Finding ways to counter social stigma and psychological trauma
In many places in West Africa, communities are still struggling with widesrpead sickness and death from the Ebola virus. But Father Paul Morana Sandi is already looking toward the day after health officials give his country the all clear.
Father Sandi seemed hopeful as he spoke last week of plans the Diocese of Bo, Sierra Leone, has to rebuild after Ebola.
The secretary general of the episcopal conference of the Gambia and Sierra Leone spoke by phone with Aleteia, describing a society that is doing its best to live a normal life while people take a number of precautions, some of which are clearly countercultural.
“Some cultural practices are completely stopped—for example, shaking hands, embracing, touching, etc.,” he said from his office in Freetown. “So all of those are helping; they are part of the protective mechanisms that have been put in place. Even during Mass, we do not shake hands; we only bow to each other.”
For this African culture, that’s difficult.
“We’ve been doing that for so many years. We shake everybody’s hands, we embrace each other as a sign of welcome and appreciation, and then overnight you’re told not to. You don’t want to change, but you are forced to because of Ebola,” Father Sandi said. “It’s difficult because it’s like changing our culture, our patterns, our ways of behavior, but you have to do it because you want to survive.”
But what may be most difficult is when family members cannot comfort their loved ones on their deathbeds, and when the bereaved cannot even go near the bodies of deceased relatives. It’s at that point when the virus is most virulent, and until only recently, families had to resign themselves to the stark reality that anonymous crews would take the bodies away and bury them in mass graves, each cadaver in several layers of plastic and soaked with chlorine.
This state of affairs led to a national debate. “Religious leaders had raised up the need to bury our people with some dignity and respect,” Father Sandi said. “The initial report said nobody should go to where people are buried except the burial teams, those who were the medical personnel, but later people said that no, let people see, so they can bring a closure to a sad chapter in their life.”
A recent meeting the nation’s president, Ernest Bai Koroma, had with the Interreligious Council of Sierra Leone led to a resolution that burial teams now will try to put victims in coffins.
“What had been done to them [previously] could not really give them some human dignity,” Father Sandi said. “So now the religious leaders will be present to pray, but from a distance, with some of the relatives present, but watching from a distance. … It also allows people to accompany their dead, because all of this has had negative influences on our own cultural practices and way of behaving.”
Another problem that’s had to be dealt with is the stigmatization of those who have been infected but overcame the disease, or those who have had a victim in their family. Father Sandi and his bishop, Charles Allieu Matthew Campbell, were visiting two daughters in a treatment center after their father and two brothers had died of the disease. The daughters were discovered to be free of the virus and were released. Their being seen in public with Bishop Campbell, a public and respected figure, helped them overcome the stigmatization that otherwise would have prevented them from being reintegrated into the community.
“These are some of the mechanisms we want to put in place not only with the bishop but with all the priests and all our apostolates, to say that if people say they are recovered, they are not infected, they can be brought back into the community, then [people] have to believe that they are recovered and help them to be reintegrated,” Father Sandi said.
The Church, he added, is planning ways to address the psychological needs that will inevitably plague the nation traumatized by the epidemic.
“It will take us some time to have our people…readjusted or rehabilitated or reintegrated into these communities,” he said. “As a Church we are now putting mechanisms in place, one, to train more people so they can approach the psycho-social needs of the people and see if it has a multiplying effect in our communities. Because it’s now national, every village, every community must be involved in this as a way of preparing as to how we can get ourselves adjusted after the epidemic passes.”
John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.