At his weekly general audience on Aug. 12, Pope Francis said, "The pandemic has highlighted how vulnerable and interconnected we all are. If we do not take care of each other, starting with the least -- those who are most affected, including creation -- we cannot heal the world."
Dr. Pierre Rollin, a retired epidemiologist and Catholic who worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for 26 years has spent his entire career containing outbreaks of infectious diseases, particularly Ebola. Most recently he led the United States team for the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. His work has taken him into the jungles of Africa where he often slept on the ground and worked long hours with little sleep. He has consulted with everyone from Presidents to tribal leaders to extinguish outbreaks. Dr. Rollin was featured in a 2014 Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times story How Ebola Roared Back.
As communities throughout the country work to contain COVID-19, Dr. Rollin spoke with me about the current pandemic, those most affected, and what we can do to stop its transmission.
According to Dr. Rollin, the coronavirus is a zoonotic disease which means it originated in an animal and then “jumped” or transferred to humans where it is now being passed from person to person. When the virus lived in an animal it caused no harm. However, it became deadly in human bodies killing more than 1 million people worldwide. This pandemic illustrates the principles of integral ecology discussed by Pope Francis in Chapter 4 of Laudato Si, On the Care of Our Common Home. “We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it,” he writes.
The caseload and death toll for persons of color occur at much higher rates than whites. According to a research article by The New York Times, Racism’s Hidden Toll, black people are three times more likely than white people to contract the coronavirus, six times more likely to be hospitalized, and twice as likely to die from coronavirus. Eight out of ten American Covid-19 deaths are people over 65 years old. (The Atlantic, 9/22/2020.) And finally, American Indians and Alaskan Natives account for only 0.7 percent of the population but makeup 1.3 percent of the Covid-19 cases. (Centers for Disease Control COVID-19 Among American Indian and Alaska Native Persons — 23 States, January 31–July 3, 2020, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
Persons in poverty and those who are elderly are also disproportionately impacted. Dr. Rollin explained why these groups of people are disproportionately affected by Covid-19. He said the elderly and those with underlying health conditions are most susceptible to the virus because their immune systems are weaker. Lower-income people often do not have health insurance, may lack sanitation, and may have health complications such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity. Because they are poor, they usually live close to one another and in multi-generational households where they can easily pass the virus among the family. Young family members may bring the virus home from school or work and infect their grandparents who may become seriously ill. They cannot easily quarantine in crowded conditions. Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si, “Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.” More recently, in his catechesis on “Healing the World,” Pope Francis has called attention to the need to address systems and structures that perpetuate the inequalities that have caused such disparate impact. “We must come out of [the pandemic] better,” he notes, “to counter social injustice and environmental damage. Today we have an opportunity to build something different.”
However, we can also take immediate actions to care for one another and end the pandemic.
Stopping the transmission of Covid-19
Dr. Rollin explained that since the disease is not a bacteria, antibiotics cannot be used to help stop the spread. Only a vaccine will kill the virus and one is not yet available. So, a change of behavior is necessary to break the chain of human transmission.
In the pandemic of 1918, there were no vaccines, so people learned to avoid close contact with one other and if someone was sick, they would quarantine to avoid infecting others. Now, in 2020, several practices and procedures that were used 100 years ago still work well today to keep us safe in the face of COVID-19:
Social distance - We must stay at least six feet apart. It is important to avoid being in closed, crowded spaces.
Wear a mask – This practice limits the spread of airborne virus droplets from infecting someone else. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone wear a mask if they are in close proximity to others such as in grocery stores.
Throw open the windows – This allows good ventilation in a home, office, school, or business and helps get rid of any airborne virus.
Wash your hands often - It is important to wash your hands frequently to shed microbes including the virus and stop the transmission of the virus to ourselves and others.
The pandemic illustrates the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor as written by Pope Francis in the Encyclical Laudato Si. The earth and the poor are suffering. This expression of pain requires those unaffected to take seriously our responsibility to care for one another. Dr. Rollin by his example and words offer inspiration and concrete ways for us all to make a difference during this very trying time for humanity.
Going Deeper! Watch the full Zoom interview with Dr. Rollin and reflect on how you can act in solidarity with your brothers and sisters.
This interview was conducted by Susan Varlamoff, a biologist retired Director of the Office of Environmental Sciences of the University of Georgia, co-author of the Laudato Si’ Action Plan and author of Sustainable Gardening for the Southeast