LIMA, Peru (CNS) — The Catholic Church continues to play a crucial role in the fight against the pandemic in developing countries nearly 18 months after COVID-19 gripped the world.
Catholic Relief Services provides small loans and medical supplies in Nepal. The Episcopal Conference of Tanzania ensures the supply of oxygen to the hospitals. The Apostolic Vicariate of Iquitos, Peru, runs a frontline isolation center for people with the virus.
The vast list of programs and campaigns, which grows as virus variants trigger new waves, has changed the way the church operates. The response has created goodwill, but it also presents a host of new challenges for the church and society at large.
“The church should really find a way to continue our efforts, but also explore new ways to fight poverty. Most people tell us, “We’re going to starve, not COVID. This is the dilemma,” said Jesuit Father Rigobert Minani, head of his order’s social apostolate for Congo and Angola.
A number of commonalities emerge from the efforts of the Church in different countries. Food, protective equipment, medical care and, more recently, access to vaccines are key issues.
Father Charles Kitima, secretary general of the Episcopal Conference of Tanzania, said the main work of the church in his country today is to ensure that people who fall ill with the virus have access to medical care.
“The Catholic Church runs more than 500 health facilities in the country, and we need to make sure our hospitals are ready to support anyone who comes seeking help. People are poor and they don’t have insurance, and our mission is to take care of life,” he said.
He said that while the church’s job at the start of the pandemic was to make sure there were masks and protective gear, today it’s about treating and vaccinating people. . A major problem is oxygen.
The church-run Bugando Medical Center, one of the country’s largest hospitals with 900 beds, was using around 100 cylinders of oxygen a day in May, but is now at 300 cylinders a day. Father Kitima said the church was working with the government and international agencies, including the US Agency for International Development, to ensure oxygen. He said the situation has improved significantly with the country’s new president, Samia Suluhu Hassan. She took over in March after her predecessor, John Magufuli, a COVID-19 denier, died from the virus.
“We had been in a kind of tussle with the government, who said there was no COVID. But since March we have been on the same page and working towards the same goal,” Fr. Kitima said.
Oxygen has also been a critical issue in Peru, where Breathe Peru, a program launched by Catholic bishops, has raised funds to acquire and install oxygen plants across the country. The program also includes the private San Ignacio de Loyola University and the National Society of Industries of Peru.
Breathe Peru has raised approximately $2.7 million, enabling it to install 25 medicinal oxygen plants and 3,000 ventilators, as well as donate other supplies.
The program kicked off with an initiative in Iquitos, in the northern jungle, which was the first city in Peru to be hit hard by the pandemic. The church in Iquitos quickly mobilized on many fronts, including organizing a public campaign to raise funds for an oxygen plant.
Bishop Miguel Ángel Cadenas of Iquitos said the campaign worked on many levels. He said it created hope in the people when all seemed bleak and pushed the government to act. Instead of one factory, the church was able to acquire five for Iquitos, which has a population of over 500,000.
“The campaign generated goodwill during a time of desperation. The church has had a very positive impact,” Bishop Cadenas said.
The Church’s efforts, however, have been hampered by structural issues and, more recently, by misinformation about vaccines.
Bishop Cadenas said while the church certainly helped with the oxygen plants, his campaign could not address the deeper issues that created the problem. He said Iquitos, and Peru in general, were not ready for the pandemic and are still not ready as a third wave threatens the country.
Peru now has the highest number of deaths per capita from COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University. Eastern neighbor Brazil is fifth, while Colombia to the north is 10th globally.
“We have oxygen plants, but the biggest problem is the lack of medical professionals. It is a structural problem not only in Iquitos, but in other parts of Peru and the world,” he said.
Nripendra Khatri, communications coordinator for Catholic Relief Services in Nepal, agrees.
He said CRS, which has had a full-time program in Nepal since the 2015 earthquake, has had a multi-pronged response to the pandemic, offering financial assistance to small businesses, supporting information campaigns and providing medical supplies to local hospitals. The last part comes up against structural shortages.
“Apart from a few urban areas, health care infrastructure in Nepal is poor. On top of that, we don’t have enough frontline healthcare workers to fight the pandemic,” he said.
The most recent complication is the lack of vaccines and a growing wave of misinformation against them.
CRS in Nepal is planning an information campaign that will target young people, encouraging them to get vaccinated. The country has vaccinated around 9% of its 28 million people.
Father Minani in Congo said the church must get ahead of anti-vaccine campaigns.
“There is false information about vaccines. The church must preach for vaccines,” he said.
Jesuits in Congo and Angola are running a COVID-19 information campaign that features Central Africa Provincial, Fr Rigobert Kyungu, on a poster calling on people to wear masks and get vaccinated.
The six Jesuit provinces released an open letter in May calling for “vaccine justice” with four key points, including patent waivers for vaccines, prioritizing vaccine distribution to the most vulnerable sectors, wealthy countries financing distribution through the UN COVAX program and international financial institutions canceling debt.
“We must campaign for vaccine justice. As Pope Francis said in ‘Fratelli Tutti’, people need to understand that we are together in the same boat, and we need to make sure everyone gets the same care,” said Jesuit Father Xavier Jeyaraj, director of the Jesuit Secretariat for Social Justice and Ecology. in Rome.
Pope Francis and cardinals from Brazil, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico and the United States issued a series of public service announcements in August encouraging people across the Americas to get vaccinated. Pope Francis said in his segment that vaccines “offer hope of ending the pandemic, but only if they are available to everyone and if we collaborate with each other.”
Fr Jeyaraj said the church must not only stand up for equal access to care, but must be ready to respond if the pandemic is used as an excuse by some leaders to harden their grip on power.
Indian by birth, Father Jeyaraj is concerned about what he describes as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “authoritarian actions” disguised as anti-COVID-19 actions.
“Laws were enacted that circumvented all procedures, harming millions of farmers and benefiting businesses. The government has done nothing to listen to the cries of these farmers,” he said.
Mass protests against the laws began in late 2020 and continue today. The laws, critics say, create monopolies on different agricultural products, with companies contracting out production.
Fr Jeyaraj also said the government was responsible for the death of Jesuit Fr Stan Swamy, 84, who died in July after being arrested in 2020. Fr Swamy has been charged with ‘terrorism’, an allegation he has always denied and which Father Jeyaraj called absurd.
“He died of complications from COVID and other illnesses because he spent months in prison in terrible conditions. Nothing was going well in his case and in the other “terrorism” cases. They can arrest anyone just using the terrorism allegation,” he said.
The priest said the church must be ready to stand with all, especially the most vulnerable, as the pandemic is not over.
“COVID-19 has impacted on the political, economic and spiritual front, the way the church operates in the world. We need to approach the crisis realistically in order to respond to it. This is not going away,” said he declared.