■ Advises government, medical experts, scientists to scrutinise vaccine coming from the West
The Metropolitan Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, Ignatius Kaigama, has given a peep into why there are rising cases of COVID-19 in the North than other parts of the country.
Kaigama, who spoke exclusively with TheSun , blamed the rise on the living conditions common in the northern part of the country whereby a number of persons cohabit in a room, including the Almajiri phenomenon.
The immediate past Catholic Archbishop of Jos, submitted that in such an atmosphere, rising cases were bound to be the order of the day, even as he called on governors in the region to dig into their reservoir to see what they can do to assist the people.
Now that the lockdown has affected Church activities, how is the Church fairing?
The lockdown has been a serious drawback to, not only the Church, but to every Nigerian. But it was for a good purpose to curtail the ravaging spread of the Coronavirus and to ensure that we are all safe, we are all healthy. So, it was necessary. But you know this has resulted in displacing, disorganising many things. At the social level now or spiritual level, we can’t hold our activities as before, understandably so. The Easter ceremonies, for instance, for us in the Catholic Church, the Holy Week is the peak and very serious and sacred period. But we could not celebrate all those days that were meant to be very special to us. Then the Easter itself came and it was just low key. So many things have not been done. I had to handover to the new archbishop in Jos. He was to be installed in a grand ceremony; I had to scale down that. It was just 50 people at that time. I was celebrating my 25th anniversary as a Catholic bishop on the 23rd of April and again, it was just low key. So, many things have happened, but for the good of all of us in order that we stay healthy and safe.
But will this not affect the faith of the faithful?
Well, that we can’t attend public liturgical functions should not mean that there is a decline in our spiritual life. In fact, it should make us to yearn and to hunger for more of spiritual activities. And this is what I have seen, that our people are limited to their homes, but that spiritual hunger is there. They are eager to come to Church, and even when we tell them there are no services going on, they just want to find out; can anything be done for them? That hunger is there.
So, the spiritual hunger is more now than before?
And it is increasing more?
That is my belief because people are becoming more conscious of their individual responsibility as Christians. They are beginning to internalise most of the things that they hear every Sunday, but sometimes didn’t stick. People are beginning to ask questions about themselves, their lives, what is the purpose of their lives, their relationship with their spouses, their children and so on: how can we bring in God into the family that it is not just a part time affair, it is not a Sunday, Sunday matter, that the love for your neighbour, your next door neighbour, you should know the person, relate well and so on. I think people are beginning to internalise their spirituality and this is a very positive development. We don’t want this to continue where people stay at home forever. No. We want to return to our public worship, but this aspect of personalising, internalising, interiorising our spirituality is of great importance.
But what is the Church doing to ensure that the faith of members is not dampened?
We do our bit. Every Sunday, you see me going to various churches. There are no people, there are no congregations. But I still go to celebrate Mass there, those churches. Pictures are taken, they relate life, and there is live streaming of my Mass. We could have Mass with just a few people, but it reaches thousands of people because I am told sometimes we record up to 30, 40,000 views. So, this is also one way of getting to them. And in our archdiocese, we constituted a group of about 10 priests, reverend sisters and others to attend to the spiritual needs of our people who are at home and cannot get out. Sometimes, they are bored, they suffer discouragement and frustration, we had these priests and reverend sisters available, we gave them specific telephone numbers that people can contact them and they are able to counsel them and pray with them. So, these are different ways we try to reach out to the people while they are unable to come to Church.
Regarding the online streaming of Mass, can a Christian who has followed the celebration of Mass online validly say he has attended Mass, or fulfilled the holy day of obligation like attending Mass on a Sunday?
Well, there is an advertisement that says if it is not panadol, it is not panadol. So, the Mass is the Mass and to benefit fully, it is necessary that one is physically present and receive the Body of Christ. But where it is not possible, I think God understands. God is not as judgmental as we human beings. God allows the fact that looks, you are sick and you cannot go to Mass. He knows you desire to go to Mass, but you are unable. So, that is excused and you can get the same benefits by following Mass on radio or television and having what we call spiritual communion. God will give you the same blessing as someone who was in the Church. But there has to be a serious reason, a grievous reason and one grievous reason is that we are unable to go out to curtail the spread of the Coronavirus disease. So, whether you are watching on television or at Mass, I think the spiritual benefits are the same.
Is the Church of God going to be the same after the pandemic, considering the sit at home?
We pray that the Church will even be stronger, more vibrant and that people will be more conscious of whom they are as Christians and we will begin to see radical changes in even the social sphere; that people will bring their faith with them to their places of work. What happens mostly with religious practice in Nigeria is that the Moslems go to the Mosque, the Christians go to the Church, but we deposit our faith there and wait for when we return second time for prayer. We are supposed to carry this faith with us and make sure we integrate this faith with our daily social lives. That is lacking. And that is why somebody who is very devout in the Church, in the Mosque, goes to office where there are resources to be distributed to people and instead of being that genuine religious person, he or she is a different person because he doesn’t consider the neighbour as important, he doesn’t apply the resources, the funds meant to alleviate poverty and reduce hardship. He doesn’t do that. He thinks of himself or herself and that is where religion is just a mere formality. We want to see religion that touches life, influences life and transforms life. So, we are hoping that religious attendants at public events may not be the same as before where we would have 1,000; 2,000 in a Church. It is not about the quantity, but also about the quality and, therefore, when the law allows us, we will assemble people in their hundreds or thousands. But where the law does not allow us, the few that are allowed by law to assemble for religious worship, we will carry on with them and I think it will achieve the results that we desire.
Spiritually, what is the Church doing about the pandemic? Is the Church no longer praying? Or is it that God is no longer listening to our prayer? What is going on?
The history of humanity is full of such pandemics, such plagues. Take the story in the Bible, in Egypt, the times, the plagues were so multiple. And for God’s sake, this is not the first time that we are experiencing a kind of serious sickness of this nature. We have gone through a lot of things. There was a time when malaria was a killer. The missionaries who came here, some died in five days, ten days because of malaria. There was no medication to cure malaria. So, they got infected and they died. It was long after that the cure was found. Now, HIV came, people were afraid, they just thought if you had HIV, you were going to die. And many people died, of course, but then, eventually, there is medication to treat HIV and people are able to manage it and got well. And they live well and quite happily too. And we talk of Lassa fever that has killed quite a number of people. Look, we have gone through many crises and issues that disorganised us a lot. Even the Boko Haram issue in the Northeast, it has disorganised the country, destabilised things and so on. But it is not the first time. So, God, by giving us so many good things, also allowed bad things to be part of the good things. As Christians and Moslems, you see God in everything – the good and the bad. He allowed this to happen. We recognise his supremacy and his omnipotence and we just keep praying and returning to Him that you are the Almighty, help us in good times and in bad times.
Any prediction of when the pandemic will end?
That is for the medical people to say. But from what I hear in the news and the rising rate of infection, I think we are in for a long haul. And I think we should better get our minds ready that we are going to live with this for quite some time. The only good thing is that frantic efforts are being made to get the antidote to this disease. And let’s hope that medicines are produced that can cure or stop this disease. But for the statistics that are shown to us every day, you see the astronomic rise of infection. So, it means that something serious is happening and it is going to be a long time before we get over this.
Is the pandemic also a sign of the end time?
Like I said, we have had series of crises in the past and I don’t want to associate what is happening to the fact that times are coming to an end. No! It is just part of life; it is just part of life, yes. We don’t know when the Lord is going to come. That knowledge is kept to God Himself and Jesus said it clearly that nobody knows the time or the hour. All these speculations and predictions are part of our human life. We like to speculate and so on. For God’s sake, let us not be categorical about this. Let’s not pontificate in the sense that we come out and say we know… Nobody knows the mind of God. So, you can’t as a human being claim that you know what God is going to do today or next tomorrow. For God’s sake, we should just allow things to flow. This is life – we have the good, we have the bad and we have the ugly. The ability to take all with the spirit of great faith and trust in God and the determination to go on, to live well and to do the best that can be done, protecting yourself and neighbours and live well is what we need to do and not to engage in frightening people by saying God is angry, God is dealing with us, God is going to end the world. Even if the world should end soon, I think the remedy is that let us just live good and holy lives. Let’s be sensitive to the needs of the poor, of the marginalised, the deprived and so on. And then, when God comes, day or night, whenever it is time, we will go happily and we shall not be afraid.
What is your assessment of what the government at the federal and state levels are doing, as there have been punitive measures in Rivers State where a hotel was demolished and in Ebonyi where political appointees were sacked?
From the start, I think they showed the will to do something to conquer this disease. I can still see from the daily briefing of the Presidential Task Force that they seriously want an end to this. There is no doubt about it. But the way they go about it is perhaps, what needs revision, re-strategising and hopefully, they will be more effective. Now, people are already suffering. The palliatives are said to be distributed, I don’t know the way they are distributing these palliatives because many people I encountered, tell me they are yet to get. So, there is need to revise the manner and the strategy they are using so that we as a Church, the little we have, gets to the hand of the people directly. The government has so much, they should be able. They have the structures that they can help to get these palliatives to the people. To talk of demolishing a hotel because of violation of the restriction order and sacking of political appointees, I don’t know how that can be helpful at all because people are already in hardship. Even if somebody violated the law, I don’t think that… Demolishing a hotel means doing away with the means of livelihood of many people. Is there no other punishment? Can’t you convert that hotel to isolation centre? Be more creative for God’s sake. Somebody can still be punished for violating the law without going to that extent. Sacking people when they are already having problems of hunger, problems of isolation, psychological stress and what have you and then, you add to that. Remember what will happen to their families. If somebody has committed an offence, there is punishment for it and that should be done. But to further inflict a lot of hardship on the people, you take away their means of livelihood, you destabilise everything they do and stand for, I think it is very unhelpful. I think we should be looking for ways to remedy the situation rather than add to the problem.
The situation in the North seems mysterious. How can the governors in the northern states be helped to overcome the situation?
How can the governors be helped or how can the governors help themselves? I don’t know who is going to help them. This is where leadership is so crucial, so important. You aspire to be a governor so that you take control of the lives of your people, helping them to live well and all that. So, now people are suffering, the sickness is there, the hunger is there, they should dig into the reservoir, whatever they have to help the people.
Why do you think we have more cases in the North?
Remember we talk of social distancing and that is not the case. In many cases, people are so crowded; so crowded in the markets, in the house. You find in a house, 10 people to a room or two which is not helpful. You heard of the Almajiri children who are on the move. These are promising young children who should be helped to develop and to contribute immensely to the progress and development of our country. But they are roaming the streets in the name of religious practice, namely that you should go out and acquire a religious knowledge. But to be taken away from the family and they are on the street, not sure of what to eat and nobody to give them some moral formation and orientation in life is quite sad. So, the spread of such a disease is easier in such a climate where people are just moving aimlessly. They have no home, they have no food, they have to beg here and there; they have to enter houses to ask people for support and you spread that very fast. So, I can imagine this kind of sickness go with a degree of poverty and personal hygiene that is deficient. When you have deficiency and personal hygiene, then it is easier to spread this virus all over the place.
What prayer do you offer the dead who have been consumed by the pandemic and the living?
Those who unfortunately have gone before us, we just wish them the heavenly kingdom that they will be forgiven their sins and they will have the gift of eternal life. Death comes, if not because of Coronavirus, it can come because of something else. So, it is a reality we have to be ready to embrace when it happens. And those who are sick, we just fervently offer prayers that the cure of this sickness will come very soon and if possible, the vaccine that can even stop us from getting the sickness will be available. When we talk of vaccines, we have to be very, very careful because I am aware that a lot of effort in the Western world is being done to produce a vaccine. But I hate it when I am told that they want to try it out in Africa. I mean, that whatever vaccine they want to develop, they have to try it out here and not there. And when I heard people discussing about the vaccine being brought, I said let’s be careful because it is not the first time that we were told that our population has to be limited. There was a deliberate plan in the U.S to target fast-growing populations and so on. So, they use every means, whether it is family planning, artificial family planning or different tactics. We need to be careful. Where are our medical experts? Where are our scientists? When they are bringing vaccine for us, we should be able to test and see. Are these vaccines genuine? Are they going to help our people or are they bringing in other diseases? You know people become suspicious. Even when you bring anything in terms of medication and so on, they said, are we sure this is genuine? Is it really meant to help us? Or is there a hidden agenda, other ulterior motives? So, I think our leaders and medical experts and scientists should be on the watch out.
The government’s effort to import the Madagascar cure: What is your take on that?
If our medical experts and scientists see that this is working, why not? Why must we refuse to look inward? Right now as I talk to you, there is a priest at the Ewu Monastery, Fr Anselm. He has been engaged in herbal research for a long time and he says he has got something. But we would not pay attention because he is not a white man. He is not living in America or Europe. There is a bishop in Douala, I know him so well, Archbishop Samuel Kleda. He is in Cameroon. I called him because I read the news that he has found some herbal remedy for this Coronavirus. And I said look, look in our direction when you see that is working. He said it is working for them. Why can’t we bring these people together in Africa or even in Nigeria and let them brainstorm and see if we can give the world something? Who tells our people, our leaders, our presidents, our senators, our representatives in the House that it is only when things come from the West that they are genuine? I am happy that I read somewhere this morning that our president, Buhari, said that they should explore the Madagascar option. That means there is something in Senegal, there is something in Ghana. For God’s sake, let’s look inward and let’s value what we have. Why must we be so dependent? And look at the brains we have in this continent and we don’t use them. So, I believe we have something to offer the world and these remedies that are being produced locally, by the grace of God, they will help our people.