By Lydia O’Kane
In the early 1980’s the alarm was raised about a virus called HIV/AIDS which began sweeping across the world and went on to become a global pandemic.
According to the World Health Organisation, the virus has claimed more than 32 million lives and millions more have been infected.
Ebola is another virus, already known for decades, which dominated the headlines in 2014 when there was a serious outbreak in West Africa.
Now the world is grappling with a new enemy, the Covid-19 virus which originated in China and has now spread worldwide.
The Coronavirus is a new virus, which means that experts have had to learn very quickly about what exactly it is, and how to contain it.
Monsignor Robert Vitillo is Secretary General of the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) and has been a Vatican advisor on HIV/AIDS and Ebola.
“This is a new virus, at least in terms of effects on human beings. We know other coronaviruses, some of them have very mild symptoms but this particular one has serious conditions especially in people who are more vulnerable”, he said.
Asked about what can be learned from the Ebola outbreak and the HIV/AIDS pandemic, Mons Vitillo said that “we certainly need to learn the fact that we have to get the facts, we have to share factual information as it’s being found by the scientists”.
He went on to say, that just like both the HIV and Ebola viruses, “there is almost an innate tendency to be very fearful; to panic and to spread rumours that are not founded on science… That also leads to a great deal of discrimination and stigmatization against those people who are living with these viruses or who are affected by them in some way.”
Mons Vitillo pointed out that these are things that people should have learned and yet the same kinds of tendencies are continuing with the Coronavirus.
Viruses such as Covid-19 and Ebola, he emphasized, are very different viruses and have very different means of spreading.
Mons Vitillo noted that during the outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa from 2014 to 2015 there was a much wider spread. Therefore, he said, “it was really important to take regular means of preventing such spread, especially hand washing and good hygiene and this is an area we can use as well; a learning that we can use as well with this new virus.”
“Although less deadly than Ebola, the Covid-19 virus spreads much more quickly and it spreads through communities very quickly as we’ve seen over the last couple of months”, he said.
Speaking about the Church’s reaction and outreach amidst this pandemic, the ICMC Secretary General praised the Church’s response, saying that Pope Francis “is talking about this constantly, and reminding us first of all of the need to listen to the facts, not to panic, not to stigmatize others and also to respect good public health instructions about… good hygiene, washing hands very, very thoroughly…and then respecting the public health instructions that we’ve seen happen all over the world now in terms of social distancing and trying to avoid contact with crowds and others.”
At the same time, the Monsignor went on to say, measures have also been taken by the local Churches, by the Bishops’ Conferences, by the dioceses and by parishes to try to reduce the spread of the virus.
This virus, as the world has seen, does not have boundaries and as it continues to take hold, Pope Francis has been talking about the importance of solidarity at this time.
Mons Vitillo underlined that the Pope’s words have been vital, because he has talked about “caring for those who are marginalized; about finding ways even if they are remotely, to be sure that people are being taken care of, and that they have access to the basic necessities of life, especially when they are quarantined or when they need to voluntarily, or by the order of the governmental authorities”.
“We also need to remember”, the Monsignor stressed, “that many, many people, already at the margins of society don’t have the luxury of taking some of the voluntary means that others have about social distancing, especially migrants…. They don’t always have access to good and factual information, so we as an organization are trying to supply that.”