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The burden of the cross: Covid19 a call for action in West Africa by James E. Miriago

Introduction

In Africa, the Church has been the vanguard of civil-society, leading the way both in good and in bad times. Religion is the most prominent and well-organised aspect of civil society on the continent. As the world is confronted with the complexities of dealing with the novel Coronavirus pandemic, the most critical question one could ask, how are the agencies of the Church in Kenya prepared to confront the deadly virus? The task of this paper is to assess the response of the church in Kenya and Africa, in their various constellations, to COVID19. What are the roles of the Church in the fight against the pandemic? To what degree is the Church’s intervention in Africa fulfilling those roles?

Background

The Coronavirus pandemic has brought us face to face with the biggest challenge in the history of Kenya’s post-independence era, and the lives of Kenyans (and others all around the globe) are threatened. Kenya has thus far registered 281 positive tests, 11 deaths, and a number of recoveries. Lives are on the line, the economy is severely threatened, and our culture and way of life are endangered. The Coronavirus threatens to kill, damage our health as well as destroy our economy and the very fabric of our family existence. It has rained pain and suffering upon our unprotected heads and the future seem to be getting darker and darker every day. Nonetheless, nothing shapes and brings out our character more than times of adversity. The challenge brought about by the Coronavirus must not only be acknowledged, but must also be looked critically from a theological significance. There must be a reason why we are to fight to survive and these calls for a theological reflection. We have triumphed over other disasters like Ebola, HIV and more, and now again; we need to display our spirit of togetherness, innovation and resilience in the midst of the Coronavirus outbreak.

In Africa the first Coronavirus case was confirmed in Egypt 14 February 2020 and in sub-Saharan Africa, Nigeria was the first country to report a case, on February 27, 2020, when an Italian man working for a cement company tested positive. However, it was prior to that, in January 2020, that the virus originated in Wuhan, China, before spreading across the globe, killing over 170,151, and 2,473,536 cases of people as at the time of this writing, leaving over a million people disease-ridden and the entire world socially and economically distressed. Trepidation over the impact of COVID19 in Africa increased when the severity of the situation in developed nations in Europe and the United States became clear. The World Health Organization listed 13 African countries as high-priority states because of the large volume of travel between China and these African nations, due to strong trade partnerships. Over 13,000 coronavirus cases have so far been reported among the 54 countries on the continent, with over 600 deaths and about 1,500 recoveries, as at the time of this writing. More than 281 cases have been confirmed in Kenya 11 deaths 281 confirmed infected Algeria, 18 April, 116 new confirmed cases 2418 and  364 deaths, over 2000 cases in Egypt 8 April 2020 there have been 1,561 and 103 DEATHS, 19 April 2020, the confirmed cases reached 2855 in Morocco with 141 DEAD, and South Africa 20 April 2020, there were 3300 confirmed cases and 58 confirmed deaths. The rest of Africans nations remain below 1000 cases, but this is rising.

African states are cooperating at the continental level to battle the virus. The Africa Centre for Disease Control activated emergency protocols in January, prompting African health ministers to meet and agree on common response strategies, rapid detection being the main focus.

In between the edge the race towards COVID19 in Africa

While there is still limited testing capacity, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has helped to increase the number of countries that can test for potential cases to 26 from just two in January Experts are worried about the virus spreading rapidly in Africa because in many African countries, the healthcare systems are poor and inadequate, with problems such as lack of equipment, lack of funding and lack training for health workers. Due to the communal and often crowded nature of life in Africa, the virus could be difficult to control and attempting to force people into lockdowns, the situation will be extremely difficult economically, since most Africans work in the informal sector and have no steady income.


The African Centre for Disease Control is working with health teams from around the continent, training them and distributing test kits to help with detecting the coronavirus. Those countries without the capacity to test for the virus are keen to prevent the disease from turning up on their doorsteps. Tanzanian officials said 2,000 trained health officials and a number of isolation facilities are on standby. Experts say some African countries are well-equipped to deal with viral outbreaks. “Africa has learned from the last Ebola outbreak”, according to Dr. Abimbola Bowale, the medical director of the Mainland Infectious Diseases Hospital Yaba, Lagos Nigeria, Uganda, battle-tested by its efforts to contain the Ebola outbreak that raged in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, increased airport surveillance and testing. Officials have isolated almost 700 people entering the country’s Entebbe International Airport, including more than 450 Chinese nationals. Other countries are taking more direct action. Rwandair, South Africa Airways, Egypt Air and Morocco’s Royal Air have suspended flights to China altogether. But Ethiopia Airlines, which shuttles about 1,500 people between the capital Addis Ababa and China, has continued to operate despite criticism and pressure from Ethiopia’s neighbour’s to suspend flights. “Our worry as a country is that we cannot manage the disease,” Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta said, reacting to the airline’s announcement to keep flying to China. “Our biggest worry is diseases coming into areas with weaker health systems like ours.

Is God present in COVID19

Churches in Africa are in a state of shock as the world battles the Coronavirus pandemic. Like in every other part of the global community, people panic as the disease spreads across this fragile continent. The immediate governmental action in many countries was to shut down all activities, close all schools and every public gathering including all worship places. Also, as part of the measure to stop the spread of the virus, governments imposed social distancing and isolation guidelines. Therefore, the Catholics’ Mass, the Protestant’s liturgical worship, and the Pentecostal’s ecstatic services are all suspended to curb the community-based spread of the deadly pandemic. For the Churches, this means there will no longer be laying of hands, a blow especially for Pentecostals.


The impact of this on the Lenten and other religious routines has instigated mixed reactions among various religions in Africa, especially among Christians. For instance, the Catholic Holy Communion is henceforth to be administered on the palm, rather than on the tongue, and priests were asked to halt the sprinkling of holy water. According to Archbishop Martins “We have to take proactive steps to protect ourselves from infection…to reduce the number of gatherings in church to the barest necessary, we encourage people to do Stations of the Cross privately on Wednesdays, while public celebrations will take place only on Fridays with the permission from the government if they allow us.” The Church, especially in the West Africa also resorted to the emergency measures established during the Ebola outbreak. The preventative routines previously used to contain Ebola, such as, applying hand sanitizer from containers that have placed at the churches’ doorways, listening attentively to safety tips offered between sermons to reduce contact with one another, and the encouragement to wear face masks and gloves.


In Kenya, it has been a hide and seeks game between the law enforcers and the religious leaders. Some mobilized their member and held secret night meetings at night in what they saw as a form of spiritual warfare against the forces of darkness, which is then, is the government and the coronavirus. It is within this situation as the Church seeks for spiritual direction from above to avert the work of Satan, that the government has imposed a complete curfew across the country from 7.00pm to 5.00am for 30 days.

Mixed-Feelings and Reactions among the Pentecostals

The initial response of the Pentecostal churches to the government initiative to contain the spread of the virus was somewhat impulsive and problematic. It could be that the reality of the seriousness of the pandemic had not become clear to them, leading them to continue risky practices, rather than joining in the mass mobilisation effort to fight the deadly disease. Some of the Pentecostal churches vehemently reacted to the closure of their schools and churches. This is unconnected with the known fact that most of these Pentecostal churches lack funding, and so depend solely on their regular inflow of tithes, offerings and the income from their schools and other parallel businesses.

Of course, the impact of lockdown will not go well with such arrangement. So, the first reaction was to protest against the lockdown orders. Rapidly, the heavy handed presence of the armed security personnel made itself felt, arresting and beating whoever was found on the wrong side of the law. Churches were thus forced to comply. Some they began to see the seriousness of the situation and the valid need for government’s strict measures. In Kenya a number of pastors were arrested and arraigned in court for failing to adhere to the government orders. Quickly some of these churches began to come up with different strategies to sustain their income. Some announced that regular home cell meetings should replace the normal church services. Others took the option of online services and using Facebook, telephonic transfer and various online banking platforms to motivate their collections and their members

Race against time Churches Fight against COVID19

The majority of churches in Kenya are founded on an individual basis and do not have outside funding, unlike the mainline churches which have significant external support from their ecclesiastical headquarters. Many Pentecostal churches are small, crowded and poorly ventilated buildings. Many of them conduct their church services in tents or shelters made of iron sheets, or even meet in their members’ homes or in parking garages. The concept of the Church existing on the principal of being the light and the salt to the world is the driving force behind the Pentecostal presence: Jesus is coming back soon to take away his Church from the suffering world, and therefore the Gospel doesn’t required a decent building or place for worship.


Pentecostal preachers in Africa are struggling to understand the relationship between spirituality and science. Pentecostals and Evangelicals have tended to interpret the Bible passages literally to respond to the realities of life. A Pentecostal pastor in Kenya with a large following, for example, made an inflammatory statement that angered the government: “The Coronavirus COVID19 is a global hoax”. He stated that God had instructed him not to cancel the church service “because there is no Coronavirus”. In West Africa, there was also resistance from the charismatic preachers, for example in Nigeria, where well-known Pentecostal preachers vowed to continue holding Sunday services. One stated that “Shutting down churches would mean shutting down in hospitals, as there are many places that would never have any medical solutions, other than in Church”. However, one of his Church members stated: “The anointing that we received at church yesterday was very important to me and other members, but I am not sure I will take the risk again next week.”


I follow the news every day, but I have not seen any press statement or a press conference called by the religious bodies in Kenya or elsewhere in Africa to discus COVID19. The Church is expected in this time to be visible and be the voice to the voiceless, the conscience of the nation and the defender of the social justice. However, there is silence. Neither have I seen an interreligious press briefing, as has been common during times of political unrest. The main religious bodies in Kenya have muted their voices. For example, the National Council of Churches, the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya, and the Conference of Catholic Bishops. Where are the prophets, where are the bishops, where are the pastors? We, the people, we want to hear the voice of God through the Church one man exclaimed on social media. What does it mean to be Church in times like this? This season and period in history calls for a way of being; it calls for the Church to take up its missiological mandate to care for each other and to offer the spiritual exercise of prayer and to bring hope for the people.


As the statistics of confirmed cases of infected persons and fatalities rate skyrocketed globally, Churches in Africa have slowly begun to respond, and the voices of their leaders are gradually bringing the social gospel. But others have begun to create fear though apocalyptic interpretations of the existential reality. Others yet again, have chosen to talk less and rather engage by making donations and practical efforts to mitigate the situation. Ghana’s Pentecostal Church has donated food to various members of the community; in Uganda Miracle Centre Cathedral Pastor, Robert Kayanja, donated tons of food both in Uganda and South Sudan, calling on the presidents of these two countries to assist the fleet of trucks to transport the bags of donated food around their countries. Nigeria’s, was not left behind for example, Among the Pentecostal mega- churches, such as the Redeemed Christian Church of God, Winners’ Chapel, Deeper Life Bible Church, and Dunamis Church donated food, as did the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion.


The Church is also beginning to work in tandem with civil society organizations to support the most vulnerable populations, comprising the elderly, the poor, those with disabilities and the terminally ill. There are encouraging cases where church leaders, in liaison with their members, are beginning to collate the needy for efficient distribution of basic necessities.

In conclusion, the COVID19 pandemic is currently beyond any nation’s control, because it is a new disease which is yet to be understood from the scientific perspective. The WHO, UN and other agencies, together with governments should be supported and strengthened in their work by religious actors acting in solidarity to overcome the pandemic.


Church of Pentecost in Ghana Donates Food

Churches in Kenya Donates food to the needy


In a bid to bolster efforts against the spread of the novel coronavirus diseases (COVID- 19), Pastor Robert Kayanja of Miracle Centre Cathedral has launched a philanthropy drive to distribute basic necessities to the most vulnerable families.


Blessed Hope Centre Church Donates food to the community 22/04/2020 towards coronavirus affected families. Rev Felix kavoi in Nairobi Kenya

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