In 2017, it was the Black Plague in Madagascar. The end of 2018 saw Madagascar brave another epidemic—this time measles. It’s no surprise then that most Malagasy are jumpy at the thought of another viral wave. They’re more than accustomed to sickness and death.
It’s always easy to get absorbed in our own everyday. How much more so now?
We all have a lot of anxiety, questions, and—if social media is any indication—lots of opinions about how everybody else should be handling this crisis. Yet, the reality is, this pandemic affects different communities to different lengths. Africa in general is affected differently than America. Cameroon, Zimbabwe, India and Bangladesh all have similar (but also different) stories in the news that should summon our empathy. Let me also give you a window into the COVID-19 crisis here in Madagascar:
I went around to our different church communities in town as word spread that corona virus had officially arrived in Madagascar. Everyone was scared. With more speculation than information. Everyone assumed that it was either a hoax or it would kill us all (and they don’t even have a 24/7 news cycle here!)
As one alarmist summarized, “First, it was cholera, then bubonic, then our babies died from measles. Now, corona virus will finish us off!” I was passing out soap and explaining how washing your hands was a good idea—all the time, not just now, but especially now. But even as I sat there and explained about basic principles (i.e. wash your hands, drink lots of water, stay a meter apart, etc.), I got sad.
We were sitting in a 5 foot by 5 foot tin building. About fifteen people sat shoulder to shoulder, then did their best to move a meter apart as did my corona spiel. Even then, young kids were constantly running in and out, most of them stopping to caress my arm before they reach into the communal food dish.
Most of us cannot even comprehend—unless you’ve spent significant time in these communities—how pointless all of the corona best practices are to them. The people who live here are not stupid or disgusting. Most of them would love to wash their hands several times a day, drink more water, eat plenty, and be further apart. But they can’t!
You can’t wash your hands or drink more water when there is no water. You can’t eat food that’s not there. And you can’t maintain distance when your houses are not even a meter apart and you live on a 20 by 20 plot with your extended family of 50. And if you think those things are easy to fix—as we ourselves have thought at times—then consider . . .
- Communities share a centrally located pump that is some distance away. Every family can only collect so much water each day, usually between 5 to 10 gallons per household.
- You can only build houses where you have land. Most land is already owned in town. So the little plot your grand-dad bought way back when is now the only spot his kids and grandkids have.
- You can only get more food in one of two ways: farming or buying. To farm you need land, which most people don’t have here in town. If you have land it’s far away, making it logistically difficult. But right now that’s a moot point when we’re past rainy season. Otherwise, you have to buy your food. Which is a problem if you’re being told to stop working and stay home.
One of the guys there asked me what people were doing in America. I told him many people were staying home to keep the virus from spreading as quickly. He nodded and said he had seen pictures of people bringing food to Americans in their houses. “But here,” he said, “No one’s bringing food to us if we stay home!” Then I nodded. He’s exactly right.
“Look,” I said, “It’s true. The best way to stop the virus from spreading is for everyone to stay home. But that’s impossible for you all here. Do you all have food stored at home?” They almost spat. Of course they didn’t! “Well then, you have to go work and buy food or you’ll just starve at home, right?” They all agreed. This is the reality facing many, many people around the world right now.
I don’t know how Madagascar will weather the COVID storm. Most people don’t live over 60 anyway, yet most of our friends have underlying conditions (tuberculosis, asthma, cancer, auto-immune disorders, etc.) They say the heat will change things, yet we already have confirmed cases. Just about everyone in the world is facing some kind of economic difficulty, yet, here in Madagascar, as in the rest of the majority world, there is far less buffer against uncertainty and suffering.
What I know is God is kind and just. So please, as some missionaries in Cameroon put it, consider how God has blessed you in your quarantine (and other measures against the virus). Meanwhile, please pray for the vulnerable near and far. The churches here took the soap I gave them that day and split it to share with the most vulnerable around them—especially those who they know are eternally vulnerable without Christ. The most poignant thing they shared was the gospel—always a practical, timely message. Hearing that made me glad.
I truly believe God is using the shock of this virus to wake us up. I believe that is true for Madagascar as well. But please, remember your brothers and sisters around the world who do not have the same options many of us (including my family!) have. Lift them up to the Father. He knows what he is doing, but that doesn’t mean we should forget to intercede, especially, for those more vulnerable than us.
Here again are links on how the virus is affecting different countries and communities around the world: