By Linda Bordoni
The total number of confirmed coronavirus Covid-19 cases in South Africa has risen to more than 1,650 with 11 confirmed deaths.
That number may be lower than in many other parts of the planet, but there are fears that Covid-19 could be a time-bomb ready to go off in a country marked by dramatic social inequalities.
Father Gérard Lagleder OSB is on the frontlines of health care, preparing to assist a large community of poor and vulnerable people in South Africa’s eastern Kwazulu Natal Province.
Fr. Gérard is the Founder and President of the Brotherhood of Blessed Gérard, the Order of Malta’s care facility in Mandeni. It runs clinics, a hospice, an orphanage, as well as health-care services for outpatients in rural areas.
He told Vatican Radio’s Linda Bordoni that he’s worried “a real tsunami wave of Covid-19 infections is yet to hit the country.”
Fr. Gérard says the South African Ministry of Health expects some 40 million new coronavirus infections in the country. These could result in between 90 thousand and 351 thousand deaths because of the high percentage of South Africa’s 59-million-strong population that has serious underlying health issues, such as HIV-Aids.
The country has been in lockdown since 27 March, and so far, he notes, the figures seem low. But inequality, poverty, HIV-Aids, and a huge number of undocumented immigrants, provide an explosive mix of ingredients for potential catastrophe.
Informal settlements and townships
“The big problem is that we have a large part of the population in informal settlements and in townships where there is no social distancing,” Fr. Gérard explains. “If you are living in a hut where there are 15 people in one room, you can’t respect social distancing,” he adds.
Furthermore, he says, in informal settlements and in slum-like townships, people have no means of washing their hands or following the rules for good hygiene: “If you have to walk hundreds of meters to the river to fetch water, then you can't wash your hands and you have no means to disinfect yourself with chemical disinfectant: this is a major problem.”
Stigma and fear
Fr. Gérard also pinpoints a cultural issue that has to do with stigma and fear: “Many people don't even want to be tested or diagnosed, they don’t want to be treated,” just as it happened with HIV-Aids.
Although the government has rolled out mobile testing units and set up clinics in the townships, Fr. Gérard says he is afraid people might avoid them, “because they are afraid of being diagnosed; they are afraid to be taken away from home, and they think that if they run away they might avoid the whole situation.”
“That is actually a deadly danger that we are in,” he adds.
A recent United Nations estimate calculated the number of foreigners living illegally in South Africa as high as 10% to 15% of the population.
Most of them are poor people from other African nations who come in search of work. Fr. Gérard says he is extremely worried about them “because they are in hiding and they don't want to be detected at all.” They are afraid of being identified as illegal immigrants and sent home, thus endangering the policy to test, track and treat infected persons.
He recalls it is a problem the country already dealt with when it started extensive campaigns to treat HIV. Thankfully, the government decided to treat even those with no registered South African identity documentation.
“These people are particularly vulnerable,” he says.
Order of Malta healthcare facilities and Covid-19
Noting that 80% of the people served by the Brotherhood of the Blessed Gérard in Mandeni live under the poverty line, Fr. Gérard describes the assistance and support he and his personnel manage to provide.
“We are running the largest in-patient hospice in the whole of South Africa,” he says. “The hospice is full of immuno-compromised and frail geriatric patients,” the very people who are most in danger of dying from the disease.
“We have close to 700 patients on Aids treatment in a very large treatment programme,” he adds.
In preparation for the lockdown, explains Fr. Gérard, patients were given their medication for two months in advance “so they don't have to come here. And they are safe so far.”
A similar strategy was chosen for the Malnutrition Clinic where baby food was distributed to those in need for the whole of the lockdown period.
And, he says, the same was done for the Order’s Home Care Programme, leaving health care workers free to attend to emergencies and strengthen the ranks of the in-patient hospice personnel.
The Brotherhood also runs a large children's in-patient home which currently hosts 55 children, many of them with previous conditions that make them especially vulnerable.
Fr. Gérard is especially keen to express his gratitude and admiration for his staff: “I am so happy about our personnel! They have been told that if they stay at home they can help prevent infection spreading,” but he says, they are all true to their mission as health-care workers and are faithfully coming to look after their patients and the children.
Trust in the Catholic Church
Fr. Gérard agrees that most South Africans have trust in the Catholic church, especially when it comes to social care, healthcare and education, because it has always been at the side of the under-privileged and was a strong partner in the fight against injustice and apartheid.
Also, in the liturgical sense, he says people are now asking us, “at a time in which we cannot have public services, to broadcast them through streaming on the internet. And we do that.”
In the beginning, Fr. Gérard says, “I thought it would be very lonely saying Mass on my own. But I look into the screen of the computer and I know that there are many people actually watching, and in my mind, those people are here (…). Therefore, it is not that lonely. It is a different way of bringing the Good News that God is there for us, and especially in a difficult situation He is there for us, and that the Church finds ways of approaching the faithful and being there for them in different ways.”
Making it all work
On the one hand, Fr. Gérard explains, the Brotherhood of the Blessed Gérard works closely with partners such as the Department of Health and of Social Development that has delivered disinfectant and face masks “that we are very grateful for.”
On the other, he says, the entire work of the Order of Malta is financed by donations and grants: “We do not sell our services because the people we serve are the ‘have-nots’, they cannot pay for the services we render to them”.
Thus, he concludes, in light of the fact that his annual fundraising tour to Europe has been cancelled, and the postal services in the country are completely disrupted, the Brotherhood of the Blessed Gérhard is fundraising online. And every drop in the ocean can help save a life.