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Catholic Priest in Sierra Leone Faults Harsh COVID-19 Restrictions, Says Ebola Was Worse

Fr. Peter Konteh. Credit: ACN

The Director of Caritas Freetown in Sierra Leone has faulted the COVID-19 restrictions that were imposed on places of worship in the West African country, saying that most of the restrictions were unnecessary and denied the people the religious encounter at the time they needed it the most.

In a report to Catholic charity foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) United States, Fr. Peter Konteh asserted that it was much easier to manage the spread of COVID-19 because of the knowledge that had been built around the virus than it had been for the case of Ebola which ravaged Sierra Leone and a number of other West African countries.

He said that some of the safety measures imposed by the Sierra Leonean government in the attempt to curb the COVID-19 pandemic had directly affected public worship, especially community celebrations such as Holy Mass.

“The measures were unfair because they closed churches, even when we took precautions such as social distancing, reduced capacity, increased the number of Masses, while restaurants, schools, remained open,” Fr. Konteh was quoted as saying in the Monday, September 27 ACN report.

He added, “The government failed to understand the importance of the Mass, for God speaks to us through the Word, and the Eucharist is important for the faith. They took God out of the solution when God is the solution.”

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The Catholic Priest told ACN that in Sierra Leone, doctors and scientists who dealt with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic adapted some measures used during the Ebola epidemic to prevent a repeat of the tragedy that killed 3,590 people between 2014 and 2016 and traumatized inhabitants of the West African country.

He explained that among the measures “quickly taken” was the confinement of infected people and the quarantine of people with whom they had been in contact.

The Caritas Freetown official however provided the difference between the medical approach to the two pandemics, noting that COVID-19 was easier to manage.

“With Ebola it was much harder to raise awareness in the population since many did not believe in the virus and died because of not obeying safety measures,” he said, and added, “Things are different now with COVID-19. If you tell people to wear a mask, they listen because they know the consequences.”

Fr. Konteh narrated to the Catholic charity what he said was for him one of the darkest moments of the Ebola epidemic, when one of the Catechists in his Parish fell ill.

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He and another Priest paid him a visit because they had not heard from him for a while.

Upon arrival, the Catechist’s eight-year-old daughter came out to greet him because, she said, her mother and father “were asleep.” The girl put out her hand, but they couldn’t shake it because they knew the virus was very contagious.

“I have had nightmares about that moment,” Fr. Konteh told ACN, and added, “She was unable to understand. We helped her as best we could, bringing water, food. We called an ambulance, but they were already dead.”

Based on her personal experience with Ebola, Fr. Konteh said that the difference between the two diseases is that Ebola was much more aggressive.

“COVID-19 is better known, but Ebola was more contagious. If a family member has the coronavirus they can survive, with Ebola it was much harder,” he said, and explained, “We saw entire families die, including a family of 27.”

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With people staying at home on worship days in adherence to COVID-19 regulations, the Sierra Leonean Priest says that members of the Clergy in the country brought the Eucharist to homes for the Catholic faithful.

He added that despite the restrictions, Priests have grown more close with those they shepherded during the pandemic.

“One of the positive aspects of the shutdown of churches was that it brought us very close to the faithful. We met their families and we were in their homes. This brought people very close,” he said, and added, “Bringing Christ to the people is the primary job of a Priest, so that’s what we did.”

Meanwhile, Fr. Konteh notes that the ongoing health emergency caused by COVID-19 has exposed some global injustices and social gaps.

He says that a global solution is what is needed in the ongoing crisis, adding, “Vaccines are going to rich countries and rich people, not to everybody.”

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According to the Caritas Freetown official, when vaccines do arrive “vaccination is done by age but also by social class. The ultimate message is that poor people are going to die.”

In the interview with ACN, the Catholic Priest spoke out against these discrepancies in global health, adding that everybody should have access to help.

“Human life is human life and each person is unique. Each one is special to God, no matter what age, money or skin color,” he says.

Unlike the attention that COVID-19 received, little was known about the deadly Ebola, which took many lives especially in Africa, Fr. Konteh says, and explains, “Ebola was a great challenge, especially since it was unknown in the world.”

“The worldwide scientific research that was done for COVID-19 was not done for Ebola, especially since it was contained to a particular area, our region…The coronavirus, on the other hand, is everywhere. Vaccines have been developed because scientists worked non-stop to find an answer,” the Sierra Leonian Priest says.