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Missionaries Pay Ultimate Price in Confronting Ebola in Liberia



Aid to the Church in Need - published on 10/03/14

"Ebola doesn’t show any signs of slowing down," Vatican nuncio warns

Sierra Leone is one of the hardest-hit countries in West Africa’s Ebola outbreak, which has killed more than 3,300 people. Now, health officials in the United States are closely monitoring the situaion in Dallas, where a man traveling from Liberia fell ill with Ebola after his arrival in the U.S.

Archbishop Miroslaw Adamczyk, Apostolic Nuncio for Liberia, Sierra Leone and Gambia, spoke this week with international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need about the Church’s role in West Africa fighting the Ebola outbreak.

How is the Church coping with the Ebola outbreak? How are many missionaries and local religious involved in the fight against Ebola? 

It is not a good moment for Liberia, because the Ebola virus disease doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. We have recently registered a big number of new cases. Between March 22, when the outbreak began, and September of this year, there have been 2193 recorded cases in Liberia, and 1223 people have died.

As to missionaries fighting Ebola, I am sure that all our parishes are engaged in distributing information about the danger of Ebola. Sunday Mass is a good occasion to explain prevention to people. Since the beginning of August, containers with a solution of water and chlorine for washing hands have been installed in public spaces as well, in front of many private homes, and at the entrance of every church. The faithful avoid physical contact—for example there is no Sign of Peace and no shaking hands.

Could you please describe the challenges priests and religious are facing in their fight against Ebola—not only in terms of meeting people’s material needs, but also with regard to the role played by traditional beliefs (such as witchcraft, for example, which can hinder the battle against the disease?

For the Church the priority is to raise awareness of Ebola and of ways to avoid and prevent it. We distribute pamphlets with vital information, for example. It is also necessary to spiritually help the families of sufferers and of those who have died. However, the Church is not able to directly take care of the sick. We lack the necessary supplies and means of protection to get involved on that front. Just consider that the number of healthcare workers who are getting infected is very high. To date, that number stands at 166, and already 80 of them have passed away. 

Church personnel risk their own lives. Some religious have died. What is the message of their courageous testimony for the local population and what does it mean for the Church?

I must mention the Brothers of St. John of God and the missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, who worked in St. Joseph’s Catholic Hospital in Monrovia. All three brothers— Brother Patrick (from Cameroon), Father Miguel (Spain) and Brother George (Ghana)—died from Ebola. Sister Chantal (Congo) also died, while two other sisters—Paciencia (Equatorial Guinea) and Ellena (Liberia)—got infected by Ebola, but, thanks be to God, they have survived and are now doing well.

These good missionaries paid the highest price for their service to the Church and the people of Liberia. The clergy and faithful of Liberia deeply mourn the passing of these good brothers and the sister. But not only religious people who worked at the Catholic hospital were struck down; nine lay persons, including nurses and social workers, died as well. In fact, our hospital is closed now.

Obviously, the death of missionaries will always bear fruit in the future. But as of now, I don’t see that their sacrifice was appreciated enough by the civil authorities and the population at large. But this is a time of fear and panic in Liberia. In such a situation we think mostly about ourselves and we are more selfish.

Can blame be assigned for the crisis? Has the situation become so bad because certain institutions or persons have failed to fulfill their duty?

In Liberia, the Ebola outbreak began on March 22 of this year. At that time more could have been done, but the authorities underestimated the gravity of the situation. Moreover, the Liberian healthcare system, which doesn’t function well under ordinary circumstances, cannot be effective in dealing with an epidemic. There are lot of problems with organization and coordination. How can we cope if hospitals are closed? Even apart from Ebola, the population suffers from a whole range of illnesses and health problems. Now everyone gets very scared if they get a fever or a headache.

It has been reported that there are very strict regulations in dealing with the remains of Ebola victims in order to prevent further infections. Still, is there anything the Church can do to give the deceased a dignified funeral and help their families honor the memory of their loved ones? 

It is not easy to be present at the funerals of the victims of Ebola. For sanitary reasons, victims are buried immediately without anyone being present. But it is the Church’s mission to explain to the families and the community that we can properly honor the memory of our departed brothers and sisters in church and in our prayers.

How do you see the near future? Will the situation improve or get even worse? What urgent steps must be taken? 

For the moment, I don’t see any improvement. Ebola has had a huge impact on the country’s economy. Many people have lost their monthly income because so many places of work are closed. Prices are going up and the people have a very hard time. There are no basic services. Hospitals and all schools are closed. The Ebola epidemic is liable to cause economic crises and trigger social unrest. 

What gives you hope and what hope can the Church give the people?

The people of Liberia are very religious people who believe and hope in eternal life. At one of my meetings with the missionaries in Liberia, one woman religious—who has spent many years here—reported that during the crisis she has learned more from the people than she could teach them. Liberians have suffered much and continue to have a difficult life, but they also have great patience—and they know how to be happy and enjoy life. I hope that this night of Ebola will pass away as soon as possible, and that we can fully enjoy life again. Ultimately, our hope is always the same: we hope in Jesus Christ who has overcome suffering and death. We are sure that He will not disappoint us.

Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries.

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