‘Given what we see and hear about what is happening in the world as regards the pandemic, thank heaven the situation in Benin is not at all dramatic’. This is what Father Guy-Gervais Ayite, the Provincial Superior of the Camillians in Benin-Togo, said to the Osservatore Romano. After the discovery of the first case of infection in the middle of March, the situation today is stable and has involved 305 people infected by the disease, 188 people who have recovered and 4 deaths. The decision of the government not to impose a lockdown was very much debated but this religious explained that ‘it would be absurd not to recognise the extreme economic fragility of these families. Often they live on less than two euros a day and this small sum of money can be obtained only if one leaves home in the morning to go to work. People prefer to die of covid-19 rather than of hunger: unfortunately people do not have a choice’.
Indeed, malaria and malnutrition are the other scourges that afflict the country. Thus during the pandemic local elections were also held on 17 May. Those who voted had to wear facemasks and engage in social distancing of a metre in the voting stations. ‘In a socio-economic context like ours where the worst is really feared’, explained this Camillians, ‘the statistics lead us to have a cautious optimism’. The majority of people who have been infected have light symptoms or do not have any symptoms. The system used to combat the pandemic envisages the isolation of infected people and a prophylaxis with chloroquine for them and anybody who has entered into contact with them. However, in Benin there are very many other problems that almost conceal covid-19: from March until today there have been over 1,350 registered cases of deaths caused by malaria. ‘You only have to go into the villages’, observed Father Guy-Gervais, ‘to see that less than a half of the children go to school because of the lack of economic resources’.
According to the data of the World Food Programme (WFP), in Benin about ten per cent of families suffer from a lack of food, whereas 32 per cent of children under the age of five are malnourished. Another problem is the low level of literacy which is at about 40 per cent. ‘More than 70 per cent of young people with a school-leaving diploma do not have a job and having one meal a day is also difficult’, added this missionary, ‘ and for that matter even those who do work earn tiny sums, but there is nothing better’.
Father Guy-Gervais lives in Cotonou, an economic centre that has over 700,000 inhabitants and is on the Atlantic coast. Here, he said, ‘the situation in the hospitals of the city is under control’. Although preventive measures against the virus are minimal, people almost live in a state of normality. ‘There were moments of panic when two deaths were recorded: the first in a private clinic that was then closed for a month; the second in a public institution where they closed down a ward. These two episodes led to a raising of levels of alert from a health-care point of view. ‘For that matter, swabs to carry out tests are not directly available to hospitals: they are handled centrally by the government’.
For decades Camillians have been active in Benin where they manage a number of health-care institutions and the ‘La Croix’ Hospital in Cotonou. Many Camillian religious have degrees in medicine or nursing and they immediately set to work to counter the spread of covid-19: adopting the guidelines of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and sensitising patients who went to these health-care centres. ‘Education in prevention is the only bulwark to avoid disaster’, says the Provincial Superior, ‘above all in a country like Benin which before the outbreak of the pandemic had less than fifteen respirators’. The government keeps the population informed on the good practices that should be followed and has imposed the use of facemasks. In addition, gloves and suits are present in hospitals and health-care institutions.
The charism of the Camillians is to serve God in the sick, even putting their own lives at risk, as the fourth vow of the Order lays down. When there is a pandemic’, observes Father Guy-Gervais, ‘this awakens in us a heartfelt commitment in this situation, as our confreres have done on various occasions during times of plague in the heart of Europe’. With the coronavirus, missionary activity has changed – above all ‘the way of seeing the triage of patients and hygiene’, this missionary went on, ‘aware that collective salvation depends on these elements. We have revised the flow of patients into clinics and tried to limit – not without difficulty – the visits of relatives’. It is thanks to the religious that poor people have managed more easily to have access to care and treatment.
The people of Benin are aware of the dangers of the virus: they have accepted the limitations imposed by the government; they wear improvised facemasks; and they only move around when this is indispensable. This has happened because of the importance attributed to the local Catholic Church as well. One need only think of the fundamental work of mediation carried out in the year 2019 to solve the political crisis during the last national elections. ‘An important role which some invisible hand increasingly tries to discredit, drowning its actions’, declared this Camillian. Thus the Bishops’ Conference of Benin, which in 2020 celebrated its thirtieth anniversary of existence, adopted advanced measures in the fight against the virus that were then taken up by the government. As in very many other parts of the world, here, as well, for some time Holy Masses have not been celebrated and other public religious activities have not taken place, even though many parishes have started to do so in streaming on Youtube and Facebook. However, on Immaculée Conception Radio the Church has broadcast celebrations of the Eucharist in the various languages that are spoken in the country. ‘It is said that in a short while religious services can begin again regularly’, observed Father Gervais.
On the map of levels of risk as regards the pandemic drawn up by the African Centre for Strategic Studies, at the present time Benin is the fifth safest State in Africa. However, according to the United Nations the next months will be decisive for the continent when covid-19 infections should reach their peak. ‘The increase in the number of infections is probably something that we will not be able to avoid’, this missionary said coming to the end of his interview, ‘but my hope is that the level of immunity of the population will increase and it will thus be protected against the fury of the virus. In a socio-economic context such as ours this seems to me the only safe thing that can last over time’.