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Faith in the Face of Ebola: Why Does Nobody Want the Orphans?

African people with ebola 3 – en

© EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection

John Burger - published on 11/04/14

Religious communities putting up children until wave of fear subsides.

In Africa, “orphan” is an uncommon concept, according to Sister Barbara Brillant. If a child’s parents die, the child’s aunt or uncle will automatically take the child. And if they die, the tribe or clan will assume responsibility.

But things have changed in Liberia. Not only have many children lost their parents to Ebola, but they too have lost their community support system to the fear that Ebola has engendered.

“You have some children with absolutely no place to go,” said Sister Barbara, who became national Catholic health coordinator two years ago in Liberia and has had a baptism by fire with the worst outbreak of Ebola in Africa in decades.

In addition to trying to control the spread of Ebola and treat those who have become infected, the government of Liberia, churches and humanitarian aid organizations are trying to be attentive to this unexpected need. A community of Consolata Sisters, who live in a town that lost over 100 people to Ebola, are trying to look after 62 orphans, seeing that they get enough to eat, even if they cannot go into the children’s homes.

Others who are trying to care for orphans include the Missionaries of Charity, who already take care of children who are malnourished; Liberia Mission, a Franciscan project that runs a boarding school, and the Communita Cenacolo, a Rome-based apostolate that can house orphans in its foster home on the outskirts of Monrovia.

One sister working with the orphans is trying to keep the kids in their own town so that they will have their relatives around, and hopefully those relatives will welcome the children back once their fear of contagion subsides, Sister Barbara said. “But she will also have to judge that: if it looks like they are getting too traumatized or too psychologically damaged, they may have to go into one of these homes for the time being.”

Sister Barbara, a Franciscan Missionary of Mary who went to Liberia in 1989 from her native Maine and has been there ever since, predicts that the fear will persist until a vaccine become widely available.

As national coordinator of the Church’s medical response to the crisis, one of Sister Barbara’s goals is to educate people not only on how to protect themselves from the deadly virus but also to get beyond superstitions that bring stigma to those close to victims and even to those who have overcome the infection.

“Even some of the recovered children are being rejected by their families,” she said. “It’s because of fear. We haven’t gotten across to everyone ‘What is Ebola? How do you get it and how do you not get it?” They fear this disease so much because they see people just die. Whole families of 12, 13, 18 have died.”

Another possibility is to have adults and even children who have recovered from ebola—and are therefore now immune—take care of orphans. But that carries its own risks.

“A recovered person is immune and can comfort orphans, for example, but the trouble is, you say to people, ‘Do not touch,’ and when you see people touching then people start breaking the protocol again. We have three doctors from Catholic hospitals who have recovered, but they still will suit up and wear all the protective gear because you need to show people: We must all do this."

Meanwhile, what began small in Liberia in March and April and reached epic proportions in Augus and September, has begun to slow somewhat.

"We are doing better at protecting, contacting, tracing," Sister Barbara said. "The cases are coming in early. We are not overpopulating the units when it’s not Ebola. We are able to diagnose and separate those who are ebola from those who are not. We have a better knowledge and understanding and handle on what we’re doing, but to say that it’s finished, absolutely not, to say that we’re out of the woods, absolutely not, but we are improving."

This is Part 4 of a series. Part 1 can be read here, Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.

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