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West African Baptists Teach Congress about Ebola

Baptists from around the world, meeting in Africa for the Baptist World Congress, heard updates from those in nations impacted by last year’s Ebola epidemic.

Baptists from Liberia and Nigeria spoke, as did a Baptist from Ghana (where no one was diagnosed with a case of Ebola).

The 2014 Ebola epidemic – the worst Ebola outbreak on record – claimed the lives of more than 11,000 people with almost all the dead in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

Charles Jones, originally from Liberia, talked about the need for global Baptists to learn more about their African neighbors.

Jones serves as the area director for Europe, the Middle East and Liberia for American Baptist International Ministries.

“This epidemic has re-emphasized the fact that we live in a global village,” he said.

Jones quickly added, however, that the global thinking about Ebola “got taken to some illogical conclusions.” So he offered some advice for the non-Africans in the session.

“I want to encourage you to get a map,” he said. “If you don’t have a map, get one. Or all you young people who don’t know what a map is, get an app.”

Jones explained that he hoped people would “become more geographically educated.”

“When you speak of Africa and of countries in Africa, please try to be specific,” he added. “People have not been educated enough to know that Africa is one big country.”

He noted that after a U.S. family vacationed in Zimbabwe, a school would not let their daughter attend because of concerns she might have Ebola.

He added another story of a principal who lost her job over Ebola concerns after visiting family in Tanzania. Neither country is close to the western African nations that suffered from Ebola last year.

“The attendance at this Baptist World Congress is lower than anticipated because there are people who canceled their reservations because they are people who fear they would contract Ebola in South Africa,” he added.

The concerns about Ebola and the Congress occurred even though the countries impacted by the virus are more than 6,500 miles away from Durban, South Africa (about twice the distance from Seattle, Washington, to Miami, Florida).

Edwin Wiredu, a medical doctor in Ghana, also spoke about the international media coverage of Ebola, explaining that it “saddened” him by making it seem like all of Africa had Ebola.

Wiredu noted the problem of “social stigma” that emerged in communities toward those who contracted the virus. He added that it even occurred against many survivors of the virus.

Ebola killed about 41 percent of those who contracted the virus in 2014. Yet, many people doubted if the survivors were really healed and no longer infectious.

John Oyediran Olabisi, a medical doctor and Baptist deacon in Nigeria, added that “poor geography, poor knowledge of the continent” in other continents added to the “social stigma” Ebola brought to Africa.

“If this conference were held last year – July last year – no one from Nigeria would have been able to attend,” he said. “No one was allowed to come into South Africa at that time … from Nigeria.”

He added that such travel restrictions have long since passed because Nigerians aggressively tackled the issue and stopped Ebola with only a few deaths.

Among the efforts put in place by Nigerians were border screenings with digital, infrared thermometers (still happening), efforts to manage false rumors, using personal phone data to try and track where an infected person may have infected others, and making burial changes (like Muslims burying their dead deeper since they do not use coffins).

He also showed photos of people humorously giving an “Ebola greeting.” This greeting included distance waves and bows, and even men laughing as they bumped their clothed hips together instead of shaking hands or making other skin contact.

Issues of poverty and hunger added to the strains of Ebola. Jones said that the situation became particularly grave in Liberia as medical facilities and other public services were hampered due to the epidemic.

“Ebola was a crisis, but hunger was an even bigger crisis,” he explained. “There were people who were at threat of dying more from hunger than even from the Ebola virus.”

Wiredu similarly noted how poverty helps Ebola remain a stronger threat. “Ebola is an orphaned disease,” he said, explaining that the virus primarily affects poor countries, which means little money in return on the research investment to fight the deadly virus.

He added, however, that “airline travel has made the world one small, global village,” as last year’s Ebola outbreak proved with travelers bringing Ebola into the United States. Thus, the U.S. is funding Ebola research now.

Baptists around the globe had a chance to join their neighbors from western Africa as part of a global village or family.

Jones started the session with a moment of silence for those who died of Ebola. Multiple speakers praised God for Ebola not entering a particular country or for an affected country being declared “Ebola-free.”

At the end of the session, Olu Menjay offered a few words of appreciation to the global Baptist family for assisting Baptists in Liberia and elsewhere during the Ebola crisis.

Menjay served as a BWA vice president the past five years and leads the Ricks Institute in Liberia.

“I would like to say ‘thank very much’ to all Baptists in the world for responding,” Menjay said. “Our people are overwhelmed by the gratitude.”

Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com. You can follow him on Twitter @BrianKaylor.

Editor’s note: Raw video footage from Liberia during the Ebola crisis was sent to EthicsDaily.com and edited by media producer Cliff Vaughn. These videos are available here. Articles related to the Ebola crisis are available here.

Pictures from the BWA World Congress are available on EthicsDaily.com’s Pinterest page and Facebook page. Video interviews of BWA attendees have been posted on EthicsDaily.com’s Vimeo page. Kaylor’s previous reports from the Baptist World Congress are available here:

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