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COVID-19 Measures "may call clergy, religious to share our own food": South African Bishop

Bishop Sithembele Sipuka of Mthatha diocese, South Africa.

As South Africans continue to observe the 21-day nation-wide lockdown declared to control the spread of COVID-19, the Bishop of Mthatha diocese has called on the clergy and religious in his diocese to consider making sacrifices that would include giving from their own food reserves to help those adversely affected by the stay-at-home directive.

“It looks to me that we will need to continue in an intense way with the programme of feeding the hungry. Possibly this situation may call on us as clergy and religious to share our own food because resources from the faithful only will not be enough,” Bishop Sithembele Sipuka wrote in his monthly newsletter shared with ACI Africa. 

He explained, “As we engage in these preventative measures of social isolation and hygienic practices for longer periods, the stress on daily life also increases.”

The Bishop’s call on clergy and religious in his diocese to make sacrifices was based, he said, on the situation of those who live from hand to mouth, one day at a time.

“My heart goes out to the majority of people who live by vending and doing piece jobs. Sitting at home for 21 days, and who knows if this period could be extended, means that these people now live without means to provide for themselves,” Bishop Sipuka who is also the 1st Vice President of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM) recounted.

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“What can we do for these people now, I ask myself because we are not able to go out, even if we could help some with food parcels?” the South African Bishop probed and continued, “What shall we do when the lockdown is over because the indications are that the situation will get worse economically; if the recent 3rd junk rating of our economy is anything to go by? More and more people will not afford the basics.”

In his newsletter message, Bishop Sipuka went on to reflect on the vulnerability of the people in some residences saying, “One just needs to think of a family living in one room made of corrugated iron, if one of them is infected how difficult it will be not to have serial infection.”

In his considered view, “There is a reason to be worried and scared because once this pandemic hits poor areas, it will decimate huge numbers of people, it will be a plague! With increasing numbers of infections daily, it is worrying that infections will now come from within the communities than from outside.”

The 60-year-old Prelate implored, “We pray to God that the lockdown will bring the desired effect and people can get on with their ways of making a living.”

While the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in South Africa remains the highest on the continent with the Health Minister Zweli Mkhize announcing at least 1,462 cases by Thursday, April 2, the stay-at-home directive seems to working.

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“Even with all that increase, we have indicated that there is a restraint in the numbers, which we think is an impact of the lockdown,” South Africa’s Health Minister has been quoted as saying and adding, “The fact that people are in their homes means that there is not a lot of mixing of people in large volumes and large numbers.” 

According to Bishop Sipuka, “Never in the modern times has humanity been bound together by a common anxiety as Covid-19. All countries in the world are doing their best to stop its spread, and that is the best we can do so far.”

He acknowledged the significant role of the clergy and religious in his society and encouraged actions that promote preventive measures against the spread of the coronavirus.

“As people of influence, we must use that influence to join forces in encouraging people to adopt preventive measures that we all know of and to avoid behaviors that feed the spread. China, the country where the disease is reported to have originated is almost free of it now, thanks largely to preventative measures,” Bishop Sipuka who is also the President of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) advised.

He encouraged trusting in God’s presence amid the challenging times reflecting, “As far as continuing our relationship with God, this question should not arise because it provides us with different ways, and maybe even better ways of relating with Him. As far as the question of “why does God allow this?” the brief answer is that we do not know but what we know is that God suffers with us and makes us his collaborators in responding to situations of suffering.”

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The period of COVID-19, the Bishop suggested, “can be profitably used for reflection, prayer, self-examination, for reading those books that one has been postponing to read, for resting and above all to unite oneself with this global pain and anxiety in prayer.”

Referencing a reflection by a Nigerian nun, Sr. Theresa Okure, on how to be Church in the face of Covid-19, Bishop Sipuka has encouraged families “to keep in touch through the cell phone and WhatsApp to participate in live streamed Masses and to do the suggested Holy Week and Easter services at home.”

“In this way, this pandemic will be a providential help for families to pray together and parents will have time for their children and assume the God-given responsibility to accompany them during the worship and explain to them the different parts in their Sunday worship and maybe in all their prayers,” Bishop Sipuka reflected, drawing inspiration from Sr Teresa’s thoughts.