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West African bishops tell of Church's response to 'devilish' Ebola

26 February 2016


Precaution: a woman washes her hands as part of Ebola prevention measures, outside the Macauley government hospital in Freetown, Sierra Leone, last month

Precaution: a woman washes her hands as part of Ebola prevention measures, outside the Macauley government hospital in Freetown, Sierra Leone, l...

STORIES of how the Church responded to the Ebola epidemic were told at the General Synod last week by three bishops who served on the front line.

The Bishop of Bo, in Sierra Leone, the Rt Revd Emmanuel Tucker, described how it had been necessary to travel by boat to reach some affected areas. The Church had supplied food, seedlings, buckets, soap, and hand sanitiser, he said. It had delivered counselling, and taught “basic hygiene”, teaming up with other agencies, including mosques, in the process.

The Bishop of Freetown, the Rt Revd Thomas Wilson, explained that, when the epidemic started, “we were beaten down by Ebola, hands down, because we were not prepared for it. . . There were people who passed us by . . . who saw us as people who were not even second-class citizens, but maybe ten times less.” Others had come to their aid like the Good Samaritan.

Describing the continuing impact of the crisis, he spoke of huge numbers of orphans, and lingering stigmatisation, despite the Church’s efforts to educate and enlighten people. “You cannot get everybody on board. There is still some discrimination. Some people still do not feel free to interact and socialise with one another.” He described how, after he gave land to Médecins Sans Frontières to use as a holding centre, his family had avoided him for three days.

The socio-economic life of the nation had been “wrecked”, he said, but the country was now getting back on its feet. Young girls had been affected the most: about 30 per cent had become pregnant and there were now questions about whether they should return while the schools were closed.

The crisis had meant the suspension of “normal things”, he said. “We are a nation that embraces people. We share peace and sing joyfully. . . When we say ‘The peace of the Lord,’ we just wave.”

The meeting was hosted by the Anglican mission agency Us. (formerly USPG). Its chief executive, Janette O’Neill, said that it was, “in large part”, churches and faith leaders who had helped to turn the tide against the virus. They had “turned the fear into hope”, and “looked at existing cultural practices and decided they were harmful”.

By the end of the epidemic, 11,300 people had died in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, and nearly 50,000 children had been orphaned.

The co-director of the Anglican Alliance, the Revd Rachel Carnegie, said that research suggested that when governments and the international community engaged with religious leaders, the rate of infection “dropped right down”.

The Bishop of Guinea, the Rt Revd Jacques Boston, described the challenge of watching people die, despite his prayers, and of being unable to touch them.

The three Bishops were asked how the crisis had affected their faith.

“God is still God, whatever happens,” Bishop Wilson said. “Our situation was not caused by God. . . When it happened, the Church moved. As we moved, we stepped into what God expected us to do: alleviate suffering.”

“During Ebola, I was God,” Bishop Boston said. “What you are and what you do, that shows God exists or does not exist.”

He was praying today, he said, in expectation of the Zika virus. “We pray that Ebola will never be in any place in the world again,” Bishop Wilson said. “It is devilish. It is not good for man.”

On Tuesday, Pauline Cafferkey, a Scottish nurse, was flown to London after being admitted to hospital in Glasgow for a third time since contracting the Ebola virus in Sierra Leone in 2014. Her condition is said to be stable (News, 9 January 2015).

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