Caritas on the front lines of Africa’s Ebola crisis

When the Ebola outbreak started coming closer to an orphanage he runs in Sierra Leone, Fr. Peter Konteh knew it was time to get the most at-risk kids out.

“We’re going to see the beach,” the Caritas Freetown priest told the children.

He had set up the orphanage after the country’s civil war left many children parentless. Now they were under threat again. “I didn’t want to create panic. Some of these kids have already been traumatized by the war.”

Fr. Peter took the children to Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital. “We had lunch and snacks. We were singing in the car,” he said. “It had to appear to be a jolly trip.” The children are now with host families.

With a low survival rate, Ebola has killed hundreds of people in West Africa in just a few months. For World Health Organisation advice on Ebola please visit their website.

Caritas aid workers fanned out through countries like Guinea and Sierra Leone, going to remote villages, slums and towns to teach people about good hygiene and hand washing as a way to halt the disease. [Please support our work fighting Ebola in West Africa]

Soap, chlorine and hand sanitizer are effective. In Guinea, Caritas has brought soap and chlorine to more than 100,000 people and goes door-to-door to raise awareness.

In Guinea, Caritas works with other rescue groups to distribute soap, chlorine and other materials to thousands of families. Credit: Caritas

In Sierra Leone, Caritas workers arrange local training sessions and speak on the radio. “The biggest enemy is lack of understanding,” said Edward John-Bull, director of Caritas Sierra Leone.

“We bring doctors and other professionals to do the training. Catholic school teachers, priests, we train them with all the messages of how to protect yourself. Then they go back to the parishes, and the catechists talk about Ebola, or priests talk about it during the sermon,” he said.

“The value of Caritas is that we’re already there, in the communities. People trust the religious leaders,” said Moira Monacelli, Caritas Italy’s Regional Coordinator for West Africa.

Caritas reaches out to people who are particularly at risk: “restaurant workers, taxi drivers, hotel staff, markets, places where people gather,” said Edward John-Bull of Caritas Sierra Leone. Caritas also works with midwives to make sure they know how to deliver a baby safely, “so the delivery does not transmit Ebola,” he said.

When people do get sick, they’re resistant to going to the hospital. Some believe conspiracy theories that the virus was brought by outside groups on purpose as a cover for organ harvesting. Some put their trust in traditional healers. In other cases, local people “see that doctors and nurses are affected,” said Monacelli.

Family members also don’t want to leave their loved ones in quarantine. “For the culture it’s impossible,” said Monacelli. “You stay close to a sick person, you stay near them up until the last minute. Up until death. They follow the body and they touch the body.”

So that families can keep in touch with loved ones they can’t see, health workers are “giving them cell phones,” said Fr. Peter.

When someone dies, the Ebola team buries them. “When you’re buried in Ebola cemetery, none of your own people ever see you,” says John-Bull. “They are buried like prisoners–in body bags, thrown in a hole. The question is, how can you humanise it?”

Caritas staff—especially priests—have become intermediaries, working with hospital staff and families to arrange for funeral rites that give dignity and closure to families while keeping the virus from spreading.

“There’s a kind of Ebola-protected ambulance that can transport the body safely,” said John-Bull. “That way, families can decide on the type of burial and the place of burial.”

Fr. Peter comforts families who were not able to bury their dead in the way they hoped. “I tell them, ‘if we can bless food without seeing the food, we can pray for loved one who have lost their lives,” he said.

As the cases mount, it can feel like communities are drowning. “I remember the scripture passage where the disciples thought they were sinking and there was no hope,” said Fr Peter. “But Jesus said, ‘Do not be afraid, I am with you.’ I think of that, and I feel reassurance.”

Some say Ebola is God’s punishment and the way to stop it is just to pray. “When I go on the radio, I say, ‘God is there, but we also have to make our own efforts to prevent what is happening. We don’t just sit and say ‘I’m praying,’” said Fr Peter.

In rural areas where there is no TV, such radio messages can reach far. Caritas Guinea has run more than 2600 radio spots on 8 channels.

The children that Fr. Peter evacuated from the orphanage are doing well. But “when we got news that Ebola is in Freetown, they said, ‘Where do you think is safe now?’” says Fr. Peter.

“They asked me, ‘Where do we go next?’”


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