From Scandinavia to South Africa, from the Americas to Asia “we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm,” Pope Francis said about the coronavirus pandemic on 27th March, “we have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented…..all of us called to row together”. And it is precisely this empty and wet St. Peter’s Square, where the pontiff prayed and gave the Urbi et Orbi blessing, that prompted the short conversation via Skype with Father Gerard, founder and president of the Brotherhood of Blessed Gérard, the Order of Malta’s care facility in Mandeni, South Africa, in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, one of the poorest places in the world.
“That square wasn’t really empty,” Father Gerard stated, “the entire Church was there, we were all there, united in our spirituality. I was moved, my eyes full of tears, but the Holy Father was there, interceding for us. His message was: ‘do not fear, I am here for all of you’”.
What is the situation today in South Africa?
South Africa is considered the epicentre of the coronavirus emergency in Africa. It is a country of 59 million inhabitants and, albeit the numbers are still low, we can see the tsunami arriving and we have to act quickly. We are facing an enormous danger; the virus is spreading fast in the country and our health facilities cannot cope with this challenge. According to the forecasts of the Minister of Health Zweli Lawrence Mkhize, 60-70% of the population will be infected. An epidemiological model predicts between 88 thousand and 350 thousand deaths for South Africa alone. Yesterday the first death was recorded. A lockdown has been in effect since 26th March and will last until 16th April, all the schools are closed, as are offices and shops. Only social and healthcare facilities, like ours, are allowed to continue operating.
And in Mandeni?
Unfortunately, just today the first coronavirus case in Mandeni has been confirmed, a person in contact with an infected person who had been to Johannesburg. Besides being overcrowded, this region is also very poor, 80% of the population lives on under 100 euro a month; they don’t have enough money to eat, let alone for healthcare. There’s a very low level of awareness of the risks we’re facing. There are shantytowns where people live in close contact and where very few have access to medicines or healthcare. There will very shortly be many infected and sick people who will not even figure in the statistics.
How is the Order’s facility functioning?
All the schools are closed and therefore also our kindergarten. Children in our “Children’s Home” are looked after by the staff, but they cannot go to school. Many of them have pre-existing or ongoing diseases, and are thus more vulnerable to the virus. Because of the total shutdown we are distributing antiretroviral drugs to our HIV/Aids patients and almost everyone has already received a two-month supply. Unfortunately, we can no longer allow visitors to enter our hospitalization unit. At the moment, our house-call teams can only deal with emergencies and we are now upscaling the activities of our hospital teams.
Do you have an intensive-care unit?
No, we don’t and the nearest hospital with suitable equipment is seventy kilometres away. The hospice, where we have many immunocompromised patients, remains operational and I thank our staff for their faithful service. I am very proud of them and I would like to quote what one of them wrote to me: “Together we have to fight and defeat this virus”. I hope it will be a valuable message for everyone. But we need economic resources now more than ever, and the help and support of everyone.
All masses have been suspended, so what will your Easter be like?
It will be a very solitary Easter. But, since all the celebrations have been suspended, from yesterday I will be celebrating Holy Mass from the small chapel close to my office and I will do it every evening at 7 via streaming on the youtube ‘fathergerard’ channel, for all our volunteers, staff and benefactors. And I will do the same for the celebration of Holy Easter.
After our interview, Father Gerard published a video message on Youtube, which is available at the following link