This Holy Week, I feel as uncertain and concerned for the future as all of you. In my career as a missioner physician, I have been through five epidemics, and people often ask how that helps now. The measles epidemic in Tanzania was not dangerous because I was immune from childhood measles. The cholera epidemic in Tanzania was very dangerous, but by the grace of God I was never infected. The HIV epidemic throughout East Africa was risky because I was working with populations who were sometimes 30 to 40 percent infected, but I was able to protect myself.
I treated hundreds of people with TB under mango trees in Sudan, but I was never infected, in large part because we were outside in fresh air. During the meningitis outbreak in Sudan, I had already been vaccinated beforehand and was therefore protected.
This is the first pandemic any of us have experienced, and we are all vulnerable and without immunity.
My own work has pivoted to serve the needs of our Maryknoll lay missioners overseas. I have hosted Zoom meetings and communicated with missioners in Africa, Asia and the Americas. They need advice for medical needs both for themselves and the people they serve as well as planning and safety in the coming months. Each area has challenges, including poor healthcare systems, poor or absent governmental leadership and cultural and religious practices that encourage transmission of the COVID-19 virus.
All Maryknoll lay missioners live in resource-poor communities, and each must make a decision about whether to stay or leave. A majority have remained in their mission sites. Gabe Hurrish, our missioner in South Sudan, works as the project officer for Solidarity with South Sudan, and the country’s airports and all borders are closed. South Sudan has the poorest infrastructure of the countries we work in. Other countries have reduced or discontinued airline service and restricted travel through their borders.
The people we serve have very few options. Kenya has implemented a nightly curfew from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. to curtail social gatherings. A recent video showed police using tear gas while beating people, forcing them to rush to the Mombasa ferry to get home before dark. Many people live in crowded informal settlements (slums) and must search every day for the water and food they will need. Physical distancing is culturally unimaginable and practically impossible with crowded congested shacks stacked one on top of another.
In Tanzania, President John Magufuli has unfortunately urged people to continue to gather in places of worship, saying, “That’s where there is true healing. Corona is the devil, and it cannot survive in the body of Jesus.”
From past epidemics, the one thing I learned is that God was always with me and protected me in ways I cannot explain. The people I was with were my greatest source of strength, and we cared for each other as well as we could. I learned from every experience and still have much to learn.
I keep all of you in my prayer from a distance. Let us live in the joy of Easter with faith that we are birthing a new way of being the body of Christ. Often, giving birth is a long and painful process!
I wish you a blessed Holy Week!
On April 20 at 10 am EDT, I will participate in a Facebook Live event with Maryknoll Lay Missioners on our Facebook page. I especially invite anyone who is interested in becoming a Maryknoll lay missioner to join us. I will share my experience of ministry in East Africa and what those experiences have taught me to help us through this evolving pandemic.