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South Africa: Order of Malta feeding the most vulnerable amid the Covid-19 crisis

The South African branch of the Sovereign Order of Malta provides life-saving food packages to hundreds of vulnerable people, isolated in their homes and unable to receive government aid amid the worsening coronavirus pandemic.

By Linda Bordoni

As the majority of European countries begins to ease Covid-19 restrictions due to a decline in the spread and mortality of the disease, in South Africa, authorities are warning that the country's coronavirus outbreak is going to get much worse.

So far the country has officially registered over 24,000 infections and more than 500 deaths from Covid-19.

President Ramaphosa said this week the current lockdown cannot be sustained indefinitely because of its economic consequences on millions of poor people, and he announced that from 1 June, some restrictions would be lifted. However, many continue to fall through the cracks of society.

Amongst the many vulnerable people who have been hard hit by the effects of the lockdown, are the HIV-AIDS home nursing patients and the poor people being cared for by the Order of Malta’s South African branch.

Father Gérard Lagleder OSB, the founder and President of the Brotherhood of Blessed Gérard in Mandeni in eastern Kwazulu Natal Province, told Linda Bordoni that he is seeing many people on the brink of starvation while the number of Covid-19 infections continues to rise.

Listen to the interview with Fr. Gérard

Thanks to the work and dedication of staff and volunteers of the Brotherhood of Blessed Gérard in Mandeni, some of the poorest of the poor, many of them affected by HIV-AIDS, receive life-saving medicine and food. The organization, with its "Blessed Gérard's Care Centre",  also runs an orphanage, a hospice and a clinic for malnourished children.

Fr Gérard said he is looking to the months ahead with concern as experts forecast a dramatic increase in the rate of infections in South Africa, with 12 to 13 million cases expected to be reported by November with the steepest rise in July and August.

At the heart of the Brotherhood's mission is the aim to enable and empower people to help themselves. Its secondary aim is to provide direct aid in cases of emergency, and that is what the organization is doing right now as the pandemic exposes critical fault lines including increased marginalization, social tension and extreme poverty. 

Impact of the lockdown on the poor

It’s all very well, he said, that lockdown measures remain in place “but the problem is that people are starving now,” especially those living in the informal settlements.

If you put your daily bread on the table by selling bananas or avocados on the side of the road, during a lockdown - he explained - you have nothing to take home at the end of the day. And this is what is happening in the country where many survive working as informal traders.

So, he said we are dealing with extreme poverty coupled with the fact that many of those assisted by the Brotherhood's Care Centre are AIDS patients and home patients who are far from the reach of the social services.

Fr Gérard acknowledged that the government is doing a lot to distribute food parcels “but you have to line-up for many hours to get them,” he said, commenting on how the long lines of people are similar to the ones that wowed the world when all South Africans lined up to cast their votes for the first time in the historic 1994 election.

“Our home-care patients are lying in bed and our AIDS patients are not strong enough to stand for hours in a line to wait for a food parcel,” he noted, so the Brotherhood is implementing a targeted food programme that reaches home-care patients, AIDS patients in the hospice and those who are dying at home.

Staving off starvation

Currently, the food programme assists some 300 families, and each food parcel lasts one month for a family of two or three people. But, Fr. Gérard said, he expects those numbers to rise significantly if the organization can fund it.

Medication for HIV-AIDS patients is another priority for the Care Centre that had supplied a two-month stock of retroviral drugs to those in need of them before the lockdown and is now preparing to distribute more.

Apart from the travel restrictions, “so many of our patients don't have the means to pay for public transport to come to the clinics to fetch medication,” he said, and together with the fact that they are immuno-depressed which makes them particularly vulnerable to the virus, we prefer they stay safe so “we are bringing their medication and we're bringing them food to sustain them during this horrible period.”

How to help

One problem Fr Gérard is burdened with regards fundraising for the programme as the pandemic has halted fundraising tours and many potential donors do not appear to trust online fundraising campaigns.

But, he appealed: “please practice what the Germans call the ‘snowball system' which means that you pass on the message” and those who want to give, "can be sure their money is coming to the right place and that it’s going to be administered properly."

Each food parcel, he explained, costs the equivalent of 16 Euros, and those parcels are saving lives.

Although the morale is generally very low at the moment because people are desperate, Fr. Gérard concluded, the feeling of joy, when people receive help, is tangible: 

“They are smiling and relieved to feel that somebody cares for them and that they are important. This is what the Order of Malta is all about, and this is what we are all about.”

27 May 2020, 12:35