YAOUNDE, Cameroon – In an effort to highlight the plight of women during the era of COVID-19, the South African Union of Catholic Women’s Organization (SAUCWO) organized a Day of Prayer via Zoom Tuesday.

The theme of the online gathering, “I can’t breathe,” was reminiscent of George Floyd by police in the US, but it also reflected hardships faced by women in South Africa and across the world, a situation activists say has been significantly worsened by months of COVID-19 lockdowns.

“The effects of COVID-19, during the lockdown period, made us all feel like walking zombies, the ‘dry bones’ of whom the Prophet Ezekiel spoke,” Sister Hermenegild Makoro said in a keynote address at the start of the meeting.

A member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and Secretary General of the South African Bishops’ Conference, Makoro said the pandemic has made women feel they “were captured in a concentration camp. For some it might have felt like they were in ‘gas chambers.’ No one was prepared for this.”

She said the theme, “I Can’t Breathe Day of Prayer,” is significant because breath has taken a new significance.

“We all have to wear face masks, and many of us feel that we cannot breathe properly. One of the first symptoms of COVID-19 is shortness of breath. The same applies to social distancing. In Romans 12, verse 5, it says; ‘We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other.’ But in the time of COVID-19 we are forced to maintain social distance from each other, and in fact, to have personal contact as seldom as possible, only when necessary,” Makoro said.

“Because of COVID-19, all the visible signs of our unity as one body in Christ have been obliterated and we even feel cut off from the very source of life, and the presence of God – our breath,” she said.

“It seems as if God has abandoned us. Our Churches are closed. Our physical unity is no more. Our breath has been cut off,” Makoro said. “As a consequence, we see evil flourishing. We read daily reports of a resurgence of gender-based violence, and violence against women and children. We read of suicide rates skyrocketing. In Australia there have been more reported deaths from suicides committed during lockdown than from Covid-19 itself. We read of an exponential increase in mental health problems, because of lockdown and social isolation. We can well ask if God has abandoned us.”

She said the theme reflected the jobs that have been lost, the “loneliness” that comes with lockdowns, and the fact that loved ones who have died of COVID-19 can’t even be given a “fitting funeral.”

“‘I can’t breathe’ saw my salary cut. ‘I can’t breathe’ forced Churches to close, and we could not celebrate Holy Mass as a community for the last five months. The ‘I can’t breathe’ period showed there is corruption alive and kicking. Women involved in the PPEs procurement scandal, what a shame indeed!” she said.

Her reference was to a local scandal in which funds intended for the purchase of personal protective equipment were diverted to politically connected businesspeople instead.

The National President of the Catholic Women’s Association in South Africa, Benise Cocci, said: “With the Apostles, we cry out to you, Lord: Save us! We are perishing.”

Available statistics lends credence to these claims. According to official accounts, a woman is murdered every three hours in South Africa, and more than 87,000 cases of gender-based violence complaints were received by the police in 2019.

In the first week of the Coronavirus lockdown in March, police recorded 2,300 complaints of gender-based violence. According to the South African Police Service, a total of 180,000 crimes directed at women were recorded within the last two years.

“We pray for women who are physically and emotionally abused during the lockdown,” Cocci said.

Yet, the gloomy picture of violence against women belies the beauty embodied in womanhood, according to Makoro.

“Remember those 20,000 women who marched to the Union Buildings in 1956 for their rights,” she said, in an effort to celebrate women who have fought to make South African society better.

“See those women who still continue even today to fight for justice and goodness in society. They hand over the flag/baton to us gathered here today to make a change,” she added.

“I believe with the important role that women play in our Church and society, they should have us being celebrated 365 days, every hour, every minute , every second, not only in August,” she said.

According to Cocci, change has to start with calming “the storms of fear and desperation.”

The women resolved to organize similar zoom meetings every quarter “as a safe space where we can speak as women”, Cocci said.

Describing the zoom meetings as a “sanctuary,” she underscored the need for women to support each other “no matter the challenges.”

A Crux reporter participated in the Zoom session.