ROSARIO, Argentina – As many in the United States and across Europe worry over hoarding toilet paper to face the uncertainties of the coronavirus pandemic, a missionary priest in Africa is worried that most in his community don’t have soap in their homes and no one has running water.
“The situation in Mozambique is complicated,” said Father Juan Gabriel Arias, an Argentine priest who’s been in the southeast African country for over a decade.
Since the explosion of the pandemic worldwide, he’s been sharing updates of the local situation on Twitter, including pictures of schoolchildren praying over a world map for those affected by a virus that some claimed would never reach Mozambique.
But those people were wrong.
The country had its first confirmed case of COVID-19 on Sunday – a 75-year old man who had returned from England – setting off the alarm bells. Arias said he believes there are others who weren’t diagnosed or who avoided the mandatory quarantine upon entering the country.
Thousands of Mozambicans work in neighboring South Africa, a country that recorded its first case of COVID-19 several days ago. When Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi ordered a mandatory quarantine, banned meetings of more than 30 people, closed schools, public offices and houses of worship, many of these migrant workers returned home. Yet feeling healthy, they disregarded health warnings and ignored the order to stay home.
Arias lives in Mangunze, a rural zone some 100 miles from Maputo, the capital, and some 20 miles from Xai-Xai, capital of Gaza state. There’s only one hospital in the state that has an ICU: 12 beds, in a wing opened last year. Not nearly enough when the region has 2.5 million inhabitants.
“They’re opening new hospitals,” Arias told Crux. “But not because they have medicine to treat people: they’re setting up cots in rooms to where the ill will be taken. But we have no oxygen tanks.”
The region he lives in has no regular access to electricity, and only a handful of parishioners have access to a phone with internet, even though WhatsApp is how people are being kept informed about the crisis.
“The people in my parish are afraid. This is a rural area, with no electricity, no TV, barely any radios,” he said. “The situation is complicated, and they believe they’re going to die like dogs, much like during the war. They take for granted many are going to die, because there are things that cannot be planed for.”
“The hospital system is saturated, even before the coronavirus pandemic, there is no way to treat the illness here,” he said. Local doctors and nurses are used to working in a collapsed system: When there are cholera outbreaks, patients often end up being treated on the floor. But coronavirus is new, and since it heavily impacts the respiratory system, oxygen is key to treating it.
When it comes to access to drinkable water in rural Mozambique, people need to pump it from communal wells, which are in themselves a center of contagion: People, especially children and women, congregate to collect water, with everyone using the same manual pump: No disinfectant is used.
Arias has suggested authorities to put a bucket with soap next to it, so people can wash their hands, but soap is also not readily available. Neither are alcohol or bleach, and the nearest pharmacy is 10 miles away.
“Beyond not having money to buy certain things, we simply cannot find them around here,” he said.
After the outbreak, several people suggested to the priest to go back home to Argentina, where the health system, though far from perfect, is better than in Mozambique. Yet the priest refuses.
“It’s obvious that if I get ill with coronavirus or any other illness, I will have better odds of proper treatment and survival in Argentina,” he said. “But the truth is, it hasn’t even crossed my mind to leave. There’s no chance I’m going to Argentina. Firstly, because I feel that if I leave, I would be betraying my people. I wouldn’t be OK, instead thinking of my people suffering in Mozambique.”
“What’s the good of being physically healthy but without internal peace, without spiritual peace?” Arias said.
“I prefer to be here, accompanying people in however way I can and for whatever long I’m allowed to. And if I have to die, well, we’re all dying at some point. What better way to go than accompanying my people? I would rather die doing what I love, fulfilling my priestly task of accompanying my community,” he said.
Arias said that there are some who “idealize” the role of the missionary priest, but at least in his case, he sees it as almost “selfish”: Being in Mozambique for him is fulfilling his teenaged dream of what the priesthood is.
This wiliness to stay in his parish, he clarified, does not mean he’s actively looking to die: “I’m going to take care of myself, and I believe I still have much to do and that the people here need me. But I also see myself as a person who is not at risk of dying of coronavirus. I’m 52, healthy, still playing soccer, even if it’s been canceled due to the quarantine. It can happen, but the odds are in my favor this time.”
Arias is trying to strike a balance between being there for his people while at the same time keeping them safe by personally respecting the government’s recommendations, and it’s something he advises everyone to try to do.
“We will never regret having been overly precautious,” he said. “We’re never going to regret staying home longer, being stricter with the quarantine than was necessary. But we might regret, and regret a lot, not having stayed home: Becoming ill, passing the virus to someone else and perhaps being the vector that produces the death of another person. Let’s stay home, taking care of one another, using this time to pray, read, encounter our families, ourselves, and God.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma
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