Introductory Remarks by His Eminence Card. Peter K. A. Turkson at the Lessons Learned Review Conference Holy See Initiative in Response to the Outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease in West Africa and Strategic Planning on Catholic Church Response to Zika Epidemic, held in Rome on December 9th and 10th.
The Conference was co-organised by Caritas Internationalis, the US Embassy to the Holy See and the Pontifical COuncil for Justice and Peace.
by Cardinal Peter K.A. Turkson, President, Pontifcal Council for Justice and Peace
Your Excellencies, members of the Roman Curia and of the Diplomatic Corps, Dear Bishops representing the Anglican Church, Experts and Officials of international and governmental public health agencies, and all participants, my Brothers and Sisters in Our Lord, Jesus Christ,
I am very pleased to welcome you to this important Conference with its two related intentions. First of all, we will review lessons to learn from the response to the Ebola outbreak by the Holy See, at the special request of His Holiness Pope Francis, and of the Catholic Church, both in the most affected countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, and throughout the world. Thanks to the presence of our ecumenical brothers, two bishops from the Anglican Church, we can also share experiences of other Christian communions in the face of the challenges presented by Ebola. Secondly, we will attempt to benefit from these lessons as we strategize for more effective and comprehensive religious responses to other health-related humanitarian crises that will surely confront us in the future. The first of these is the growing public health threat of Zika Virus.
While governments and inter-governmental organizations struggled to mount a coordinated response to the outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, the Catholic Church and the wide range of Catholic-inspired organizations responded immediately and effectively to this crisis at the global, national, and local or community levels. This was done by:
- maintaining and strengthening services provided in Catholic health care programmes in the affected locales;
- securing, from international Church-related donors, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), medications, and funds for risk incentive pay for staff;
- counteracting panic and the stigmatization of those already infected and of their families, as well as of survivors of the disease;
- offering material, psycho-social, and pastoral assistance to those unable to provide for their daily sustenance (in particular, those in 21-day quarantine);
- assisting the World Health Organization (WHO) to revise its “Guidelines for Safe and Dignified Burials”.
When Pope Francis entrusted me with the responsibility to plan and implement a special Holy See initiative to address this health crisis, I worked in close consultation with the members of the hierarchy and the Apostolic Nuncios in the highly affected countries and with the Catholic organizations already so engaged. We identified, as a principal aim for the initiative, the strengthening of church-related medical, social, educational, and pastoral structures and personnel in the affected countries. The intention was to mitigate the tragic impact of the epidemic on families and on communities right away. Then, looking to the future, the aim was to reduce the impact in the event of another Ebola outbreak.
In relation to Health Care, we decided to prioritize support for health in general. While governments, inter-governmental agencies, and international aid agencies specifically supported Ebola treatment in the affected countries, the Church’s health facilities continued to address the health care needs of the general population. This funding supported, inter alia, the following measures to enhance the quality and safety of health care, as well as to prevent further transmission of Ebola among staff and other patients:
• purchase of protective supplies, medications, and vehicles for patient transport;
• building changes to ensure sanitary conditions in health facilities;
• engagement of additional personnel and extra pay for personnel engaged in high-risk services.
In relation to Community Response, we recognized immediately the key role being played by local parishes. Parishes are a trusted institution in local communities – a place where direct, honest, and credible information can be transmitted to parishioners. Funding was provided to:
• train parishioners and residents of local communities on the behavioural changes necessary to stop the spread of Ebola;
• provide food and hygiene kits to households;
• support families under observation for possible Ebola infection to access adequate nutrition and other essential needs;
• support orphans and other children and families with special needs.
In addition, since Catholic school teachers and students could help prevent the further spread of the virus, funding also supported the re-opening of Catholic schools.
In relation to Pastoral Response, the Church has unique capacity and the mandate to attend to the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of those who are sick and suffering. Some in the Church are called to serve as “doctors of the body” but others receive the call to serve as “doctors of the soul”. Funding assisted local dioceses, parishes, religious congregations, and Catholic-inspired organizations to:
• train clergy, religious, and lay leaders to serve the pastoral and spiritual needs of those infected with Ebola and their family members in local communities. Where public health regulations prevented religious ministers from being in direct contact with Ebola patients, we urged them to interact with such persons at a safe distance and offer spiritual closeness in ways to bring them and their family members comfort and hope.
• Training also helped priests and other pastoral caregivers through skills-building to challenge stigmatization and rejection, and to instruct their parishioners about the basic religious teachings in this regard.
With this ample programme in mind, we asked for proposals to carry it out. Requests for proposals were sent to the members of the hierarchy and the Apostolic Nuncios in the respective affected countries; to international and local superiors of the religious congregations; and to international and local leadership of Catholic-inspired organizations actively engaged in Ebola response in those countries. In order to assist with the selection of appropriate proposals, I appointed a small Review Committee, including: Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo of Caritas Internationalis; Sr. Barbara Brillant, FMM, Coordinator of the National Catholic Health Council, Liberia; Fr. Aris Miranda, MI, General Councillor and Coordinator of the Camillian Emergency Response Team, Rome; Fra Pascal Ahodegnon, OH, General Councillor, Hospitaler Brothers of St. John of God, General Councillor, Rome.
In order to implement this initiative, we received generous support from Pope Francis; from Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic Health Association in the USA, from the Sister Adorers of the Holy Cross and the Raskob Foundation. In addition, FADICA (Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities) launched its own projects in close consultation with the Holy See. In total, we supported 5 projects in Guinea, 7 projects in Sierra Leone, and 10 projects in Liberia.
While I have concentrated mainly on the Holy See Initiative, I wish to acknowledge the generous and expert engagement of Caritas Internationalis. Thanks to its emergency appeal to Caritas members throughout the world, direct funding came from such Caritas members as Catholic Relief Services, Caritas Germany, Secours Catholique – Caritas France, Caritas Italiana, CAFOD of England and Wales, and Cordaid of the Netherlands. Other Catholic donors and providers of technical assistance included Misereor – Germany, the Medical Mission Institute – Germany, CUAMM of Italy (Doctors for Africa), and the Sovereign Order of Malta. Generous self-forgetful service was provided by religious congregations such as the Brothers of St. John of God, the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, the Consolata Sisters, and the Fathers and Brothers of St. Camillus, and many others.
In December 2014, accompanied by Mons. Vitillo, I was privileged to make visits to local church communities in both Liberia and Sierra Leone, where I relayed the concern and solidarity of the Holy Father. Wherever I went, I shared with our Catholic and other brothers and sisters, the words of the Holy Father: “In the face of the worsening Ebola epidemic, I would like to express my deep concern about this relentless disease that is spreading on the African continent, especially among the more disadvantaged groups. I am close with love and prayer to those stricken, as well as to the doctors, nurses, volunteers, religious institutes and associations, who are working heroically to help our sick brothers and sisters. I renew my appeal that the International Community exert all necessary effort to weaken this virus, effectively alleviating the hardship and suffering of all those so sorely tried. I invite you to pray for them and for those who have lost their lives.”
I was deeply impressed and inspired by the faith of the people in the areas that I visited – their living faith grew stronger, despite and through the adversity they faced. When I met with the President of Liberia, Her Excellency Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, she confirmed the frightening impact of the epidemic. The closing of businesses and other employments have played havoc with an already fragile economy. So too, the social costs are very serious; for instance, where schools are closed for a long time, one finds a rise in teenage pregnancies; as young people wander the streets with nothing to do, petty crime goes up, too. Further, Ebola orphans have often faced rejection in their local communities and by their extended families, even after they have been confirmed as “Ebola free”.
At many stops during our visit, as we gathered in prayer, people expressed the tragic pain of suffering and loss. They also proclaimed their hope that God would bring them physical, emotional and, above all, spiritual healing, to their loved ones and their community. Through the light of faith and hope, they envisioned a time when the epidemic would end – a vision that was not yet shared by many of the public health authorities. God listened and responded to those prayers. As a result, we can now gather during these two days to share what we have learned. We can strengthen our resolve and good practices to lessen the impact of future outbreaks of Ebola and other life-threatening communicable diseases. May God bless and accompany us in these timely efforts.
 Pope Francis during the General Audience, 29 October 2014