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Across Africa, ‘communities are urgently demanding more practical information and training on COVID-19’

Workers load South Africa's first COVID-19 vaccine doses as they arrive at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg Feb. 1, 2021. (CNS photo/Elmond Jiyane, GCIS handout via Reuters)

CAPE TOWN, South Africa  — In Sudan’s Nuba Mountains and in neighboring South Sudan, mass vaccination against COVID-19 is so far off that it is not even mentioned, said a retired bishop responsible for remote hospitals that he has been unable to visit for almost a year.

The malnourished people in the Nuba Mountains are “moving skeletons,” and their compromised immune systems expose them “to all kinds of diseases, not just COVID-19,” Bishop Macram Max Gassis, retired bishop of El Obeid, Sudan, said in a Feb. 4 interview from Nairobi, Kenya, where he now lives.

Malnutrition, drought and rumors about vaccines are just some of the problems facing Africa’s 54 countries. By Feb. 8, 48 of them had not approved a vaccine. Confirmed COVID-19 deaths on the continent are close to 100,000, with more than 3.6 million cases overall.

Mother of Mercy Hospital in Gidel, the only hospital in the Nuba Mountains, reported its first confirmed case of COVID-19 through rapid antigen testing in February, said Jane Andanje, director of the Bishop Gassis Relief and Rescue Foundation in Nairobi.

Bishop Gassis told Catholic News Service while “there is very little testing equipment” in the Nuba Mountains or South Sudan, “it is a fallacy that there is no coronavirus” in the region.

“Most people get one meal a day if they can find it, which leaves them weak, and so how much is the disease going around? It’s a tragic situation,” he said.

The 82-year-old bishop said he is desperate to be vaccinated against COVID-19 so that he can visit Mother of Mercy Hospital as well as the other hospital he is responsible for, in South Sudan’s Diocese of Wau.

While vaccinations are not yet being administered in Kenya, the bishop said his “hopes are set on Easter.”

Across Africa, “communities are urgently demanding more practical information and training on COVID-19 and other infectious diseases that builds on their existing levels of epidemiological knowledge,” said a 2021 report from the Rift Valley Institute. It noted that, “With a proper understanding of symptoms, disease progression and transmission risks, people can better protect themselves, identify suspected cases and care for sick patients more safely.”

The richer countries should not forget the poor countries as they rush to vaccinate all their people,” Bishop Gassis said, noting that “if they do this at the expense of poor countries, they cannot be content that they are safe.

“As church, we don’t have the capacity to get involved in vaccination. We are overwhelmed feeding the hungry,” he added.

Bishop Sithembele Sipuka of Mthatha, South Africa, second vice president of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar, said churches in Africa need to join together in calling for equitable international distribution of vaccines, then use their local structures to ensure that rollout is done properly.

“Hoarding of vaccines by richer countries has led to a lamentable situation,” said Bishop Sipuka, who is also president of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference. With “cooperation and solidarity,” the church can play an oversight role in ensuring that vaccines reach poorer countries in Africa, he told CNS.

The Vatican’s coronavirus commission and the Pontifical Academy for Life issued a joint statement in late December calling for a coordinated international effort to ensure the equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines worldwide.

With more than 1.4 million cases and more than 45,000 deaths as of Feb. 5, South Africa has recorded the most COVID-19 infections and deaths on the continent. With setbacks and amid criticism that the government has been slow to procure vaccines and doubts about the effectiveness of the current vaccine against new strains, vaccination of the country’s health workers is likely to begin in February.

Civil society, including churches, “will need to keep watch” that the inoculations are done fairly and transparently, Bishop Sipuka said, noting that “we must guard against corruption.”

Bishop Anthony Fallah Borwah of Gbarnga, Liberia, said Feb. 3 that there were no signs yet of the vaccination reaching the West African nation.

World Health Organization officials said in late January that Guinea was the only low-income country of 29 worldwide to have begun vaccinating.

“We are fortunate in that we had not had it (COVID-19) too badly here,” Bishop Borwah said, noting that “with our inability to afford swift and widespread vaccination, we can’t afford to have the levels of infection other countries have.”

“We are a poor country and there are just a few places for testing,” mostly in the capital, Monrovia, he said.

Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone had an Ebola outbreak in 2014 that killed more than 2,500 people.

“I think we learned our lesson from Ebola,” Bishop Borwah said, noting that “people do get careless, but it’s in our minds that we’ve been through difficult times before and that we got through it … with people observing the health rules and regulations, such as washing hands, wearing masks, social distancing.”

In Tanzania, in East Africa, rumors and misinformation about COVID-19 abound. President John Pombe Magufuli, a Catholic, has kept the country open when others have implemented measures such as curfews and lockdowns. Last June, Magufuli declared the country coronavirus free, attributing the defeat to prayers. On Jan. 27, he warned against COVID-19 vaccines, saying the inoculations were dangerous.

The same month, Archbishop Gervas John Mwasikwabhila Nyaisonga, president of Tanzanian bishops’ conference, urged the people to use all ways to fight the virus — including science, faith and community safety protocols. Yet the bishops have not spoken out on the vaccines, said one Tanzanian priest.

Archbishop Charles Palmer-Buckle of Cape Coast, Ghana, recovering from coronavirus after testing positive, advised citizens of his West African country in early February to make every effort to religiously observe the health protocols because, he told them, the pandemic is real. Ghana has not procured the vaccines, and in late January the president said the earliest vaccine would be in the country by March.