ROME – One nun has said that strict lockdowns and inflated prices due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic are pushing some religious communities in Africa to the point of hunger, as they cannot afford enough food for themselves and those whom they serve.
Sister Grace Candiru, who works in the communications office of the Association of Consecrated Women in Eastern and Central Africa, (ACWECA), said that in Africa, “I think we are reaching a situation where sisters are not going to be able to feed themselves.”
ACWECA is a regional body composed of 10 English speaking countries in Africa, including Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe as an associate member.
Speaking at the conclusion of a June 23 virtual panel over Zoom titled “Women Religious on the Front Lines” which was hosted jointly by the U.S. and UK Embassies to the Holy See, Candiru said that strict government lockdowns have been enforced in Africa to prevent the spread of COVID-19 because of a lack of healthcare facilities and medical equipment to manage an outbreak.
For religious sisters, she said, “the challenge now is the schools where the sisters are ministering and other social services have been closed down, so we are actually going to a situation where sisters will probably not be able to sustain themselves, to feed their members and to do other activities.”
“It’s a real situation,” Candiru said, noting that in the flurry of concern and the rush to get on top of a possible outbreak, “probably not many people will pay attention (or) think about the welfare of the sisters.”
In addition to the financial strain put on many communities due to inflated prices for basic goods due to the pandemic, the sisters are taking an extra hit because they are sharing their own food with the poor and needy in their communities, Candiru said.
“It’s a really challenging situation for the sisters in Africa,” she said, “because you don’t have any other people to come to their rescue as they try to also minister to the vulnerable people in our countries and in our areas.”
One of the panelists who spoke, Sister Stan Therese Mario Mumuni, superior general of the Marian Sisters for Eucharistic Love and who helps children born with birth defects in Ghana, said the pandemic has taken an especially hard toll on their order.
Mumuni said she felt inspired to do something when she heard that children with birth defects in northern Ghana were being killed and accused of witchcraft. Often, these children die after being given something poisonous to drink.
“Christ told me, even though you have nothing, go rescue my children, go and rescue my vulnerable ones. Their cry has reached my ears, I cannot stand it again,” she said, insisting that she and her sisters “came here to demonstrate our love for God by demonstrating our love for these children…they are created in the image and likeness of God.”
Their work has even helped to forge a peaceful relationship with Muslims in the area, she said, noting that “Muslims have come to realize the work we do and appreciate it, and this has brought great unity between Muslims and Christians in this sign.”
However, when the pandemic hit Ghana, Mumuni said it was a surprise, and that her community was unprepared.
“We did not know anything about this pandemic. Suddenly, we heard it from the news,” she said explaining that the sisters soon began receiving calls from specialty schools to come pick up the children they rescued, such as schools for the blind, the deaf and the mute.
“This was a great shock. We had to run, we didn’t even know where to being,” she said, noting that they brought each of the children to the house and began to feed and educate them.
When the sisters were told they needed to purchase hand sanitizer, “We went to market to get them, but the price shot up more than three times of what we used to pay,” Mumuni said. “They said liquid soap. We ran to the place, but the price had gone too high.”
“We had to get food, to store food, to be able to feed these children,” she said, noting that many of the children have special dietary needs or physical ailments that require constant attention.
“To get them milk to feed them every day was very, very hard,” Mumuni said. “Movement became difficult. Nobody came in, and nobody went out. We had to ask staff to stay home in order to prevent them bringing the disease into the house.”
In addition to taking on their rescued children, the sisters during the pandemic continued to receive calls about children in distress.
“In all this we had to risk our lives to go search for innocent victims,” Mumuni said, noting that there was also a shortage of fresh water, so the sisters had to go out constantly to find water not just for themselves, but for their community.
“This is the challenge that God wants us to do, because we are the people God has chosen in a special way,” she said.
Sister Pat Murray, executive secretary of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), told Crux that she could not confirm whether sisters in Africa were on the verge of hunger, but she acknowledged that both lockdown requirements and inflated prices are “a big challenge for sisters in many countries.”
“It affects their ability to buy food for themselves and for the people to whom they minister. I am aware of Sisters sharing their daily food with the people in their neighborhood in different countries,” she said.
To curb the fallout of the pandemic, Murray said the UISG has established a COVID-19 Fund with the help of several American and European foundations, as well as significant contributions from religious congregations throughout the world.
Funds were initially distributed to congregations in Italy and in Spain “who were severely affected by coronavirus and who had to endure high expenses once positive cases were identified within their convents with the consequent loss of life,” she said.
Many communities were suddenly short of staff, she said, so sisters would come to hard-hit countries from abroad to help fellow members of their congregations who had fallen ill. Others provided material support, including medical masks sent by sisters in Hong Kong to those in Italy and several countries in Africa.
Sisters in Italy who suffered losses due to inflated costs of cleaning and sanitary materials and the loss of income from the sale of religious objects, vegetables, and the running of guest houses, were also supported by the fund.
Currently, Murray said sisters in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil and also to Benin, Ivory Coast, Chad, Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Senegal and Mali are all receiving assistance from the fund.
“While the grant will cover protection and cleaning materials – many are asking for money for food as people have lost their jobs and their livelihood and are hungry,” Murray said, adding that, “it is very hard to stand by when the people you meet every day are hungry.”
Because of this, many religious sisters are working with local Caritas branches as well as other organizations and NGOs to distribute food where it is needed and available.
“The challenge is that some people will seek to make money out of the pandemic – with inflated prices – rather than look to share or to sell at a reasonable price,” she said.
Other sisters highlighted during Tuesday’s panel included Sister Imelda Poole, president of the Religious in Europe Networking Against Trafficking and Exploitation (RENATE), who spoke about her efforts to assist trafficking victims and those who are facing hunger or starvation as a result of the coronavirus.
She also warned that just as the bulk of RENATE’s activities have gone online during the pandemic, so has the danger of child sexual exploitation.
“Together we need to break the chain of supply for traffickers,” she said, encouraging people to get involved and urging governments to ensure that laws targeting traffickers are enforced.
Sister Alicia Vagas, provincial superior of the Comboni Sisters in Jerusalem, spoke of her time serving as a nurse in the Italian city of Bergamo – the epicenter of the country’s COVID-19 outbreak.
Though she lives in Jerusalem, she and several other sisters with medical training traveled to Bergamo to assist fellow sisters when they heard that several members of the city’s convent were dying. When she arrived, Vagas said around 45 out of roughly 60 sisters were already sick.
“It has been very powerful and very intense living this coronavirus,” she said, adding that, “this sense of sharing people’s lives, people’s sufferings, that’s our vocation.”
“I think this tragedy humanity is facing right now is a gift for the whole congregation,” she said, calling it an opportunity “to bend over our elderly in gratitude for their service and for their lives.”
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