Serve Humanity with Faith, Hope and SolidarityCaritas Sri Lanka’s Response to COVID-19 Pandemic

By Dr. Shemal Fernando, PhD  –  Senior Executive Manager CSL-SEDEC

In the recent weeks, the lives of millions of people across the world have suddenly changed. For some, remaining at home has been an opportunity to reflect, to withdraw from the frenetic pace of life, stay with loved ones and enjoy their company. For many, though, this is a time of worry about an uncertain future, about jobs that are at risk and about other consequences of the current crisis. The world is facing an unprecedented test.

More than 4.5 billion – half the world’s population – are now living under social distancing. The COVID-19 pandemic is threatening lives and livelihoods across the world. The United Nations (UN) is threatened to uphold its values even at the risk of challenging 193 member states. In the worst-hit regions, hospitals are overwhelmed with the sick and dying, while the poor and vulnerable are facing severe food shortage and starvation.

The UN, calling the coronavirus the world’s “most challenging crisis,” declared: First, health is the top priority. Countries must ramp-up testing as much as possible and put isolation measures in place in order to slow the spread. Second, countries should meet the needs of the most vulnerable people, as the measures to contain the pandemic cripple the economy. Third, countries must keep the food supply flowing by prioritizing the health of the workers in the sector and their outputs.

Caritas Sri Lanka’s Response

The Caritas Sri Lanka, the social arm of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Sri Lanka took the initiative to support the affected communities with immediate relief assistance in all parts of the country. Within days of the outbreak, Caritas Sri Lanka got in touch with Caritas Internationalis forwarding regular reports of the situation in the country with details of the impact of the crisis on the local communities. The Caritas Internationalis is a Confederation of 167 national member organizations engaged in community development, relief and social services, with headquarters in the Vatican City and with seven regional offices around the world.

The COVID-19 outbreak has completely stalled day to day life and thousands of people, mainly the lower strata of society have seen their incomes plummet overnight. Small holder farmers, day to day wage earners, small scale traders and those in service occupations have all lost their means of income. The Caritas Sri Lanka staff under the leadership of the National Director, Rev. Fr. Mahendra Gunatilleke working on virtual platforms mostly on ‘WFH’ succeeded in mobilizing considerable funds to help the affected communities through commitment to task. From the day one, the Caritas Sri Lanka maintained effective communication with the Chairman of the National Secretariat for Justice, Peace and Human Development Commission, the Most Rev. Dr. Justin Gnanapragasam, the Vice Chairman, the Most Rev. Dr. Maxwell Silva, the Bishops of the Catholic Dioceses, which are represented in all 25 Administrative Districts of the country and all 13 Diocesan Directors.

This facilitated obtaining of ‘Daily Situation Reports’ and submission of the consolidated ‘Situation Reports’ to the Caritas Internationalis (CI) and other Caritas Members promptly. While helping the Dioceses with immediate funds to support the affected families, Caritas Sri Lanka (CSL) developed several project proposals to CI, other Caritas MOs and non-Caritas partners to obtain support to help the affected. With the CI setting up a special fund to help the needy countries to overcome the difficulties faced by the crisis, the CSL was quick to respond urging the intervention of the CI to support affected families and was successful in receiving positive response. Besides, the CSL have also appealed to other Caritas Member Organizations and non – Caritas partners and have been able to obtain assistance to support additional numbers of needy families.

The Caritas Internationalis and Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development in the Vatican, MISEREOR of Germany, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) of the United States of America, Caritas Hong Kong, Caritas Korea and CAFOD of the United Kingdom have contributed to the Caritas Sri Lanka towards dry provisions, personal protection equipment, medicine, hygienic items and handbills, posters and banners towards increasing awareness to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. These will reach out to over 30,000 families. Besides, the Caritas Sri Lanka took part in many advocacy efforts to persuade the relevant government authorities to assist the migrant family members during the pandemic. These efforts benefitted the families of the migrants who have not received any income from February as many Middle Eastern and European countries were heavily affected. Further, in liaison with the ZOA, the refugees in Negombo were rendered assistance. We thank our partners for the timely support and God Almighty for giving us an opportunity to serve humanity.

The CSL support has prioritized the neediest families including women headed families, families with incapacitated members, families with special needs children, poor families and elders. Considering the risk involved in caring for vulnerable persons with health issues, we are also supporting considerable numbers of health care workers and volunteers by equipping them with personal protection equipment (PPE). The main objective of our projects is to strengthen the resilience of the affected people undergoing severe hardships due to lack of income earning opportunities. The assistance include medicine, medical kits, dry food relief, personal protection equipment, face masks, carbolic soap, hand sanitizers and gloves. All relief activities are executed in consultation with the respective Government Agents and Divisional Secretariats.

At the grassroots level the Parish Priests, other religious clergy and the local government officials are consulted to ensure distribution without any bias to all communities.  An important aspect in this process is the presence at the village level of the Caritas initiated, Inter Religious Forums with members from the four main religious faiths in the country. Besides these forums, Caritas can also draw upon the support of a large number of Community Based Organizations (CBOs), Self-Help Groups (SHGs) and other grass roots groups affiliated to Caritas projects to ensure community participation in all the activities.

At the regional level, the Diocesan Directors and staff are reaching out to the affected communities despite the limitations imposed on movements and exposure to health hazards. Despite all such challenges, Caritas Sri Lanka Family have been able to reach out to the affected families in their hour of need. Major outbreaks like the coronavirus are unpredictable, dangerous and disruptive. While the priority has to be on public health, it is not too early to begin thinking about ways to mitigate such disruptions going forward. In fact, in exceptional times like this, regular dialogue, cooperation and trusted relationships grow in value. We might get used to physical distancing and lose the social or humanitarian reason for it. We should be cautious that the lockdown, quarantine and distancing not develop into a culture of isolation, indifference and prejudice.

Caritas Internationalis Response

The Caritas Internationalis have set up the COVID-19 Respond Fund. At the request of the Holy Father, the Caritas Internationalis is entrusted with the mission of helping the most vulnerable and poorest during this pandemic. It is meant to help the neediest Caritas with one project at the national level. As of May 18, 2020, the organization has gathered 50% of the funds required for 34 projects waiting to be implemented. The mark of Caritas during this pandemic would be unwavering and “contagious” generosity and concern for neighbours.

WHO’s 24/7 Response

The coronavirus now has a foothold in 213 countries, areas or territories with 2,675,876 cases and 187,450 deaths. A pneumonia of unknown cause was first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) Country Office in China on December 31, 2019. Ever since the WHO is working 24/7 to analyze data, provide advice, coordinate with partners, help countries prepare, increase supplies and manage expert networks. The outbreak was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on January 30, 2020.

According to WHO, across the world, clinical trials evaluating potential treatments are progressing but to date there are no specific vaccines or treatments for COVID-19. Protect yourself and others from infection by washing your hands or using an alchohol based rub frequently and not touching your face. The COVID-19 virus spreads primarily through droplets of saliva or discharge from nose when an infected person coughs or sneezes, so it’s important that you also practice respiratory etiquette (for example, by coughing into a flexed elbow).

United Nations’ Response

The international community has asked for US$ 675 million from the UN to help protect states with weaker health systems as part of its Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan. Over a hundred Emergency Medical Teams (EMT) and focal points worldwide are working closely with the EMT Secretariat, and are continuously engaging in monitoring, guiding, and facilitating national and international COVID-19 response operations. A weekly Global Coordination Call is held, providing the network with updates on current operations, technical guidance, and sharing of current experiences and practices from various EMT responses to COVID-19.

Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN) of WHO continues to facilitate direct and remote technical assistance to countries through GOARN regional and global network of networks to support health operation. UNICEF, IFRC, US CDC, and OCHA are embedded in the global COVID-19 incident management team in Geneva; and are supporting all pillars of response. Work is ongoing to launch public information hub on GOARN Knowledge Platform for COVID-19 to share resources from partners and other stakeholders.

The apprise sets out the shift required in the international system to support countries to plan, finance and implement their response to COVID-19. Through these challenging times, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is determined that its crucial life-saving work is sustained. The OCHA’s top priority is to ensure providing life-saving help for those people, while supporting the wider system’s response. More than 100 million people already rely on support from the UN humanitarian agencies.

Sri Lanka Government’s Response

On March 17, 2020, as infections began to spike, the President, His Excellency Gotabaya Rajapaksa addressing the nation, explained the steps taken to save lives and urged to respect the restrictions. He elaborated on the vital importance of curbing the spread of coronavirus and touched upon the steps taken to ensure all important community life. He has already won plaudits for an aggressive campaign mobilizing the whole-of-government in the fight against COVID-19 that kept the number of infections in the country very low.

Sri Lanka was one of the first countries to take proactive steps against the coronavirus, well before it was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). Sri Lanka used its powerful quarantine laws and the free healthcare system to take all measures to prevent the spread of the pandemic. The core issues that need addressing include sharing of best practices on isolation, dealing with lower–income communities, and procurement and distribution of medical equipment.

Recession and the Economy

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has declared that the global economy faces the worst recession since the Great Depression of 1930s. The IMF is of the view that with such a huge interruption of the global economy, new forms of poverty will emerge. We should prepare now to assist the new poor in order to avoid forms of exploitation and violence. The outpouring of compassion that we have seen so far needs to be encouraged into the post-pandemic future.

Countries have shut down the economy. Supermarket shelves remain stocked for now. But a protracted pandemic crisis could quickly put a strain on the food supply chains, a complex web of interactions involving farmers, agricultural inputs, processing plants, shipping, retailers and more. The shipping industry is already reporting slowdowns because of port closures, and logistics hurdles could disrupt the supply chains in coming weeks. In order to avoid food shortages, it is imperative that countries keep the food supply chains going.

Hunger and Humanitarian Crisis

The pandemic could almost double the number of people suffering acute hunger, the UN World Food Programme (UNWFP) has warned. The Global Health Cluster (GHC) has confirmed that all 29 countries with IASC activated Health Clusters are reporting confirmed COVID-19 cases. The 900 national and international health cluster partners are urgently responding to COVID-19 specific needs whilst maintaining essential health services for 65 million people affected by humanitarian crises.

Challengers and Limitations in Sri Lanka

The COVID-19 outbreak has led to severe socio economic repercussions in Sri Lanka. While the GOSL is gradually lifting the tight restrictions imposed in order to revive the economy, there is still no certainty as to when this disease outbreak will be brought under total control. The 3 districts in the Western Province – Colombo, Gampaha and Kalutara, where the impact of this crisis was most severe, has the largest population concentration in the country and small and medium scale industries which employ more than 50% of the total labour force of the country. In the country as a whole, day to day wage labour, small scale farmers and fisher folk and those in service trades such as freelance carpenters, masons, electricians and traders have been the hardest hit.

Due to the restriction of inter district transport, it has been difficult to transport farm produce to the markets and prices at the farm gate have crashed while prices in urban areas remain high. This has been a major blow to the farmers.  It must be noted that agriculture contributes about 8% to the GDP of the economy but the labour force employed in this sector is about 28%. The present crisis has seriously affected farm incomes. This has disrupted livelihoods, supply chains and cash flow of the poorest families; daily wage earners are hardest hit and already feeling the economic, social, financial and cultural impacts on them.  This also demonstrates the growing vulnerability of the poor women and children.

In Sri Lanka, those aged 60 years and above make up about 16% of the population. The information and data emerging on the COVID-19 outbreak suggests that older people and those with underlying health conditions will be disproportionately affected by the pandemic. People aged 60 and over appear to be more likely to suffer serious illness associated with the virus, and to experience higher mortality rates. Older people’s higher level of risk in association with COVID-19 will be compounded by their poor access to health services and support. Poor physical access to clinics and hospitals, including because of increasing levels of disability, the prohibitive cost of services and a lack of awareness of health conditions are all barriers faced by older people.

Media reports indicate a rise in domestic violence and child abuse reporting since the beginning of the lockdown. This has been aggravated by the continued closure of schools. The National Hospital has raised concern over rising domestic violence with women being attacked by husbands during curfew; the Women in Need (WIN) say that between March 16 and April 1, 2020, WIN received about 20 calls and 60% of these related to domestic violence; the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) says that between March 16 to April 19, 2020, 127 out of 307 complaints related to child cruelty. The challenge of living in restricted spaces and other stresses is leading to increased risk of parents and adults subjecting children to violence.

The Government of Sri Lanka has created two structures: 1) National Operations Centre to Combat COVID 19 and 2) Presidential Task Force for Economic Revival and Poverty Eradication. It has undertaken measures to revive the economy and roll out health, security and food distribution, however, this is more towards checking the disease in general, but the focus on vulnerable groups is not sufficient to reduce the risk to them.

Pope’s Special “Urbi et Orbi”

The Vicar of the Christ, His Holiness Pope Francis conducted a special “to the city and the world” identified as an “Urbi et Orbi” on March 27, 2020 standing in a deserted St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican with a heavy heart, despite steady rain to impart his Apostolic Blessing that included a special plenary indulgence to the world.  His Holiness used the ancient icon of Mary Salus Populi Romani in the Basilica of St. Mary Major that have accompanied the people of Rome for centuries to pray for an end to COVID-19 pandemic. Pope Francis on his first day after election, slipped out of the Vatican in a single unmarked car with a driver, rode across to the Basilica of St. Mary Major, strode the length of the basilica and placed a bouquet of flowers beneath the icon of the Mother Mary – an act of chivalry and love. The Sacred Cross used by the Pope is the miraculous cross that survived in 1519 when the church of the Oratorio del Santissimo Crocifisso caught fire and was completely destroyed. At the dawn the people rushed to the church – the scene was of great desolation but the crucifix remained intact.

 All on the same Boat

The Holy Father started his extraordinary blessing, reflecting on a passage from the Gospel of Mark (4:35-41). “For weeks now it has been evening…thick darkness has gathered over our squares, our streets and our cities; it has taken over our lives, filling everything with a deafening silence and a distressing void that stops everything as it passes by; we feel it in the air, we notice it in people’s gestures, their glances give them away.” He said we feel afraid and lost, like the disciples whose boat was in danger of sinking while Jesus slept at the stern.

The coronavirus pandemic has reminded us that we are all on the same boat, and so we call out to Jesus. The disciples asked Him, “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” The Pope said these words would have shaken Jesus, “because He, more than anyone, cares about us.” The storm, said the Pope, exposes “our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules.” What is revealed is “our belonging as brothers and sisters”, our common humanity.

Have you no Faith?

Pope Francis then picked up the thread of Jesus’ question: “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” He said we have all gone ahead “at breakneck speed”, ignoring the wars, injustice, cries of the poor and our ailing planet. “We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick.” In our stormy sea, we now cry out: “Wake up, Lord!” Really, it is Jesus calling out to us to be converted, calling us to faith. “You are calling on us to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing,” he said.

Now is not the time of God’s judgment, but of our own: “a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not.” The Pope said we can draw lessons from the many people who – even though fearful – have reacted by giving their lives, including medical personnel, priests and volunteers. This, he said, “is the force of the Spirit poured out and fashioned in courageous and generous self-denial.”

Pope Francis said faith begins “when we realize we are in need of salvation” and are not self-sufficient. If we turn to Jesus and hand Him our fears, He will conquer them. “Because this is God’s strength: turning to the good everything that happens to us, even the bad things. He brings serenity into our storms, because with God life never dies.” So God asks us now, in the midst of the tempest, “to reawaken and put into practice that solidarity and hope capable of giving strength, support and meaning to these hours when everything seems to be floundering.”

Embracing the Lord

Jesus’ cross, said Pope Francis, is the anchor that has saved us, the rudder that has redeemed us, and our hope, because “by His cross we have been healed and embraced so that nothing and no one can separate us from His redeeming love.” “In the midst of isolation when we are suffering from a lack of tenderness and chances to meet up, and we experience the loss of so many things,” he said, “let us once again listen to the proclamation that saves us: He is risen and is living by our side.” So, we embrace His cross in the hardships of the present time, and make room in our hearts “for the creativity that only the Spirit is capable of inspiring.” “Embracing the Lord in order to embrace hope: that is the strength of faith, which frees us from fear and gives us hope.”

The Holy Father concluded, “Dear brothers and sisters, from this place that tells of Peter’s rock-solid faith, I would like this evening to entrust all of you to the Lord, through the intercession of Mary, Health of the People and Star of the stormy Sea. From this colonnade that embraces Rome and the whole world, May God’s blessing come down upon you as a consoling embrace. Lord, may you bless the world, give health to our bodies and comfort our hearts. You ask us not to be afraid. Yet our faith is weak and we are fearful. But you, Lord, will not leave us at the mercy of the storm. Tell us again: ‘Do not be afraid’ (Mathew 28:5). And we, together with Peter, ‘cast all our anxieties onto you, for you care about us’ (cf. 1 Peter 5:7).”

Easter Sunday’s “Urbi et Orbi”

The lockdown situation compelled 1.2 billion Catholics to follow online for the first time religious services throughout the Holy Week. His Holiness Pope Francis, the Vicar of the Christ touched the hearts and minds of people around the globe with inspirational services, sermons and messages via social media. Pope Francis on the Easter Sunday stressed that in the light of the present circumstances, international sanctions could be relaxed, to provide adequate support to citizens, and all nations should rally round and unite to create a position to meet the greatest needs of the moment through the reduction, if not the forgiveness, of the debt burdening the balance sheets of the poorest nations.

His Holiness said we have all gone ahead “at breakneck speed”, ignoring the wars, injustice, cries of the poor and our ailing planet. “We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick.” The crisis we are facing should not make us forget the many other crises that bring suffering to so many people, especially the people of Asia and Africa who are experiencing grave humanitarian crises, as in the Province of Cabo Delgado in the north of Mozambique.

The hearts of the many refugees displaced because of wars, drought and famine need to be warmed. Protection to be granted to migrants and refugees, many of them children, who are living in unbearable conditions, especially in Libya and on the border between Greece and Turkey and the island of Lesvos. In Venezuela, concrete and immediate solutions to be reached to enable access for international assistance to a population suffering from the grave political, socio-economic and health situation.

Spirit of Solidarity and Hope

COVID-19 is a truly global crisis, and the only way to overcome it is together in global solidarity. The challenge we are facing is shared by all, without distinguishing between persons. After the WW II, the European continent was able to rise again, thanks to a concrete spirit of solidarity that enabled it to overcome the rivalries. It is more urgent than ever, especially in the present circumstances, that all recognize themselves as part of a single family and support one another. The epidemic provides the opportunity to give further proof of solidarity, also by turning to innovative solutions.

The Pope invited all who have responsibility in conflicts that they may have the courage to support for an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world. This is not a time to manufacture and deal in arms, spending vast amounts of money that ought to be used to care others and save lives. He demanded to end the war in Syria, the conflict in Yemen, the hostilities in Iraq and in Lebanon. Also, he urged Israelis and Palestinians to resume dialogue for a stable and lasting solution. He prayed for the people who live in the eastern regions of Ukraine and an end to the terrorist attacks against innocent people in African countries.

Obedience to the Lord

The Cardinal Archbishop of Colombo, His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith requested Sri Lankans of all faiths to understand the gravity of the pandemic that has surrounded the whole world and requested to respect and adhere to the untiring efforts of the government. He repeatedly requested Sri Lankans of all faiths to understand the gravity of the situation and urged the faithful to journey towards reaching the fullness of life through obedience to the Lord explaining that human manipulations to the extent of dreaming a world without a God and crimes committed involving humanity challenging sacred marriage, family life, murder of infants by legalizing abortion and extensive damage to nature have led us towards the present disastrous situation.   

Vow to Our Lady of Lanka

His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith pledged an extraordinary vow to Our Lady of Lanka urging to protect humanity from deadly coronavirus with profound faith and hope at the National Basilica in Tewatte on April 3, 2020. The reading chosen for the occasion was the first miracle attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John (John 2:1–11) of transformation of water into wine at the Wedding at Cana. In the Gospel account, Jesus, his mother and his disciples are invited to a wedding and when the wine runs out, Jesus delivers a sign of his glory by turning water into wine. The prayerful encounter included a brief meditation in which His Eminence highlighted the Virgin Mary’s words, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:3-5) at Cana reminding that she continues to intercede on behalf of humanity.

Vibrant Missionary Presence

The Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and President of Caritas Internationalis, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, living the lockdown shared, “Ironically,” measures to contain the coronavirus have “made the air purer, the skies bluer, our hands cleaner, our streets and homes ‘safer.’ A deadly virus has made us behave more responsibly toward family, community, creation and ourselves. The world has truly scene the magical difference and many now wonders whether, “when the virus is gone, our good habits would continue.”

Cardinal Tagle, shared, “that Caritas Internationalis, the Vatican-based umbrella organization for national Catholic charities is serving around the world with a vibrant missionary presence.” He continued, “We should not forget that in many parts of the world, especially among non-Christian communities, the humanitarian service of charity done by Caritas is often the first encounter of people with the person of Jesus, the Gospel and the church.”

Cardinal Tagle in his Easter message thanked Caritas workers, volunteers, and all those helping the sick and the vulnerable at this decisive moment.  “Caritas christi urget nos” – the love of Christ urges us on (2 Corinthians 5:14), says the Cardinal. “This love, seen in small and large gestures of hope and solidarity, is calling us to a new future and a new way of living. Covid-19 knows no borders, but neither do faith, hope nor love”.

Courage and Wisdom

Cardinal Tagle shared, with the churches closed, many people are realizing just how important faith and prayer are in their lives. “A virus mirrored to us our fragility, limitations and insufficiency. This is quite humiliating for a people gone mad with pride and self-adulation. But the memory of the virus must be kept alive to keep us humble and hopeful.” Faced with these difficult times, he encourages everyone to pray “for the serenity” to accept what we cannot change, “the courage” to change what we can, and “the wisdom” to know the difference. “Let us pray to find the deeper meaning of this challenge…which is calling us to faith and to resurrection.”

(The author serves as the Senior Executive of Caritas Sri Lanka. His byline appears in the Catholic Messenger since 1988)