God, AIDS, Africa & HOPE

pensées of a Catholic priest

“The Nex” Theology

The Nex - Blessings ceremony
Blessing Ceremony

People of faith think in religious terms, their whole life makes sense in the light of a belief system giving meaning to what they do and how they see life in general. It does not mean to prescribe this to all involved, but it serves as an explanation for motivation, reflected on a deeper personal level. This is a first draft, a first attempt to reflect on the theological meaning of building a campus in Delft / South Africa.

Theological Consideration – first thoughts…

Normally Catholic priests in South Africa are bound to parish life, leading under the authority of a Bishop the faithful of a prescribed territorial area in prayer, worship and charity for those in need.

Running a foundation during the week and only attending to the spiritual needs on a weekend as a supply priest before retirement is already different and for some not fitting the picture of a priest. Building a campus in a gang and crime ridden area is then certainly not their first priestly task and would be seen as extra-ordinary, rather flamboyant in church terms.

And still, I believe there is merit to look with a theological and pastoral eye exactly on this campus comprising of buildings serving in the following areas: Health, Early Childhood Development, Social Services, Youth, Entrepreneurial Skills Development and Vocational Training. Not to forget community uplifting, understanding of democracy and the value of human life and human dignity.

Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good!
Genesis 1:31

Having worked in the Delft area since more than a decade Delft mirrors all the shortcomings of the new South Africa, it showcases the lost hopes, the cut-short aspirations, the undervalue of life as such, latent racism and not a lot of those living there would on a daily basis and in their daily life agree, that all is “very good”. Churches of different kinds are spread all over Delft and often for some hours they beam those attending gatherings into a different sphere trying to instil hope for the days to come.

Sermons can be a good tool to inspire but I feel that theology and bible are more than source for fiery sermons, theology – the word of God – must trickle down much more than just in words and charity, it must be felt and walked the talk by development and action on the ground. The word of God must be felt in the trenches of daily life experience for those left out here in South Africa after more than 30 years living in the promised land called the New South Africa.

Theology can also not only be confined in the framework of parishes, formation seminars, theological faculties and church structures – it must cover that “God looked over all he had made” – so there should be room for more than church structures allowing the word “catholic” – meaning covering the whole – universal to be put into action.

Theology must also be able to be applied to what we do and how we act – it should be able to make sense and to bring a greater meaning to our action – it is part of a circle of action – interpretation – encouragement and out of this more, different but definitely better or more appropriate action again before the circle starts anew. At the same time there is no need for religion to capture what is done. There will be different motivations, different ethos and different religious affiliation and convictions of those working together on a project like “The Nex”.  There will be different ways to describe God or the reason for creation, there will be different theologies – and if such a project fosters more dialogue amongst those different pictures without becoming a competition there is another ecumenical and inter-religious meaning in what we do. “The Nex” becomes a place where unspoken different religions encounter each other in a practical way for the better good of people. The blessings ceremony for The Nex – Indawo Yethu  gave witness to intention and prayers when a Catholic priest, a Rabbi, an Imam and a Sangoma not only spoke but brought the blessings onto the new venture.

In the Catholic Church we talk about the “option for the poor” – and again here we are: How easy is it, to establish oneself as an NGO in one of the safe areas instead of going there, where it hurts, where things will on a long run not only run smoothly but hurtles will be encountered, failures will happen and the hardship of life will be mirrored and shared within this project as people experience it themselves every day. Walking together and staying together even if it hurts at times is taking the words “all is very good” almost on a prophetic level: we are not in the promised land, but we have made ourselves ready to walk towards it; together and equipped with hope, love and faith, that we can reach our destiny.

“Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God?.”
 1 Corinthians 6:19

Spiritually is often connected to meditation and prayer, sometimes fasting exercises which indicate that concentrating on the body is an important part of such exercises. Mindfulness towards body and spirit.
I strongly believe that to a holistic spiritual wellbeing health and attention to the body is non-negotiable. The Nex – Indawo Yethu acknowledges this with the offering of health services, linked to social services and the programme of the “First 1000 days” specifically looking at the wellbeing of a human being in the decisive foundation phase of life.

Health, Wellness – mental health and an environment to thrive is so important especially for children and adolescents. Not forgetting those kids with special needs whose wellbeing will be catered for specifically in the Early Childhood Development Centre of the Campus.

Safety is another aspect of bodily wellbeing. The Nex – Indawo Yethu is situated in an area which is marked currently by violence and gangsterism as well as drug-related problems. It is certainly not a safe area, and it was interesting to see and hear, that in the first community participation meeting we had, the question of safety was raised several times: “Are our kids, our youngsters safe on your campus?” Obviously, this is a challenge and if you want the ugly side of business to admit, that security measures have to play a vital role in planning and executing this project. But ones again: the hope that The Nex – Indawo Yethu can be a turning point in moving into a more peaceful future translates a building into a prophetic sign that change is possible and change in this regard is on the way.

Filed under: Africa, Catholic Church, chaplain, Religion and Ethics, South Africa, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Travel woes

Trying to travel in the times of Covid-19 becomes more and more a nightmare, especially when you come from a so called high-incidence area like South Africa – where the incidence of currently 11.9 and a recovery rate of over 95% constantly is obviously a major threat to European countries dealing with incident rates average between 100 and 300. It is an interesting experience to be a pariah of the world, only because South Africa did something right – which is seldom enough in our days – namely sequencing the existing virus genomes and making the world aware of a mutation which popped up in other countries as well and threatens e.g. with its 1% occurrence in Germany obviously this country in its core.

Trying to reach Europe from Cape Town is becoming a nightmare: airlines stop flying and entry is practically not allowed for those coming from the danger zone of open restaurants, hotels, shops and with level 1 lockdown almost normal life adhering to hygiene, masks in public and distance keeping.

But seriously:

The Robert-Koch-Institute in Germany keeps South Africa on all danger lists possible since last year – and till now only a court in Baden-Württemberg has dared to state, that this institute has not provided any valid reason for asking local governments in Germany to enforce extended quarantine for people returning from South Africa.

Those daring to fly to South Africa suddenly realise how politics can paint a picture of a country which has nothing to do with reality. Politics, which destroys without any visible regret a very important sector of South Africa’s economy, namely tourism, and pushes the country even deeper into trouble on many levels.

Fear and trying to be a Nanny state dictates currently German politics – add to it the urge to always have a perfect solution for a problem and inventing rules for it, then you have the perfect mix for disaster looming. Listening to those in charge you get the impression that they really think they can beat a pandemic. You simply can’t do this -you have to live with it – and you have to find ways to counter it in a way which balances the freedom of people and the needs of a healthy democracy with the threat posed by the virus.

Looking at the vaccine drives and the distribution of vaccines in the world, there is the other assumption for which Europe is falling: vaccinating their own people first will help. The pandemic is only under control if the virus is kept at bay all over the world at the same time. There is no first winner – even trying to curb travel will not lead to the final goal of co-existing with the virus on a level not really being a threat to humans.

Pandemics are a serious threat for human mankind and the systems, humans are working within; anxiety and fear are definitely not the best advisors nor is it to look only at virology for answers. Social sciences, the psychological impact as well as the economic impact are as important to balance and listen to. Time to reconsider as well as to reflect what governments are obliged to do and where the individual citizen remains in charge of his or her own destiny. Our highly complex societies and their interactions need different answers as we are currently able to give.
And like it or not:
Despite the failure regarding the vaccine story and the attempts to abuse the pandemic for political gains and transformation, for the time being South Africa handles the pandemic better than Europe.

Filed under: Africa, Politics and Society, Reflection, Society and living environment, South Africa, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A window of opportunity

We all welcomed the relief of bringing back South Africa from Covid-19 alert level 3 to 1 in the last days. But having said this it is also noticeable that more and more voices are raising concern about the possibility of a 3rd wave as early as the second half of May, when winter is knocking onto the door – especially the Western Cape with cold temperatures and rain will be exposed to more indoor activities raising the bar.

So the next 8 weeks are a window of opportunity to get things right and especially to see to our tools available preventing another peak of death and hospitalization figures. Vaccinations are new in our tool box – but the way they were introduced have clouded for many the willingness to receive them. Instead of using 1.5 million jabs already in the country of a clearly death and hospitalization avoiding vaccine the countries leaders decided to give away 1.5 million protection and opting for a trial run with another vaccination provider needing volunteers to conclude phase 3.

I got quite some flak for criticising Linda-Gail Bekker for wearing two heads as the co-principal of the J&J study and at the same time being part of the running of the country’s vaccine drive. In a tweet reply she assured me that there were no financial implications for her and that several ethic committees have given the green light for this conflict of interest to overcome. I have no reason to not believe her – but I am still of the opinion that this is not really the point:

Looking around and listening to various virologists there is a clear line: vaccinate with what you can get your hands on – the WHO has approved AstraZeneca also for the mutant discovered in South Africa – and I would expect from anybody running the show in this arena to stand up against any government decision to miss the opportunity vaccinating to at least avoid dead and hospitalisation in the 3rd wave. Vaccinate your health workers with the J&J trial as it most likely produces a higher protection rate, but there are millions of South Africans who are not in the health sector – they are working in schools and crèches, in retail, in hospitality, yearning for that extra protection they can get.

While many African countries started a vaccination drive – with AstraZeneca – South Africa stands lonely with a marginal vaccination trial programme having rejected what was already in the country. Judge for yourself whether this decision costing lives in the third wave was right. There will be many who are already dead when in the third and fourth quarter the promised vaccine drive starts in this country. To get a sense of where we are the vaccinations done by now:

And there is more: the writing is already very clearly on the walls: no vaccination no freedom of travel internationally; what this means for business travel you might be able to imagine. We are in the process of missing the boat and we all know, South Africa cannot afford it.

Lastly another question mark: The whole drama about AstraZeneca was triggered by a small – not even peer-to-peer reviewed study – and knowing how the battle is on between pharmaceutical companies to get their product on the market and to cash in – it is understandable that there remain questions how convenient this study was put into the public domain. The amount of studies being published for a greater audience without the filter of academic review and academic knowledge is a danger in itself.

As lives are in danger on different levels: health, economy, social we have to ask the hard questions and to scrutinize what is done and how it is done on the level of decision-making.

We have now a window of opportunity before the virus hits us anew in another wave – and we have to expect from government more than just warm words and promises…. Lives are at stake!

Filed under: Africa, Medical and Research, Politics and Society, Reflection, Society and living environment, South Africa, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , ,

The vaccine confusion

AstraZeneca vaccine stopped – so the headlines around the world when South Africa decided to re-think the use of the vaccine it bought for a higher price without checking the expiry date – and one could think this is a typical story – or another example of the incompetence of South Africa’s national government. That may be the case, but I guess, in this time and situation government bashing should not be first priority but to look a bit deeper into this headline creating event.

The first batch of vaccines in South Africa was designated to be used for the health worker at the forefront of the fight against the pandemic; and obviously the aim is to protect those doctors, nurses and health workers against the virus. It was known that the AstraZeneca vaccine was not a 100% protection, but a small and not peer-to-peer reviewed study, which in itself poses more questions than answers was cited as the reason to stop the vaccination drive before it started.
And here the first critical thought has to be mentioned:
This discussion is way above the heads of the general population. The South African government, in its drive to be as transparent as possible, decided to bring into the public a level of medical research discourse which created more confusion than it helped to motivate people to make an informed decision on wanting to be vaccinated. It also laid bare the underlying belief of many, that a vaccine is either the miracle cure or not helping at all.
In reality, we are far from understanding the virus and the potential of vaccinations in this case. Questions about how long the vaccine will work, what possible boosters are needed, how mutations will change the course of strategy and whether vaccinated people can still be infected or pass on the virus are questions in transition of answers. Combinations of vaccines would be another question which warrants an answer.

The advent of highly expert driven expert discussions in the public and political domain is creating more havoc and uncertainty then intended by those allowing for it. And looking through publications and mini studies and opinion pieces one can’t stop thinking that some so-called or self-identified experts have their own popularity as priority number one on their agenda. Also here social media are at parts more a curse than a blessing, when it comes to relay information which are factual correct and done in a way which enlighten ordinary people.

The additional problem in South Africa is that even those, who vote for the governing party not necessarily trust anybody in government, knowing what they know via the Zondo Commission. Too much lies, too much deception, to many people in charge just looking for their own advantage and having their own hidden agendas.

As it stands at the moment, no decision is taken what happens to the amount of expensive vaccines waiting in the cold storerooms of South Africa. It would be a pity if they would be given back or expire- as they still prevent severe illness and death for those being vaccinated with them.

Generally speaking we have to learn to appreciate what medical advances can do – and to understand that all are building blocks to prevent the pandemic from raging on – none is currently the golden bullet which stops the virus in the track. And there is something else to learn: that health experts should only cover parts of the political decision-making process in pandemic times for complex societies. There is more to balance and if one part is dominant, it will derail the process of taking with them the people governed.

Filed under: Africa, Politics and Society, Reflection, Society and living environment, South Africa, Uncategorized, , , , , , , ,

The vaccine greed

The human race, encountering an enemy small but quite powerful, shows in our days that despite all advances in organising itself in various forms and shapes and with the help of modern technology it fails to act with integrity and common sense.

While it is amazing how fast global research and cooperation has brought powerful weapons in the form of vaccines to the forefront, distribution shows that humans are the worst enemy of humans.
We all know and currently experience that lockdowns, border closings can slow down the onslaught of the virus, but it can’t stop it, and it certainly can’t stop mutations to occur which would make beating the pandemic more difficult because of the changes the virus undergoes.

Common sense would dictate to stop the mutated virus in the track and to avoid the dissemination of a more difficult to beat virus mutant, in our current case the mutations which occur in Great Britain, South Africa and most probably Brazil. Vaccinations in these countries to get rid of dangerous mutations should be the first price while also starting the vaccination drive in all other countries. It would benefit the human race in its entirety.

What we see instead is the run of rich countries to get the hands of as many vaccines as possible, determined to only look for themselves first and then the rest of the world. Looking at the global village and acting as one human race against the virus is not on the agenda – the gaps between rich and poor are widened and the failure to act towards the common good of humanity are thrown out of the window.

We also see the greed for profit determining sales and contracts and countries and companies are not ashamed to close deals which will prolong the suffering of others. Vaccines against HPV and medications against HIV are already written into the history of prolonged and unnecessary suffering born out of profit and greed.

Human mankind prides itself with the ability to think and reflect, to act ethically and after considerations of consequences. That is our advantage looking at all other creatures around us. We already in the process of failing this advantage in the questions of climate change and environment. Organised religion which should be guardians of such ethics and moral considerations are in current times either mostly busy with themselves or slipped into battlefields of ideologies or politics.

Covid-19 has laid bare the fault lines of societies – we should make sure that the way out of the pandemic tells a positive story of humanity standing up to the challenge in a reflective, decent and meaningful way having the global village and all its citizens in sight.

Filed under: Africa, Politics and Society, Reflection, Society and living environment, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , ,

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