The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that the pandemic situation in Africa could worsen, with a third wave of Covid-19 infections driven by new and faster spreading variants. Increasing numbers of countries are reporting the spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant. Meanwhile less than 2% of the African population has been fully vaccinated, highlighting the appalling injustices in global access to vaccines.
These same concerns were expressed last week at an all-Africa meeting convened by the Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa (CAPA) and the Anglican Alliance. The online consultation brought together bishops, church leaders, development staff, Mothers’ Union members and medics from across the continent to share updates on the pandemic in their own countries and how the Church is impacted and responding.
Archbishop Albert Chama, Primate of the Province of Central Africa and Chair of both CAPA and the Anglican Alliance, set the context for the meeting. “God has called us for a purpose and given us this opportunity when the world is facing a very difficult situation,” he said. “Some of our contexts are grave, some are offering hope, some are heart-breaking, as every day somebody is lost, somebody is critically ill, somebody is getting infected. This is the opportunity that God has given us that we may share what would be the churches’ role in all this and what is God saying to us.”
Current pandemic situation in Africa
The situation across Africa is of great concern. New weekly infection rates are now greater than the numbers recorded at the height of the second wave in January this year, according to the BBC. Those countries worst hit include Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Namibia, Zambia, Rwanda and Tunisia, reports the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. South Africa is also reporting a continuing increase in infection rates.
Spread of Delta variant
The Delta variant is reported to be infecting younger people, including children, more severely than earlier variants. According to a recent UK study, the Delta variant also presents with different symptoms, including severe headache, sore throat and runny nose, along with fever. This can lead people to confuse this infection with other illnesses, such as malaria or flu, and thereby not seek Covid-19 testing and treatment early enough.
Overview of situation from CAPA
Canon Kofi de Graft Johnson, CAPA General Secretary, gave an overview of the situation, stating that the Delta variant is spreading fast across the continent with infection and death rates rising and national resources to tackle the pandemic in short supply. Religious communities have been infected and affected, with the death of members, church services suspended and facilities closed down, he said. Since the start of the pandemic over 4 million people in Africa have been infected with the virus, with over 97,000 deaths reported. Actual numbers may be higher.
Canon Kofi described how the churches are providing pastoral, spiritual, medical and humanitarian support, as first line responders. There is a great need for mental health care. The Church has also provided its facilities, hospitals, schools and even church buildings, for quarantined people and as treatment centres. However, with the closure of schools, children have lost their safe space along with their education. At the same time, domestic and gender based violence has increased. Meanwhile, the Church itself has also lost resources, and clergy livelihoods have been impacted. Nevertheless, the Church continues its ministry and mission. “The Church, by its calling, is there to respond,” Canon Kofi said.
Highlighting Anglican leaders’ advocacy on vaccine equity, Canon Kofi said, “The Church has stood up as a voice… for justice in the equitable distribution of resources.” Less than 2% of population in Africa are fully vaccinated. There is also an urgent need for access to personal protective equipment for front line workers, as well as supplies for testing, treatment and oxygen.
Health services under pressure
Dr John Otoo, an Anglican working with the Ghana Health Services, described the response in his country, with surveillance across all health facilities and improved testing sites, as well as monitoring of international arrivals at airports. He described the efforts made to secure more vaccines, alongside a role for faith leaders to help overcome vaccine hesitancy in communities. Faith groups also need to maintain protocols at events, such as funerals, to prevent infection spreading.
Across the continent, health services are under extreme pressure to respond to the pandemic, with resources stretched as they strive to contain the pandemic and treat those who are seriously sick. In many places hospitals are overwhelmed and families struggle to provide medication and care for their loved ones at home. The cost of care, alongside the loss of income, is causing terrible suffering in communities.
Economic and social impact
“The adoption of lockdown measures aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus pandemic has profound social-economic implications across the continent,” said Nicholas Pande, CAPA’s social development officer. The loss of income, especially for the poorest day labourers in the informal sector, is causing hunger and hardship. “Informal employment is the main source of employment in Africa,” Nicholas explained, “accounting for 86% of all employment.” Wage workers in the services sector have also been severely affected, either laid off or with reduced hours and earnings. Meanwhile, migrant remittances, a vital source of income to families and economies as a whole, are also reduced, Nicholas reported. Loss of income, alongside disruptions in supply chains, have led to severe food insecurity.
Social norms and values are also said to be under threat. “For instance, the ban on public gatherings,” Nicholas Pande said, “has had consequent impact on family and community life. It has increased the possibility of fracturing relationships and undermining trust between states and their citizens, with long-term implications for cohesion and social harmony.”
Impact on families
A heartrending insight into the pandemic’s economic and social impact on families was given by Jocelyne Razafiarivony, Mothers’ Union Provincial Community Development Coordinator in the Indian Ocean. She described how under lockdown families are eating just once a day in very small quantities, some selling their household items to afford food. The children are undernourished and the women weak, Jocelyne said. “Many families have benefitted from increased time together in the home… but, on the other side, the pandemic has increased the stress felt by families, losing income and jobs… while food prices have risen.” She described how the impact is psychological, social and spiritual, with church closures making people feel ‘lost’.
“People are fearing insecurity, always fearing what will happen tomorrow. Constant fear of illness and death causes stress and anxiety which may impact on mental health at this time of crisis,” Jocelyne said. She talked of the impact of social isolation and the increase in child abuse, including sexual abuse within families, domestic and gender based violence and teenage pregnancy.
During the pandemic Mothers’ Union members in the Indian Ocean have mainly focused on information and protection measures on Covid-19, sewing and distributing masks, providing handwashing facilities, food supplies and school kits. “Just a friendly voice or a reassuring word might help to lift up and support families around us,” Jocelyne said.
Church’s prophetic voice
Amidst the chaos, injustice and suffering caused and exacerbated by the pandemic, the Church has a prophetic calling. Rt Revd Luke Pretorius, Bishop of the Diocese of St Mark the Evangelist in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, highlighted the importance for the Church to be “prayerfully discerning and prophetic.” He talked of the church leadership stressing the moral imperative and leading by example, while dealing with the stressful impact of the pandemic on the Church itself. He spoke of the practical action, by church communities with Hope Africa and ecumenical partners, supporting the most vulnerable. At the same time, the church leadership in Southern Africa, led by Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, is advocating powerfully and prophetically for global vaccine equity.
Looking forward, Bishop Luke talked in practical terms about the Church needing to embrace the new reality, with a hybrid approach including technology and possible digital communities, being proactive and creative with resources, while remaining faithful to the Gospel. “We need to be proactive in everything we do,” Bishop Luke said, “and as Christians remain faithful and, above all, remember that God is in control, that God knows what is happening and is ready and willing to guide and lead us forward.”
Overcoming vaccine hesitancy
Alongside the call for global vaccine equity, the consultation also discussed the issue of vaccine hesitancy and mis-information. Legitimate concerns and questions, as well as widespread sharing of fake news on social media, have resulted in many people in Africa and across the world being hesitant about being vaccinated. Championing vaccine uptake, church leaders in many countries have been publicly vaccinated, urging others to protect themselves, their families and communities.
Rt Revd Sheldon Mwesigwa, Bishop of Ankole Diocese in the Church of Uganda, has been leading efforts to promote vaccination in his country. To help empower church leaders to tackle vaccine hesitancy conversations were held between bishops and vaccine experts in calls set up through the Uganda-Bristol companionship link. Bishop Sheldon described the origins of myths circulating on social media since the start of the pandemic. “Right from the word ‘go’, social media was awash with conspiracy theories,” he said. The origins of some stories are linked to what has been called ‘historical medical racism’, e.g. through unethical, illegal drug testing. Bishop Sheldon stressed that the task is about “uncovering the truth”, to understand the facts about vaccines behind the many controversies and debates.
Bishop Sheldon stressed the importance of personal stories. For him, it was concern about his beloved 90-year old mother which led him to seek the facts about vaccine safety and efficacy. In discussion with Revd Chris Dobson, companion link officer in Bristol Diocese, Bishop Sheldon saw the potential for a joint discussion on vaccines with a vaccine expert known to the Church in Bristol. This zoom call enabled the bishops to raise the most commonly asked questions about vaccines, answered in a detailed and trusted environment. It was important to have an African expert in the discussion, Bishop Sheldon said, as many of the conspiracy theories said that Africans were being targeted with malign intent. He also consulted with medical experts in his own country. The bishop then looked at the issue from a faith perspective. “To this data and these interactions I also added on my faith: Hebrews 11.1, ‘Faith is being sure of what you hope for.’ For me the Lord showed me that the vaccine was the way to go to address this problem,” Bishop Sheldon said. “So that way I ensured that my mother was the first to be vaccinated and now all is well.” He also led his clergy team for vaccination.
Since then, Bishop Sheldon has been invited to preach at the National Day of Prayers, when he was also able to encourage people to go for vaccination. He has written in newspapers and, with strong response, on social media, providing a fact sheet on vaccines, and responding to further questions. Many have said they can now take the vaccine. In his own observation, none of those known to Bishop Sheldon who have been vaccinated have died or become seriously ill with the virus. Now, he concluded, the major challenge is to get the vaccines available in sufficient supply.
Sharing learning across the Communion
Canon Rachel Carnegie, Anglican Alliance Executive Director, reflected on the discussion. “What we have heard today are really significant lessons for the CAPA region and for sharing across the Communion,” she said.
The Anglican Alliance is working across the world connecting and equipping churches in dealing with the pandemic. “All parts of the Communion have been affected, but affected in different ways,” Canon Rachel said. “Where some parts of the world have access to vaccines and health care, in other places this is a real challenge. So as a global Communion we have a real issue in terms of justice, how we build a just world.”
The Anglican Alliance has been convening a series of global and regional consultations on the pandemic and has developed an online resource hub to share key guidelines, Bible studies and case studies from around the Communion. The Alliance has also been supporting Anglican leaders on advocacy on global vaccine equity. In collaboration with WHO, the Anglican Alliance is working on overcoming vaccine hesitancy and tackling fake news, promoting the idea of vaccine champions and national conversations with church leadership. Above all, Canon Rachel said, it is about being together as a Communion in solidarity, connection and prayer – building hope together.
Canon Grace Kaiso, Anglican Alliance Senior Adviser, added, “This sharing today has underlined that we are moving into a new phase. We now need to be very clear that we need to re-imagine a new world, to re-think anew, afresh, as we look forward. What is our calling as a Church? What is our contribution to society? Welcome to this journey that God is calling us on.”
Serving God, serving the world
Reflecting on the consultation Canon Kofi said: “We are here for the long haul. Covid is not going away today or tomorrow. We do not know what the ‘new normal’ will look like, but we are all called to pray and to stay safe. People are really tired of the protocols and the impact of the pandemic on their lives but we cannot throw away caution. So we encourage everyone to continue to share the message that we need to stay safe. We trust that the Lord will take us through.”
Archbishop Albert Chama concluded, “It is very important that we continue to connect as a global family. Let’s continue on this journey, to support one another, to help one another and to ensure that hope is given to our people. We are in leadership, in our own context, for a purpose – and the purpose is to make this world a better place for every person as we continue to serve the Lord.”
Urgency identified by the Church on the ground
The 2 July Africa consultation was convened by CAPA and the Anglican Alliance in response to urgent concerns raised initially from Uganda about the rapid increase of infections. In mid-June, the Anglican Alliance heard from its Senior Adviser, Canon Grace Kaiso, that Uganda was in the grip of a deadly third wave of Covid-19. Case numbers and deaths were at record highs, leaving no community unaffected. Stigma was further exacerbating people’s suffering, leading to secrecy about Covid status, which in turn was driving further infection. Faced with the devastating reality of Covid-19, people are now seeking to be vaccinated. However, vaccine supplies are very low at that time. Yet, even in the midst of so much death and despair, the Church continues to offer encouragement and care.
The profoundly challenging situation is Uganda is, tragically, not unique, as demonstrated by the regional consultation. It exemplifies the reality of many countries facing their second or third wave of Covid and speaks to the need for urgent action to vastly expand vaccine manufacture and delivery.
Video accounts on the pandemic situation
In this video, Canon Grace Kaiso, Anglican Alliance Senior Adviser, describes the current state of the pandemic in his country. He talks about how stigma is compounding people’s suffering. Tragically, the urgent need for vaccines, along with reduced hesitancy and increased demand, comes at a time of very limited supply.
In her video, Barbara Mugisha, Mothers’ Union Coordinator in Uganda, talks of the challenges and hopes in this situation. Like Canon Grace Kaiso, she speaks of the toll on clergy and Mothers’ Union workers and their need of support as they try to meet competing demands and heavy expectations. Limited access to online connectivity means there is more pressure for in-person pastoral care and services, inevitably increasing the likelihood of further dissemination of the virus, putting church workers, their families and the wider community at risk. This again underlines the urgency of vaccine roll-out.
Barbara emphasises that, despite the challenging situation, the Church continues to be a source of hope, offering both encouragement and care.
Together in prayer
Both for the Churches in Africa and across the whole Anglican Communion, please pray:
- For wisdom and resilience for all church workers, including clergy and Mothers’ Union, as they strive to respond pastorally but safely to their calling and situation.
- For the breaking of chains of transmission of Covid-19 and for the ending of stigma about it.
- For massive upscaling of vaccine manufacturing and its equitable distribution globally.
- For the continued overcoming of vaccine hesitancy.
- In thanksgiving for our Anglican Communion and links of prayer and solidarity that help connect us and provide mutual blessing and build hope together.
For further resources giving the facts on Covid-19 and how churches can respond to the pandemic, please visit the Anglican Alliance Covid-19 resource hub.
Please share your situation, how the Church is responding and any learning and questions at email@example.com
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