Some of the safety measures imposed by the government in the attempt to curb the COVID-19 pandemic have directly affected public worship.
In Sierra Leone, doctors and scientists who dealt with the onset of the current 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 the country.
During a visit to the international headquarters of the Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) Pontifical Foundation in Königstein, Germany, Father Peter Konteh, director of Caritas in Freetown, Sierra Leone, explained that “among the measures quickly taken were the confinement of infected people and the quarantine of people with whom they had been in contact.” The country was also one of the first to impose air travel controls and forcibly confine travelers. He also noted that “with Ebola it was much harder to raise awareness in the population since many did not believe in the virus and died by not obeying safety measures. Things are different now with COVID-19: if you tell people to wear a mask, they listen because they know the consequences.”
The priest mentioned one of the hardest moments of the Ebola epidemic, when one of the catechists in his parish fell ill. 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 it was very contagious. “I have had nightmares about that moment,” Father Peter said with great sadness. “She was unable to understand. We helped her as best we could, bringing water, food … We called an ambulance, but they were already dead.”
This story shows the difference between the two viruses. According to the Catholic priest, Ebola was much more aggressive: “COVID-19 is better known, but Ebola was more contagious. If a family member has coronavirus they can survive, with Ebola it was much harder,” he explained. “We saw entire families die, including a family of 27.”
“They took God out of the solution, yet God is the solution”
Some of the safety measures imposed by the government in the attempt to curb the COVID-19 pandemic have directly affected public worship, especially community celebrations such as Mass. ACN’s project partner explained that 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, etc. remained open.” For the priest, “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.”
During all this time, Sierra Leonean priests brought the Eucharist to homes so everyone could participate. Thus, despite the difficulties, “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,” the priest said. “Bringing Christ to the people is the primary job of a priest, so that’s what we did.”
“The ultimate message is that poor people are going to die”
The ongoing health emergency caused by the coronavirus has exposed some injustices, like social differences. For Father Peter, “we need a global solution” to this crisis since “vaccines are going to rich countries and rich people, not to everybody.” According to the priest, when vaccines do arrive “vaccination is done by age but also social class. The ultimate message is that poor people are going to die.”
The director of Caritas Freetown has spoken out against these facts, since 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.”
“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,” said the priest. “The coronavirus, on the other hand, is everywhere. Vaccines have been developed because scientists worked non-stop to find an answer.”
“We are a family in faith”
In concluding Father Peter Konteh spoke a few words of gratitude to the foundation. “I cannot end without expressing my sincere thanks to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) and its benefactors for their support and solidarity. Beyond the financial support, we feel that we are a family in faith. People pray for us in different parts of the world. Amid the difficulties, we know that people are praying for us and helping Sierra Leone.”
Photo: Fr. Patrick Layen George celebrating the Eucharist — celebrating Holy Mass in an empty church during COVID-19
This article was first published by Aid to the Church in Need and is republished here with kind permission. To learn more about ACN’s mission to help the suffering Church, visit www.churchinneed.org(from the U.S.) and www.acninternational.org (outside of the U.S.).