As COVID-19 strikes Zimbabwe hard again, ACN supports Church responders

ZIMBABWE´S RECENT REIMPOSITION OF A NEW COVID-19 LOCKDOWN, has again focused global attention on the distressed country. The need for help is huge and there is a surge in the number of infections, up to 596 new cases and 26 deaths in only one week, as stated by the Vice President Constantino Chiwenga in mid-June.  In recent months, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has been able to provide ongoing help to fight the pandemic.

Funds were given to supply personal protective equipment, including masks, face shields, latex gloves, protective suits, gumboots, and disinfectants. All this equipment enables the work of more than 1200 pastoral workers—priests, deacons and religious. Their challenge is to cover the enormous territory of the eight dioceses of the country. With many of the pastoral workers often in the frontlines providing medical and social aid.

Due to its position, Zimbabwe is a gateway to Botswana, Zambia, South Africa and Mozambique. This affects, for example, the Diocese of Chinhoyi. It spreads over a vast territory of more than 20,000 56,000 square miles, with a total of 142 pastoral workers (priests, permanent deacons and religious brothers and sisters) working in schools, hospitals, pastoral centers, parishes, and missions. The area is vulnerable to infections coming from Chirundu, the primary boarder post to Zambia. There is also a lot of movement of people through unlicensed crossing points with Zambia and Mozambique.

Clergy in Zimbabwe

Pastoral workers also have to cover a huge area also in the Diocese of Masvingo, which covers some 20,000 square miles, twice the size of Belgium. There are only 66 priests, 83 sisters, and two brothers, all involved in pastoral and educational work, as well as nursing and social work, working closely with three hospitals and five clinics.

Another challenge is the fact that most of the country is rural, inhabited by peasant farmers. In Chinhoyi, out of 21 parishes, only six are urban, the rest are rural parishes and missions. Hospitals are far away, which makes it difficult to transfer serious cases. Severe infection complications occur also due to the failure to separate COVID-19 cases from others.

Even larger is the rural environment in the Diocese of Gokwe. There, 100 percent of the population are farmers. As such, it does not have stakeholders who could assist in emergency situations. The rainfall pattern is very erratic often resulting in an insufficient harvest. Many are living from hand to mouth. This starvation has exposed people to even contracting different diseases like malaria, since the area is infested with tse tse flies and mosquitos, which have claimed many lives. The situation has become more complicated with the arrival of COVID-19 which has similar symptoms.

The subsequent lockdown by the government left many people stranded. Pastoral workers are not getting food so easily as before, because they cannot reach the parishioners, who had helped them in the past. Similar issues can be found in three more dioceses: Bulawayo, Gweru and Mutare.

The current epicenter of the pandemic is Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, where currently, some 136 religious men and women serve the sick: praying with them, giving them last rites, burying the dead and counselling the bereaved families. These are the Church front-liners who interact with each other and with the communities they serve every day, which makes them vulnerable to the deadly virus.

“As the Archbishop of Bulawayo recently informed us, our help arrived just in time before the third wave” of COVID-19 says Ulrich Kny, ACN’s head of projects for Zimbabwe. Kny continues: “In many African countries, medical care is completely inadequate. Malaria, AIDS, cholera, and other diseases are widespread. If a pandemic like Covid-19 is added to this mix, disaster is inevitable. Such a catastrophe was looming in some southern African countries at the beginning of the year, when the second wave of the pandemic—due to the spread of the South African mutant of the virus–assumed increasingly devastating proportions and claimed more and more lives—including bishops, priests, sisters, catechists and other lay Church workers.”

The humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe has gotten worse in the past few years, especially since Cyclone Idai in 2019. The country has temporarily experienced record rates of inflation at 786 percent and by 2020 more than one-third of the population of 15 million, were still dependent on food aid. The Church through its pastoral agents makes constant efforts to bring consolation to the suffering people.

“For the local churches to be able to maintain their pastoral work, we had to help. Normally, in many dioceses, we give a so called ‘subsistence help’ to sisters and Mass stipends to priests to help them with their livelihood so that they can lead a dignified life. But now, not only subsistence help but a survival grant has become necessary! The priests and sisters can only continue to serve—visit the sick, dying and needy, those who are especially dependent on spiritual assistance in the loneliness of the lockdown—if they themselves are adequately protected, so we have offered our help in several countries to all dioceses for the purchase of personal protective equipment,” concludes Kny.

—Danko Kovaceci