Connecting to share experience and learning on COVID-19: Africa consultation

5 April 2020

Désinfectant pour les mains dans un bureau diocésain en Afrique du Sud avant le verrouillage. "Nous avons pu obtenir 5 litres dans chaque paroisse" - Canon Delene Mark.

“As individuals we cannot go out, but the church as a body can reach out,” Dr John Otoo.

Until recently, Asia, Europe and the USA have been the hotspots of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, nowhere is immune. This week, the Anglican Alliance and the Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa (CAPA) jointly convened an online consultation on COVID-19 in Africa, where recorded cases of Coronavirus infection are beginning to rise. By sharing their  learning and experience, churches can be better equipped to respond to the pandemic, protect the most vulnerable and marginalised people in their communities and offer hope and encouragement to all their members. See here for the Anglican Alliance resource hub with a range of information on the COVID-19 response.

Taking part in the gathering were representatives of churches and agencies from across the continent, medical experts, and people from other parts of the Anglican Communion who were able to share from their longer experience with the pandemic.

The key points of learning for churches coming out of the consultation were:

Be a source of reliable information

In his overview of the situation on the continent, General Secretary of CAPA Canon Kofi deGraft-Johnson said, “Generally, there is an overload of information and it is hard for people to know which information is authentic and which is propaganda”. This concern about misinformation was echoed by other participants. In some places – especially remoter ones – people do not have good access to information and so are not fully aware of the problem.

Anglican churches in Africa enjoy trust and therefore the ability to be a reliable source for accurate information on COVID-19, in line with their respective National Ministries of Health.

As a church we have a diverse range of assets in our different networks to get the message out. There are many WhatsApp and Facebook groups in every Anglican diocese and it is important to make use of these (Mothers’ Union, Fathers’ Union, Youth, Clergy, etc). Bishops too have a critical role to play in issuing regular briefings and messages to give facts as well as words of encouragement – to both the clergy and the people.

In addition, the church has several clinics and hospitals with highly distinguished medical personnel. We can call on their expertise and reputation to issue briefings and to amplify government directives. This could be through recorded information videos that can be shared on social platforms.

We need to work more among churches and beneficiaries to increase awareness, tapping into existing media platforms, including radio and television.

Partner with  national governments to control the spread of the virus

Apart from being channels of correct information regarding the epidemic, churches need to guide their followers on adapting different practices to observe public health guidelines from their governments. For instance, in South Africa, churches have developed strict guidelines on how to carry out funerals and many traditional funeral practices have been put on hold. In Egypt, one health facility is seeing COVID-19 cases on a different day from HIV cases.

Churches also need to be active in the various National Taskforce teams established by governments to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic as well as partnering with local governments at community level. For example, in some places churches are seeking accreditation for personnel to serve as essential workers in order to offer assistance in the community and have offered to open their doors to be sites for screening and contact tracing.

Stress the urgency of preventing COVID-19 from spreading

The World Health Organization has predicted that if care is not taken, Africa could be next epicentre of the pandemic. “It is therefore important that we engage in advocacy and provide good public education so that we build awareness and encourage people to take seriously the precautionary measures put in place by governments” Canon Kofi emphasized.

Participants expressed concern that some people are not taking the threat seriously. For example, despite the ban, the beaches were full in Alexandria and the Red Sea last Friday.

In some cases guidelines like social distancing are a real challenge to practise, especially in poor urban communities, which will in turn accelerate the spread. Anglican Development Services in Kenya is supporting such communities by distributing hand sanitisers and promoting safe hygiene, reported Bwibo Adieri, ADS Director.

Participants reported comparatively low numbers of infections across the continent to date, with the majority of cases being imported (people infected outside the continent coming into the region) with some local transmission to contacts. However, they made two important observations.

First, that countries have varying capacity for testing, some having little or none, meaning reported cases don’t necessarily reflect the true number of cases. Second, the porous nature of borders and movement patterns means there is much potential for COVID-19 to spread.

Canon Kofi described one example from West Africa, where ten people who had travelled by bus to Ghana from Guinea tested positive for the virus. Along their route – through Mali and Burkina Faso – they would have been in close contact with many people. The same is true elsewhere. “In Kenya, when the curfew was announced, people moved from Nairobi and Mombasa into rural areas. The same movement of people from cities to villages has been reported in South Africa. All of these potentially cause new waves of virus transmission,” Canon Kofi said.

This crisis is not going to pass quickly – we need long-term planning and patience

Dr Otoo, a medical doctor in Ghana, emphasised that the pandemic will be protracted. The end is not near. Cases will rise and peak before they fall – and there have to be two incubation periods after the last case is detected before it is possible to say that it is over. With an incubation period of 14 days, this means that 28 days must pass after the last recorded case for a country to be free of COVID-19.  We therefore need to be planning for a long haul and the impacts this will have on people. People need hope in this time and the Church needs to be there for people.

Counter misinformation with facts

Whilst governments and the mass media are doing well to raise awareness, there is also a lot of misinformation circulating, particularly on social media, leading to anxiety and restlessness.

The consultation heard how some people are taking political and spiritual advantage of the situation, sharing false information and “prophecies”. Some political figures may be downplaying or over-heightening the incidence of the pandemic; some people are “prophesying” that the pandemic is a sign of the end times. The consultation heard how the pandemic has been falsely attributed to various factors, including biological warfare, the third world war, technological warfare, a trade war between China and the USA, and the result of the roll out of the 5G network. All this creates panic and fear.

Counter panic and fear with encouragement and hope

The Church needs to be a place of encouragement and hope. “There seems to be so much anxiety and fear”, Dr John Otoo from Ghana said. “People need some form of hope and someone they can relate to, who can give them hope and encouragement”. The Church is one of the right places for this, he said. It needs to come online and connect in other ways so people can stay in touch.

As churches are closed for public worship, church leaders are finding creative ways to come together remotely, through technology, including negotiating with TV and radio stations to broadcast services.

Focus on interventions that help the most vulnerable

One of the overriding concerns of the call was the potentially catastrophic economic impact of the pandemic and the measures being taken to contain it. The impact will be particularly severe on people who are already vulnerable, including refugees, migrants and people dependent on a daily wage, living hand to mouth, and on those living in settlements where physical distancing is not possible and where hygiene capacity is limited.

The Church needs to respond both reactively and proactively: reactively by intervening, while following public health guidelines, to support the most vulnerable people in our communities, who will be most impacted by COVID-19; proactively by advocating for and with the marginalised and looking to the longer term consequences of the pandemic.

“Right now, in Egypt, tens of thousands of Egyptians have lost their work, because they are temporary workers,” Dr Maged Yanny of EpiscoCare Egypt said. Refugees are also affected, because many refugees work as domestic workers, but most have been asked not to return to the houses because of fear of infection. “The economic impact of the Coronavirus on the poor and on temporary workers is a major problem. The Church needs to do something because the need is very, very high. We have at least three million refugees and migrants in Egypt and the majority work as domestic workers, so imagine the need to support them. The Anglican churches in poor areas are supporting some of them, but the need is high”. The Anglican Church has four clinics in the areas where refugees live, but they have limited resources and the medical need is very high, as is the need for food and foodbanks. “We ask you to pray for everyone who has lost a job and everyone in a crisis,” Dr Yanny concluded.

Nicholas Pande, from CAPA, echoed the need for the Church to think through its response – and particularly about how to support the government with employees who have lost jobs. He described how the hospitality industry in Kenya is “on its knees” in an economy for which tourism is so important. “Thousands of employees have been sent home” he said. Tax revenue is down, meaning that even when the COVID-19 pandemic comes to an end there is the danger of an economic crisis, so the Church must consider what the recovery phase will look like.

Through the South African Council of Churches, Anglican churches are engaged in consultation with the government, advocating for more assistance for homeless people and to get them into suitable accommodation. They are consulting with the government to see if church venues such as church halls, Anglican schools with boarding facilities and conference centres can be used to get people off the streets or to house other people who need to be evacuated or isolated. Churches are also connecting with government to see how food parcels can be distributed to children in poor communities who usually receive food at school.

Think about the impact the pandemic is having on families

The impact the pandemic is having on family relationships and the vulnerable is profound and the Church has a key role to play in these areas. We have huge assets in the structures of the Anglican Communion – not least the Mothers’ Union – that can bring hope, light and reconciliation.

Rethink our perspective

Bishop Zac Niringiye reflected that the stories we tell are informed by our particular worldview and perspective. What informs the stories we are telling? What informs the questions we are asking in this crisis? “For me, it’s finding hinges in the gospel story on how to make sense of what is happening”, he said.

Bishop Zac described how, for many years, he has been drawn to the Lord’s prayer. When the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, the context was very difficult with Roman occupation, the majority of the people peasants, and an economy that wasn’t working for the majority of the people. “And Jesus says, ‘when you pray, it’s to your Father who art in heaven… your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. The question this raises is: what is God’s will on this earth, which is completely overtaken by an epidemic?”

Bishop Zac then turned to Psalm 24 which declares ‘the earth is the Lord’s. “This earth, this world, this universe, is the Lord’s. ‘For God so loved the world’, the cosmos. It’s a world that God loves. It’s the Lord’s – this earth, with COVID.”

Bishop Zac acknowledged the grim reality that many people will die during the pandemic, but also that this is not the first time people have died in masses. There have been plagues in the past and malaria kills millions of people, so there is a sense in which there is really nothing brand new in this. So, what is God’s will in this moment? What are the signs of the Kingdom in this moment?

“Jesus encourages us to ask questions from a particular perspective, a particular angle. In the Lord’s prayer Jesus asks us to pray ‘give us today our daily bread’. It seems to me that Jesus asks us to pray from the perspective of those for whom daily bread is a reality. We often ask questions from a position of power and privilege, but in seeking to understand what God is doing, in seeking to make sense of what is happening in this pandemic, maybe we need to be more intentional about asking the question from the margins, from the perspective of those for whom daily bread is a reality.

“Sometimes I worry that we talk about the Church and the Church reaching the vulnerable as though the Church is separated from the vulnerable, as though the Church is out there and has answers. Maybe we need to ask about the Church of the vulnerable, the Church of the poor and therefore learn from them, rather than suggesting it is us who come with the answers.

“This pandemic is reordering the world, it is reordering the way we think church, and I simply wonder, is it an invitation for all of us to ask those questions about God, the world, thy kingdom come thy will be done, from the vantage point of those who pray that prayer in the reality of ‘give us this day our daily bread’… from the position of those for whom this virus is taking away their daily bread?

“I propose that we go back to the Lord’s prayer and pray it from the perspective of those for whom daily bread has become a question not just now, but one they have long lived with.

“Perhaps these questions invite us to inhabit the world differently, to think church differently. We speak from positions of privilege and power. But the invitation is to go back to that prayer. Maybe there are insights for us from the position of those who pray ‘give us this day our daily bread’”.

Follow this link for the Anglican Alliance COVID-19 resource hub.