guest column:Fr Oskar Wermter SJ
Epidemics are nothing new. We know of the “Black Death” (bubonic plague) that killed one third of the population of Europe in the Middle Ages (14th century). What is new is that since then scientific medicine has developed vaccines and drugs with which epidemics can be stopped.
There was a Jesuit priest, Friedrich von Spee, who nursed the soldiers of an army from France when they occupied the ancient town of Trier. Eventually the infectious disease that had killed many soldiers killed him too. Many people in the 17th century believed that fatal epidemics were caused by their enemies with the power of witchcraft. For von Spee, witchcraft was fake and a great fraud to mislead the gullible. He believed in charity as the most effective medicine they had at that time. An Italian aristocrat, Luigi Gonzaga, at only 23 years old, died in Rome in 1591, when attending to plague victims, (now St Aloysius).
Often epidemics were a scourge that came together with wars and revolutions, when ordinary healthcare broke down. Christian people volunteered to come to the aid of their infected brothers and sisters.
“In the year 1633 the plague was raging all over Silesia (in the East of Germany). In the town of Neisse 5 000 people fell victim to the disease. Eight of 17 Jesuits perished because they had been serving the dying and picked up the incurable disease from them. Some of the sick had been so weak that they could not come and open the door for the priest when he knocked. This did not stop him: He came with a ladder so that he could enter through a window upstairs.”
Tuberculosis (TB) was incurable. Only in the 19th century did they find its cause. It is a lung disease which is spread through the air from person to person. Nowadays it is curable. We have vaccines and drugs to fight the “silent epidemic”. It need not be fatal. But the disease is mutating and for these new forms of it we may not have the right vaccines yet. Often it goes together at this present time with HIV/Aids. And such patients may succumb to it. It needs a good public health service to deal with TB and other contagious diseases by preventive medicine.
Infectious diseases do not only affect patients, but nursing staff and doctors as well. The doctor who first diagnosed an Ebola outbreak in West Africa and raised the alarm, eventually died of it himself. Medical workers fighting epidemics need great personal courage, special clothing and drugs.
Leprosy has been known since biblical times. The disease which is only slowly transmitted to another person makes skin and muscular tissue rot in a living body which explains why the disease causes enormous terror and fear. Lepers used to be barred from community life. They had to leave and live in deserted places by themselves, shunned by the rest of the world (Luke 17: 11-19). Jesus of Nazareth showed compassion to them and healed those he met.
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Damian de Veuster, a Belgian priest, lived with lepers on the island of Molokai in the Pacific. Eventually, he caught the disease himself and died. His followers, men and women, continued his work which made the suffering of lepers known worldwide. In the last century, medical science discovered a drug with which to heal these outcasts of society.
In our country, leprosy has been a scourge for the people for a long time (Shona: Maperembudzi). The disease disfigures the body. It also destroys a person’s life because a leprous person is excluded from family and community. They are kept in special camps, the poorest of the poor.
Francis, poor and a friend of the poor, learnt to live with lepers. He met a leper and was abhorred by his ugly wounds. But he embraced and kissed him. Friends of Francis engage with such outcasts of society even today. Any epidemic creates such outcasts, shunned by society and even by the community. Francis recognised in them children of God, and their human dignity as brothers and sisters.
There was also a man called John Bradburne, who had a heart like Francis. He looked for a place where he could serve God. He found it in Mutemwa, near Mutoko, a camp for leprosy patients. People even today go to Mutemwa to pray for the spirit of John’s charity. John called the people living with leprosy in Mutemwa his friends. As we experience another epidemic, we are warned against physical contact with people who just might have the virus, and should observe what modern hygiene teaches us. Nevertheless, society should never shun people as outcasts, a community must never abandon its most vulnerable.
Blaming a public calamity like an epidemic on witchcraft and witches and personal enemies does not bring healing. It is love and respect for the afflicted that heals.
Anyone could be struck down by an epidemic. We all of us must retain a spirit of solidarity. There is now an international solidarity between nations. No one is a stranger, no one may be ignored.
People no longer have to die in such vast numbers like in the past. The State must at a time like this strengthen its public healthcare system. Respect for human life and dignity must grow.