these rural areas they are visiting.
Even if individuals have not been infected, they need assistance and will need help coping.
Since the usual salaries and livelihoods of these families are cut off, along with the reality that many villages are under quarantine, families need food. Though Caritas is working with World Food Program to provide some, it is not enough.
People, likewise, will need to cope with the economic fallout of the crisis, both financially and psychologically. The experts observed that when people are not allowed to go to work because of restrictions, they rapidly become more poor and hungry.
These elements, they warned, can and do lead to social unrest, as people are “demoralized,” “frustrated,” and often in mourning.
An added challenge for the Church, they pointed out, is how to care for ebola orphans, who are without extended families to take them in.
In Liberia and Sierra Leone, all the schools are closed. The participants noted they will not be set to open any time before the end of the year, and this has far-reaching consequences.
Those who have survived, officials agreed, are facing stigmas. Given this, Caritas is providing psychosocial support.
Contributing to the spread of the virus, they said, are unsafe burials.
To confront this, Caritas is working with religious leaders to comfort those grieving through organizing safe burials, done from a distance away, with a ‘hands off’ approach.
Another difficulty stems from fear of being separated from their relatives. Some are hiding their sick and deceased loved ones, which risks further transmission of the disease.
In this sense, the Church can counteract ebola. Trusted faith leaders and the Church can help their members find the peace, hope, and support they need to cope with this reality.
On the NET:
For further information on Caritas: www.caritas.org