In Johannesburg, Hunger Scares More Than the Coronavirus

Johannesburg, April 28, 2020 – Fr. Pablo Velasquez, Scalabrinian missionary in the suburb of La Rochelle, South Africa: « If things continue like this, we will never make it with our own resources. »

Every day in our parish hundreds of people come to make long lines to have a food parcel that is a bag with certain basic products to eat. (…)  We are doing all we can to meet the needs of these brothers of ours who disobey the restrictive measures to go in search of food. It’s sad to say but if things continue like this, we will never make it with our resources alone.”

Speaking is Fr. Pablo Velasquez, a Scalabrinian missionary and vicar of the parish of Saint Patrick in the La Rochelle neighborhood in Johannesburg, South Africa, in recent days witnessing the situation of serious need that arose following the restrictions for the coronavirus. “So far all the food donated to the people in our church has come from the donations that our parishioners have collected thanks to the appeal that Fr. Jorge Armando Guerra, the parish priest, made days before the restrictive measures entered into force. To these are added the donations for the poor collected during Lent by the parishioners themselves.”

To transgress to live
On April 22 the Scalabrinian shot a video (shared on the same day also by the newspaper Avvenire, in an article by the journalist Nello Scavo) showing hundreds of people lined up without masks in front of the Scalabrinian parish of Saint Patrick to ask for food (and in another video the situation a week later was the same).

In a territory where immigrants represent almost 8% of the population and where the data always appears provisional, the government of Pretoria has long established the closure of the activity and the obligation not to leave the houses. Despite this, the queue continues to form every day from the early hours of the morning. « The wealthy sections of the population –Fr. Velasquez had already told the Osservatore Romano on April 8th- have economic resources and employment guarantees that protect them and help them comply with the authorities. This is not the case for the poorest groups. For them, losing days of work means not earning anything. »

South Africa is among the countries with the highest number of COVID-19 cases on the African continent. Fr. Filippo Ferraro, Scalabrinian missionary and Director of the Scalabrini Institute for Human Mobility in Africa (SIHMA) also spoke to Vatican News: “With the necessary measures to stem the coronavirus adopted by the government (…) a kind of pressure cooker has been made, because in places like townships (large areas, which in other areas of the world are called shanty towns or favela) it is not normally possible to have neither social distancing nor respect for hygiene measures: we are talking about shacks that do not have services, the toilets are public and are located within the agglomeration.

The government concentrated there the deployment of the police to prevent the movement of these people: if the infection arrived in the townships, it would be a disaster because here the health system works as in the United States, mostly through insurance.”

Especially immigrants
In line outside the church of Saint Patrick, there are mainly immigrants from Congo, Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbawe and other countries: people who, as foreigners  (foreigners, of other African nationalities), do not receive aid from the state and seem systematically forgotten even from the speeches of politicians. « I receive messages from desperate immigrant workers almost every day on my cell phone, with nothing to eat –says Father Velasquez–  Some of them are the only economic resource for the family left in other African countries. »

In the Scalabrinian parish of Saint Patrick, already a meeting place for the faithful of at least twenty different nationalities, the number of those asking for help is therefore increasing dramatically. « So far, no consular representation has come forward to meet the suffering of their compatriots –continues the priest– Just to cite an example, we contacted the president of the Mozambican communities in Johannesburg, a representative of the ruling party (FRELIMO) who reported not having received a positive response from the Mozambican government regarding the large number of families suffering from hunger because of the emergency. »

« Our fear… is left behind »
Velasquez launched his appeal again on April 24 from the Vatican News digital pages. Interviewed by Federico Piana, the Scalabrinian reiterated that the situation is very critical: “Thousands of unemployed immigrants to whom we try, with difficulty, to help. Many of them tell me: father, it is better to die of coronavirus than starvation. We can’t stand that our children cry with hunger. We can drink lots of water to trick the stomach, but what about our babies?”

A dramatic statement, which the Scalabrinian also repeated on April 27 in front of the microphones of Tg2000, the TV2000 newscast: “Our fear… has been left behind. Impossible to close our doors and send people away when we know there are families, children who cry with hunger.”

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