THE Archbishop of Canterbury has prayed with survivors of the Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), placing his hands on their shoulders, in a gesture of solidarity in a country where the spread of infection through physical touch has made such actions rare and potent.
Archbishop Welby spent four days in the DRC, which is in the middle of an outbreak of the disease which has so far claimed more than 2100 lives (News, 27 September).
He said: “I thought I was going there to encourage people. But from the moment I arrived, I realised I was being encouraged.”
When he arrived, he was greeted with an elbow bump rather than a handshake, for fear of spreading infection. But when he met survivors, he posed for selfies with them “so you can show your friends and families there is nothing to be afraid of”.
He prayed with them before placing his hands on their shoulders.
One survivor, Chris, told the Archbishop that he had been attending a church service when a violently shaking man was brought in by his family. “They thought he was demonised, so we started laying hands on him,” Chris said.
“Three days later, he died. I ran to the hospital, tested positive for Ebola, and came straight here. I want to tell people it’s fine to pray for someone, but pray without putting your hands on them. We’re in the middle of an epidemic.”
In Goma, the capital of North Kivu province in eastern DRC, the Archbishop told a group of clergy attending a workshop on Ebola-virus prevention that it was the duty of the Church “to encourage the people of [DR] Congo and deliver hope in a place of fear”.
The region’s governor, Carly Nzanzu Kasivita, told The Times, whose representatives accompanied the Archbishop: “Many high-profile people will not take the risk to come here. The world looks at the Congo full of fear. But he is here. The population of Beni, one of the most affected areas, is predominantly Anglican; so the message of hope he brings to that community is important.”
The latest briefing from the World Health Organization (WHO) suggested that the number of new cases of infection was declining, but hot spots had moved from urban populations to more rural, harder-to-reach populations.
A programme of vaccinations is continuing, and more than 236,000 people have received vaccines donated by the pharmaceutical company Merck to WHO, including more than 60,000 health and frontline workers in the DRC, and in Uganda, South Sudan, Rwanda, and Burundi.