To respond to the Ebola crisis in West Africa, which has taken more than 3,000 lives, the World Council of Churches (WCC) brought to the table representatives of Christian aid organizations and United Nations agencies to learn from each other and to escalate their efforts.
The WCC consultation, held here Sept. 29, affirmed a greater role for the churches and faith-based organizations in helping to stop the epidemic.
The Ebola crisis in West Africa is the largest of its kind since the 1976 outbreak. More than 6,200 people have been infected with the virus in severely affected countries such as Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, according to World Health Organization (WHO) reports. It estimates that numbers of infected persons could top 1 million by January 2015.
A recent U.N. meeting in New York has strongly urged stepped-up efforts to stop Ebola, naming it a “public health crisis” and a “threat to peace and security.”
Dr Pierre Formenty, an epidemiologist and the coordinator of the WHO’s campaign against Ebola, while addressing the WCC consultation, explained how the Ebola virus appeared for the first time in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Even with a good response the number of affected people has increased on the statistical graph,” he said.
“This is a situation where everyone needs to work together: politicians, media, communities, faith organizations. We all have to do something. If one fails, everybody will fail,” said Formenty.
In this situation, he said, “Faith organizations in Africa have a huge role to play.”
Participants stressed that churches and other religious communities not only have a constant and influential reach to the grassroots populations to offer practical advice about hygiene and safe funeral practices but can also directly address the deeper cultural and religious roots of widespread stigma and discrimination that have accompanied the epidemic.
Dr Gisela Schneider from the German Institute for Medical Mission, who was in Liberia a few weeks ago, shared observations from her visit. “Christian hospitals are highly vulnerable,” she said. “This is why ‘keep safe, keep working’ is an important slogan we promote for the health workers serving Christian hospitals. She said that “people working on the ground need a great amount of encouragement, training, mentorship and support.”
Schneider added that while it is important to increase health facilities that reach the household level, it is “crucial to empower local communities to take care of themselves.”
Dr David Nabarro, the U.N. Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Ebola, joined the consultation via Skype from New York City. He shared details of the U.N. strategy and actions in addressing the Ebola crisis in collaboration with local governments and international bodies.
Nabarro also mentioned an increase in efforts from the Security Council and engagement from the African Union in dealing with the impact of Ebola.
Nabarro added that the “struggle is not just to prevent the virus, but to take into consideration the long-term effects risking stability of the economy and communities.” In many areas farming and agricultural activities have come to a halt due to the fear of Ebola.
Nabarro argued that to formulate an effective response it is important to empower women, traditional healers and health workers without putting them at a risk. He said churches and faith-based organizations have a massive role to play in dealing with emotional, psychological and spiritual aspects of people’s lives, engaging them on questions of life and death.
Ending Ebola, supporting communities
Christoph Benn from the Global Fund said the “WCC, churches and ecumenical organizations need to take full responsibility in not only helping to curb the disease but in communicating the right message, in raising awareness and challenging the stigma attached to Ebola.”
Benn is former advisor to the WCC for its program on health and healing.
The consultation also highlighted the sanctity and dignity of the dead during burial rituals, an occasion which poses high risks of spreading the disease. The speakers said that while it is necessary to prevent the spread of the virus, support to families and communities is also essential.
It was stressed that women should be empowered in their response to Ebola. The impact of virus especially on children and women was discussed at length at the event. The statistics shared at the consultation showed that 4.5 million children under the age of five are living in areas affected by the Ebola virus. Children and women constitute 75 percent of survivors and victims. Based on this information, ideas on further collaboration between the WCC and women’s ecumenical organizations were shared.
WCC general secretary the Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit in his remarks said that the WCC will facilitate its member churches and faith-based organizations in communicating vital information and “life-affirming messages” while being sensitive to the local culture and traditions.
“Churches and faith communities have a vibrant role to play in addressing stigma issues, promoting preventative messages and compassionate alternative burial ceremonies and rituals.” He said churches should provide psychosocial and pastoral counselling to the traumatized family members as well as support the over-stretched health-care providers.
Tveit added, “Christian health services need to be strengthened through accompaniment and more resources in the support and services so that they are able to function in feasible and practical ways under such circumstances.”
The WCC consultation brought together participants from a number of organizations, including the WHO, UNICEF, UNAIDS, the ACT Alliance, the Lutheran World Federation, Caritas Internationalis, Global Fund, International Organization for Migration, the World Student Christian Federation, the World YWCA and the International Labor Organization.