YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Nigeria’s people are “coping well” in the face of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, according to one bishop.
In late February, Nigeria was the first sub-Saharan African country to record a case of coronavirus – so far, it has officially confirmed 318 cases with 10 deaths; however, testing hasn’t been widespread, so the true numbers are thought to be much higher.
In late March, a lockdown was imposed in the national capital, Abuja, and the financial capital, Lagos. Masses were suspended in those cities, and some other parts of the country.
“It is very difficult, but our people have largely made peace with the challenges of following the Masses and ceremonies on television or other social media platforms. In this regard, our Holy Father has really masterfully provided the world in general and the Catholic Church in particular with adequate moral navigational aids,” said Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto.
Kukah told Crux that he has heard “beautiful stories of how many parishioners are realizing rare opportunities to pray together.”
“We cannot say what God is saying to the Churches today, only He knows. I believe with better planning and our people not panicking, the Church could come out stronger and our Catholics even better informed and more confident in their faith,” the bishop said.
What follows are excerpts of Kukah’s conversation with Crux.
Crux: Nigeria has recorded 318 cases of COVID-19, and to stop the spread, major cities like Lagos and Abuja suffered lockdowns that prevented the participation in Holy Week and Easter Sunday celebrations. What has that been like.
Kukah: With a lot of encouragement and instructions, our people are coping well. They realize that it is not a local or foreign potentate that is flexing his muscle, a modern-day Herod wielding powers and denying Christians the right to worship. The laws are also across the board and we all know that only the living worship God. It is very difficult, but our people have largely made peace with the challenges of following the Masses and ceremonies on television or other social media platforms. In this regard, our Holy Father has really masterfully provided the world in general and the Catholic Church in particular with adequate moral navigational aids. We had no preparation for this and even in our wildest of dreams, no one imagined that bang, the world would stand still at the same time.
Is asking Christians to stay at home a denial of the power of faith in the face of the present challenge?
Happily, Jesus already told us where two or three are gathered, He is present, and we also know that even he has assured us that the efficacy of our prayers is not based on numbers and crowds. I know that many ordinary Christians have felt this way, that the best way to deal with this matter is to storm the heavens with prayers and that the more we pray, the more we are sure of victory.
However, it does not work like that. God does not live inside a Church. The Church is in our hearts and indeed, what we have now is a return to the early Church which grew out of our homes.
I hear beautiful stories of how many parishioners are realizing rare opportunities to pray together. A friend of mine told me that in their family prayers, they are using Skye or Zoom, et cetera, and the children living in Europe and America are all taking readings or decades of the rosary together and this is generating a lot of bonding that they never dreamt about. We cannot say what God is saying to the Churches today, only He knows. I believe with better planning and our people not panicking, the Church could come out stronger and our Catholics even better informed and more confident in their faith.
What should the Easter Season mean for Christians who are afraid right now?
Our Savior is risen, and we have no reason to live in fear. No one will live forever. If you do not die of the coronavirus, a tree could fall on you; you could drown. We must live our lives to the fullest. This period beckons on Christians to do what they do best, the essence of their faith, what sets Christianity apart from any other religion: show and share the love of Christ with everyone.
Social media has reported some level of stigmatization directed at some persons infected with the coronavirus…
Here our common humanity is what we are dealing with. No one falls sick on the basis of religion. Doctors and care givers have a job to do and the issues of religion or ethnicity are the least that should bother anyone for now. Mechanisms are being put in place and this is something that requires expertise not mere good will.
How have you been managing to reach out to your flock during the lockdown in Nigeria?
Well, we are all in one classroom listening largely to the same teachers but with different focus. We are following what the experts are saying guided by both the State and the Church as teachers. So, in a way, things have been a bit easy because we are managing to co-ordinate our pastoral plans while encouraging and educating our people to become acquainted with and to obey government regulations and guidelines regarding conduct and behavior.
Nothing could have prepared us for this but I think we are coping well. The pastoral challenges are enormous especially with limited technical capacity, reaching our people in remote areas and so on.
Are you concerned about the areas in Nigeria which do not have adequate running water and hygiene supplies?
Everywhere you turn in Africa, our sad stories are the same; decay, destitution and our people living in the worst health and human conditions. Everybody is repeating the same thing: our people have been dying of malaria, diarrhea, Lassa fever and so many other diseases.
African leaders have deliberately insisted on investing in themselves and their families. As with everything else, we can only rely on the strength of God for protection. Placing the welfare of our people first remains a distant echo in the scheme of things for our politicians. With poverty, illiteracy and so on, even communicating the message is not easy.
And, you are right, millions of our people have no access to water and so to say that people should practice hygiene is desirable, but how? Notwithstanding all this, we have to still have to encourage our people to do the best they can. Africa remains a poster child of all that is wrong in how not to care for your people. Before coronavirus, we have always dying for a living in Africa.
What is your assessment of the handling of the crisis by President Muhammadu Buhari?
He woke up late, but I think even the United Nations Secretary General has appreciated the efforts so far. We have a fantastic team of very dedicated professionals and so we are praying that they do not get overwhelmed.
The president is doing his best but as you know, we have a system that lives and breathes corruption. The challenge is not to release billions of naira [the Nigerian currency]. It is whether they will not follow the familiar but dishonorable paths of a corrupt bureaucracy and service delivery systems. There is a joke making the rounds that in a country where we are unable to distribute seven million ballot papers in years, we are able to distribute over 50 billion naira in three days!