Brother Edgard FRANCKEN, OMI, is of Belgian nationality, but he has been serving in Bolivia since December,1976. When he joined the Oblates he was already a medical doctor. Here he shares with us the challenge that the Oblates and the people of Bolivia are going through in these times of great difficulty, caused by the covid-19 pandemic.
At the moment, there is little hopeful news to tell. The messages read on the television channels were worrying. One newspaper carried a headline: “Even the wealthy can’t find a place in hospitals.” These days, infections are mainly concentrated in Cochabamba, after Santa Cruz and Beni. Hospitals are overcrowded and there is a lack of equipment, drugs, testing equipment, protective gear and oxygen. The prices are often exorbitant for those trying to procure medication or a (good) facemask. Many medical workers tested positive or are sick. The funeral directors do not know how to keep up with the number of deceased or where to bury them. In El Alto (La Paz), where normally around eight people were buried each day, there are now about 40 burials. These are scenes that we have also seen in Ecuador, Peru and Brazil.
Bro. Pascual JIMÉNEZ, who is also a nurse, has already lost a brother and a sister. Calixto MAMANI, our Provincial, has lost his brother-in-law… The tragedies therefore touch us very closely. In Huachacalla, a small village on the border with Chile where the Oblates (including me) worked years ago and whose inhabitants we still know very well, 24 people died in a few weeks out of a population of a few hundred. Yesterday, the Bishop of El Alto, Bishop Eugène Scarpellini (66), died of coronavirus. We have been living in quarantine for more than three months now, but the fate of 70% of the population depends on their daily income. Many are therefore forced to ignore or even combat health measures.
In addition, after last year’s presumably fraudulent elections, Bolivia is experiencing an atmosphere of political instability, with roadblocks and protests dramatically increasing the risk of infection.
In the midst of all these difficulties, we try to do what we can. Our Oblates try to support people as much as the situation allows, through prayer, internet communications and Eucharistic celebrations. I myself left Oruro for Cochabamba to help the community of elderly Oblates who are currently in need of help, as they do not receive any other form of assistance. In the meantime, I am trying to help an institutional care center, where three very courageous nuns look after some fifty handicapped young people. The center also suffers from lack of moral and personnel support. Fortunately, two young Jesuits came to live with them temporarily, in quarantine. Six workers also come to help every day, but one infection would be enough to rekindle the fire. Let us hope and pray that this does not happen. A strong testimony today is that all Oblates, young and old, have stayed at work with their fellow brothers in their mission territories.
P.S.- Translation of a letter intended for publication in AKKOORD, the newsletter of the Oblate Province of Belgium & Holland.