In responding to coronavirus, even the most developed societies have been stretched to the limits. How much worse it is for persecuted and despised minorities, living on the margins of society.
Friends in Pakistan describe how the pandemic is piling hardship upon hardship. Their lives are difficult enough already: many are forced to live in apartheid-style caste-based shanty towns called “colonies”, with dirt floors, little clean water, no electricity, filthy latrines, and people living on top of one another. Pakistan’s Christians also face discrimination – the authorities reserve menial jobs for them, such as cleaning latrines. (A high-ranking official recently told me, with no hint of irony, that it was a sign of “respect” for Christians to allow them to clean the latrines of the majority.)
Throw in coronavirus, and the situation becomes catastrophic. Sanitation workers, 80-90 per cent of whom are Christians, are never routinely issued with clothing or gloves – let alone personal protective equipment (PPE).
Meanwhile, Christian prisoners languishing in Pakistan’s fetid, malodorous jails – often, like Asia Bibi, there because of trumped-up accusations of blasphemy. What will happen if they are not released?
Persecution, in Pakistan and elsewhere, has helped bring about the global displacement of 70 million people. Even in less challenging times, refugees are out of sight and out of mind, and governments forget them when planning for pandemics or natural disasters.
In countries with overstretched, broken, weak public health systems, and dismal refugee camps and porous borders, the authorities have little chance of halting the transmission of Covid-19. Refugee camps are a perfect breeding ground for Coronavirus – overcrowded, with lack of sanitation, limited healthcare or vaccination programmes.
At the hard-to-reach Hitsats refugee camp in Tigray, Ethiopia, there are 18,000 Eritreans – half of them children – who have fled religious and political persecution. This week I pleaded with our hard-pressed Foreign Office ministers to urge the Ethiopian Government not to close the camp. Will the world look the other way if the refugees are repatriated to Eritrea, whose Marxist dictator, Isaias Afwerki, trained by Beijing in ideology and military oppression, last year closed the country’s 22 Catholic healthcare centres?
A few weeks ago I visited the Bardarash refugee camp in northern Iraq. People had fled to escape Turkish aerial bombardment. Living under canvas and cooking on open fires in Bardarash, refugees’ health was already compromised as they queued up for rations, handouts, and medical help.
Meanwhile, Christians fleeing from Iran and Afghanistan to Turkey are greeted with hatred, excluded from any support mechanisms, denied jobs, income and food for their families. No Business Interruption Scheme or Job Retention Scheme for them.
Under the cover of Coronavirus, Militant Islamist radicals add daily to their number. In Nigeria, Boko Haram continues its depredations; ISIS regroups in Northern Iraq; Hamas terrorises the few remaining Christians in Gaza; and Somalia’s Al-Shabaab drives Christians out of Northern Kenya.
Meanwhile, the atheistic Communist regimes in China and North Korea, incarcerate, persecute, torture, and subvert the Church. At Christmas, without a murmur of protest from the Vatican, China imprisoned Pastor Wang Yi, who memorably sai that “This country is launching a war against the soul.”
Recently, Hong Kong’s Cardinal Zen courageously wrote to the world’s 223 Cardinals, stating that the Church in China is being “murdered” while the Vatican stands idly by.
Under the cover of darkness, China’s regime has imposed even greater surveillance and control of its people, systematically violating their human rights. At least the world is being forced to reappraise Chinese Communism – all the more so as details emerge of Beijing’s irresponsibility and secrecy over the coronavirus outbreak.
Burma’s Cardinal Charles Bo has rightly insisted that the Chinese Communist Party’s “lies and propaganda have put millions of lives around the world in danger”, that, instead of profiting from the pandemic, China should fund relief and restitution: “For the sake of our common humanity, we must not be afraid to hold this regime to account.”
Yet there are signs of hope. In moments of acute need you can always rely on charities like Aid to the Church in Need and Christian Solidarity Worldwide to step up to te plate. Heroic efforts are also being made by the Arise Foundation which, in spite of the considerable risks, continues to work with religious sisters in some of these desperate situations. They are establishing food banks, discovering safe ways of delivering essentials to at-risk communities and providing health assessments.
Many of us will already know people who have fallen ill or died. But very few of us will face the heightened risk of persecution, becoming refugees or being trafficked or exploited as a result of the pandemic.
In this new world of hand-washing and social distancing, and in a week in which we have heard once more the old story about the consequences of a man who held high public office washing his hands of his responsibility, we need to ask some sharp questions about the Coronavirus pandemic and its consequences for the most vulnerable – and to reach out to those who continue to make their lives and deaths bearable.