, 07 March, 2020 / 12:57 AM
As the world steps up efforts in tackling the spread of COVID-19 virus, the disease caused by coronavirus, with the most recent cases in Africa confirmed in South Africa and Cameroon, Catholic Church leaders at the helm of the Bishops’ conferences in Africa have expressed concerns that the virus could rapidly spread on the continent if appropriate measures are not taken to prevent its initial spread.
“We need to take precautionary measures without being paranoid because we know that this disease thrives in the action of people and congestive circumstances,” the First Vice President of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), Bishop Sithembele Sipuka told ACI Africa, on the sidelines of Standing Committee meeting of SECAM in Kenya’s capital Nairobi.
The South African Bishop who is at the helm of the Southern Africa Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) added, “We also need to look at what we do in Church: greet by hand, receiving communion but without creating too much of a scare about this.”
“I have written to the Bishops in Southern Africa giving them some kind of guidelines to look at without prescribing to them: area of communion, exchange of peace, and the fountain of Holy water. But the recommendations depend on the appraisal of each Bishop,” the Bishop of South Africa’s Umtata diocese told ACI Africa during the Thursday, March 5 interview.
South Africa confirmed its first case of coronavirus in the country Thursday after a 38-year-old citizen who recently returned to the country from Italy tested positive for COVID-19 virus. According to a statement from the South African Ministry of Health, “the victim and the doctor who first treated him were both in self-isolation in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province.”
A tracer team had been sent to KwaZulu-Natal to identify people who might have been in contact with the man and the doctor, reads the statement seen by ACI Africa. Against this backdrop, South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa urged the nationals not to panic, but instead get immediate medical help if they showed symptoms of Covid-19, BBC News reported.
Against this background, the leadership of Johannesburg Archdiocese has, in a letter, announced preventive measures.
“Holy Communion will be distributed only in the hand (not on the tongue),” the Archdiocese has directed in the one-page letter and added, “The distribution of the Precious Blood to the faithful should be suspended.”
The Archdiocese has also urged priests, deacons and extraordinary ministers of Holy communion “to practice good hygiene by “washing their hands before Mass begins or even using an alcohol based anti-bacterial solution (hand sanitizer) before and after distributing Holy Communion.”
“The sign of peace should be exchanged without physical contact like hand-shaking; or else the call to exchange a sign of peace should simply be omitted,” reads the letter signed by the Vicar General, Fr. Paul Beukes (OMI) and copied to Local Ordinary, Archbishop Buti Tihagale (OMI) as well as his Auxiliary, Bishop Rishon Duncan Tenka.
The letter also urges the priests to “encourage the Catholic faithful to pray for an end to this challenging situation throughout the world, and pray for those who are afflicted with the coronavirus.”
Elsewhere, a 58-year-old French national who arrived in Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé on February 24, also tested positive for the deadly virus. According to a statement from Cameroon’s Ministry of Public Health availed to ACI Africa, “The Case was placed in solitary confinement in the care centre of the Yaounde central hospital for appropriate treatment.”
This brings the number of confirmed cases in Africa to 28 with Algeria being the worst-affected country with 17 cases followed by Senegal with 4. Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Nigeria have each recorded at least one case.
Globally, the virus has killed well over 3,000 people and infected more than 96000, a report shows.
Nigeria that confirmed its first coronavirus case on February 27 of an Italian man has since isolated three people suspected of being infected with the virus, BBC News has reported.
“Thankfully, until now, the coronavirus that has been verified in Nigeria the cases have always been imported cases. As we speak now, the coronavirus so far has been contained and limited to those people who have imported it to Nigeria,” Bishop Emmanuel Badejo of Nigeria’s Oyo diocese told ACI Africa Thursday, March 5.
“We know that there are challenges being an African country, but in spite of that, the Center for Disease Control in Nigeria, which is now at the helm of taking care and preventing this new coronavirus has been doing a good job,” Bishop Badejo who heads the Pan-African Episcopal Committee for Social Communication (CEPACS), added.
Other Church leaders on the continent have expressed concerns that the virus might rapidly spread in Africa if precautionary measures are not taken by governments.
“It's a real epidemic coming down on us, starting in China. We’re really helpless,” the President of SECAM, Philippe Cardinal Ouedraogo told ACI Africa Thursday, March 5.
The Archbishop of Burkina Faso’s Ouagadougou Archdiocese added, “In Burkina Faso, vigilance is certainly recommended, especially the country's health structures that have the responsibility to be vigilant in trying to protect the population. This being the case, in Burkina Faso there is no particular action in addition to hygiene precautions.”
“Some countries are more affected than others. Precautions are not the same everywhere. But everything human is of interest to the Church,” Cardinal Ouedraogo said and added, “The Church shouldn't lose interest in the fate of men. People who are dying because of this virus and this epidemic. So, we are listening and we are trying to see what we can do. First of all, the lead role is with the state.”
On his part, the Chairman of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops (KCCB), Archbishop Philip Anyolo advocated for a combination of preventive measures and faith.
“From the Christian point of view, we have an obligation to inform our people that God heals. But at the same time, He heals us through our understanding that we can protect ourselves from such illnesses,” Archbishop Anyolo of Kenya’s Archdiocese of Kisumu told ACI Africa Thursday, March 5.
In his considered view, people need to “see how we can help even those of us who have been affected with it, not victimize them. It is something airborne and anybody can get it.”
“Let us be mindful of one another. In case I know I have it, I should be mindful that I don't spread it to another person,” he advised.
Meanwhile, according to Fr. Jean Germain Rajoelison, the second Deputy Secretary General of SECAM, “the lessons of West Africa’s Ebola crisis will save Africa from the spread of the coronavirus.”
“In dealing with a potential COVID-19 outbreak on the continent, the African countries most recently affected by a previous viral pandemic will be leaning heavily on the past to address the present,” Fr. Rajoelison, a native of Madagascar told ACI Africa.
He added, “Our role as the Church is to sensitize our Christians about this disease highlighting the importance of adopting hygiene habits to prevent the spread of the virus.”
“Our governments too should really play their role taking precautionary measures at borders and airports. The situation is really serious and as a Church we prescribe vigilance at all times,” the Malagasy cleric concluded during the Thursday, March 5 interview.
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ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.
Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa