Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Nigeria Alexandros recently tested positive for the novel coronavirus, just moments before boarding an airplane from Lagos to Athens. “I self-quarantined for 14 days and I must admit I was frightened. Say what you like, but we are also human, and fear can strike deep in our bones,” he tells Kathimerini.
Concerned about how his contraction of the disease would be perceived by his flock, some of his closest aides recommended that he conceal his illness. Instead, he posted it on Facebook, warning that as an asymptomatic carrier of the virus he may have passed it on to others.
Commenting on the stance of certain high-ranking clerics in the Church of Greece who have insisted on downplaying or even dismissing the dangers of the virus, Alexandros said he was “saddened by those who did not want to share the fact that they tested positive.”
“This put some in a very difficult position and some even died. It’s unacceptable,” he said.
The archbishop of Nigeria was also critical of members of the clergy passing on the message that the virus cannot infect people inside churches and during Holy Communion, describing the naysayers of the pandemic as “the other side.”
“They need to answer a simple question: While in church, is our nature as creations of God (and, consequently, as mortal creatures) negated? Or suspended? I think not. Because if that were the case, then none of us should ever die. Millions of people who received Holy Communion should still be alive,” he said.
“When we come to church, attend a service and take communion, we know that we are taking the body and blood of Christ, not something symbolic, but essential. But we also know something that escapes many people because of religious ignorance: that the tonic of immortality and all that we know have an eschatological significance. So, do we have a duty to explain things a bit more to the people? To priests and even bishops?”
Reacting to possible criticism of his decision to speak out about the dangers of the virus, Archbishop Alexandros said that he is guided by his conscience and the position of Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios, who has said that members of the Church must uphold the laws of the land and do everything in their power to safeguard public health.
“That says it all and it also gives the bishops of any given area the discretion to choose how to manage their services,” he adds.
Archbishop Alexandros also took a novel approach to the issue of Holy Communion, which has been the subject of much controversy in the Greek Orthodox Church with regard to the risks of coronavirus transmission. Concerned that drinking from the same cup would spread the virus among his congregation, he chose to pour the communion from the cup into their mouths. “Each church seeks to safeguard its flock,” he says.
In his 32 years as a missionary in Africa, Alexandros has not only had to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, but also the Ebola epidemic.
“Ebola was a terrible thing. It tears you apart in three or four days, leaves you bleeding everywhere, with no chance of survival. It was frightening. Thankfully, it was contained quickly by the authorities thanks to tracing. People disappeared from churches. They were scared and we tried to inform them – then as now – that they need to act according to government guidelines. This time, when we closed the churches in March, the cathedral in Lagos carried out its services online and I did too. Not a single Sunday went by without a divine service,” he says.
Archbishop Alexandros explains that social conditions in Nigeria and other parts of Africa, such as cramped cities and reliance on street trade, make it hard to contain the spread of diseases like Ebola or Covid-19, despite the fact that epidemiological data for the West African country show relatively low transmission of the novel coronavirus.
“One opinion is that we do not have a clear picture because extensive and proper testing has not been done in many parts of Africa. There are all sorts of different theories about fatalities and one of the answers may, in fact, relate to testing,” he says.
“The second theory we’re reading, coming from independent sources, is that the people here have a very strong immune system, possible as a result of the anti-malaria drugs that are consumed. I couldn’t say what it is, but if you look at the world coronavirus map, there are very few red dots in sub-Saharan Africa compared to the rest of the world,” he adds.