In Africa's battle against AIDS, a key player hits a crossroads

The Catholic Church administers 25 percent of all AIDS treatment worldwide, especially in hard-to-reach rural areas. But it's facing new obstacles as funding declines and African governments are under pressure to provide services themselves.

Ryan Lenora Brown
Villagers wait to visit health workers at St. Mary's, the Catholic Church in Kayesa, Malawi.

In the center of Kayesa, a sun-drenched village in central Malawi, stands the empty shell of a public health clinic.

Its red brick walls are gap-toothed and end abruptly at window height, where construction stopped when the village chief ran out of money last year. Goats wander lazily through the half-completed structure, picking at fruit peels on the dirt floor.

But only about 100 yards away, villagers wait patiently in a long line to visit with a doctor at Kayesa’s Catholic church, St. Mary’s. Inside the squat one-room brick building, a team of Slovenian doctors and medical students who visit the village twice a month briskly dole out antibiotics, wound dressings, and advice on HIV treatment. Boxes of their supplies lie sprawled across the altar. 

Across much of sub-Saharan Africa, this is a familiar scene. In a region that is home to both many of the world’s poorest states and its sickest, countries have long turned to private healthcare providers — many of them faith-based — to fill the gaps in their coverage. Indeed, five decades after Malawi's independence, churches are still responsible for 40 percent of all healthcare provision in this sliver of southeastern Africa, and 80 percent in so-called “hard to staff” areas, according to the US State Department.

The impact has been particularly notable in confronting HIV/AIDS as it swept across the continent over the past three decades, particularly in those remote areas where governments are hard-pressed to provide services. Today, the Vatican and UNAIDS estimate that the Catholic Church — which mounted an early and massive ground-level response, building up a network of hospitals, hospices, orphanages, and clinics — administers 25 percent of all AIDS treatment, care, and support throughout the world. But like many other faith-based groups here, Catholic health workers say their primary motive is helping support essential healthcare provision, rather than promoting conversion.

“We often say that we serve people because we are Catholic, not so that they will be Catholic,” says Father Bob Vitillo, the special adviser on HIV/AIDS for Caritas Internationalis, the global federation of Catholic charities. “There is no proselytizing to the sick.”

But the institution’s future in the fight against HIV/AIDS is increasingly uncertain.

Many governments — including Malawi’s — are working to gradually reduce their reliance on private providers such as churches. Global funding for faith-based AIDS relief is also shrinking. That, many argue, is a good thing – a pivot toward self-sufficiency for countries historically reliant on missionary handouts for the provision of even basic social services. But the institutional roots of the church remain far deeper than the roots of government across much of Africa, and its reach more expansive, underscoring for many observers the need to recognize churches' ongoing importance amid efforts to improve health care on the continent. 

“In many countries, delivery of health care has naturally become a social good expected of the state, and so it remains then to think out what the future role of church medical institutions should be,” says Ken Johnson, a lecturer at the Malawi College of Medicine. "It is a mistake for Catholic hospitals to insist on doing basic services ... rightly taken up by government. But rather let them be creative, because there remain many unmet health issues." 

Positive sign: a business declines

For Harrison Chiringa, a coffin-maker in the Malawian city of Kasungu, which lies 65 kilometers (about 40 miles) from Kayesa by bone-rattling dirt road, the impact of church healthcare in the region isn’t hard to isolate — after all, it’s had direct bearing on his business.

“When I opened my coffin shop in 2008, I could sell two, sometimes three coffins a week,” he says.  

In the small workshop behind the store, he and his assistants were perpetually busy transforming slabs of raw wood into the glossy handled boxes now on display.  The most ornate sold for as much as $150, a princely sum in a country where 40 percent of the population lives on less than $1 per day.

But today, Mr. Chiringa says, he sells perhaps two per month, and the rows of coffins at his feet are literally gathering dust in the whitewashed shop.

It is a marker, in part, of a broader transition this part of the world has undergone in recent years, as improving HIV/AIDS care meant the disease was no longer so certain and prevalent a killer.

In Malawi, life expectancy climbed from 40 years in 2000 to 55 in 2011. And even as the prevalence of HIV fell from 14 percent to 11 percent during the same period, locals say the number of people living openly with the virus rose steeply.

Part of the responsibility for the pivot belongs to the government, which runs a large hospital in Kasungu and, since 2004, has dispensed free antiretroviral treatment — ARTs — to any sick Malawian who can reach one of its HIV clinics.

But for many here, that’s a near impossible challenge. Less than half of Malawians are within a five-kilometer (3-mile) walk of a clinic or hospital. Nearly every village, on the other hand, has a Catholic church.

 “Government just doesn’t have the capacity to treat everyone, especially in the rural areas,” says Henry Lunda, who for several years ran the Catholic Church’s AIDS relief program in the region around Kayesa. “They rely on the church programs. I don’t know if they want to, but they have to.”

'We are very far away from Rome'

For the Catholics, AIDS ministry here began as it did in most places across Africa — by providing hospice care.

Through the 1990s and into the early 2000s, “there was little we could do except help people die with dignity — and then provide support to those who were left behind,” says Father Vitillo of Caritas Internationalis.

But by the mid-2000s, the landscape began to shift. AIDS was becoming a chronic but treatable illness in the West, and a massive influx of donor dollars — led by former President George W. Bush’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) — promised for the first time to bring the new medical treatment to the heart of the epidemic: sub-Saharan Africa.

“The Catholic Church was an obvious choice for [international donors] to partner with, because it was already there, already integrated into local communities, and therefore trusted by local communities,” Father Vitillo says. “We made a good and simple pitch: It’s cost effective to work with us.”

There was also another factor that made the church attractive to Mr. Bush’s PEPFAR program in particular — its all-out commitment to sexual abstinence.

In 2008, local Jesuit priests hired Mr. Lunda to take on the church’s relief program in the Kasungu region. Using European donor funds, they bought a new Land Rover and staffed Lunda with a local nurse and nutritionist. Every day, the team jolted down narrow dirt roads to the region’s most far-flung villages, where they visited patients, ran support groups, doled out food aid from local Catholic parishes, and made house-calls to the very sickest. 

Often, Lunda says, the church found that local relief programs were already in progress, and simply chipped in funds to keep them going. Just outside Kayesa, for instance, a small, steely-eyed woman named Faucita Banda has, since 2004, been running a cooperative farm staffed by HIV-positive women and AIDS orphans, who shared a cluster of huts at its fringes. Lunda began bringing the women seeds, and helped to drill them a well.

“This is not about teaching people to become Catholics. The act of doing good, that’s how we let people know what our church is about,” he says.

The work has tested the church in central ways, particularly its opposition to the use of condoms, one of the most championed public health methods for reducing the transmission of HIV.  

“Here in Malawi, because of AIDS, we know we must talk of condoms — there is no running from that,” says Lunda, the AIDS relief worker in Kasungu. “When we have healthy Christians, our churches are full. When they are sick, they do not come.”

For Anthony Egan, a theologian with the Jesuit Institute of South Africa, the issue is dealing with the immediate conditions on the ground. 

“The truth is, we are very far away from Rome,” he says. “In the pastoral experience of most priests and bishops in Africa, what you quickly come to realize is that all the pious theology in the world simply can’t make moral sense in the face of real and deep human suffering.”

Indeed, in November 2010, then-Pope Benedict XVI declared that under certain circumstances, condom use was permissible — appearing to walk back the Vatican’s 1968 degree that all artificial contraception was “inherently evil.”

 "AIDS cannot be solved only by the distribution of condoms,” Father Federico Lombardi, the pope’s spokesman, quickly explained. "At the same time, the pope … believes that the use of condoms to reduce the risk of infection is a 'first step on the road to a more human sexuality,' rather than not to use it and risking the lives of others.”

Ms. Simpwalo's advice

On a recent afternoon in the main examination room of the HIV clinic she manages at Nazareth House, a sprawling orphanage and hospice in the center of Johannesburg, South Africa, Sylvia Simpwalo repeats the counsel she gives daily to her clients.

“If you are married and your partner has HIV and you do not, then you must use a condom. There is no other choice,” she says.

Ms. Simpwalo’s clinic sits in the center of a sunny courtyard, flanked on either side by an AIDS orphanage and a hospice. Every day, she says, is a reminder of the way the entire course of a person’s life can be turned on its head by one careless decision.

But condoms still present her with a moral challenge.

“Sometimes when people use condoms, they feel too free, like they can have sex with anyone,” she says. “So we still must teach people the right way to use them, the right situations.”

But a far bigger issue, she says, is the question of how not to lose the progress that this and other Catholic AIDS charities have made over decades.  

Until 2012, Simpwalo recalls brightly, her clinic saw 3,500 patients each month. That year, however, their PEPFAR funding was slashed, part of a wider move by the United States to shift responsibility for AIDS treatment fully into the hands of South Africa’s government. The country now funds more than 80 percent of its own HIV relief work, threatening the future of faith-based institutions like the Nazareth House clinic. Simpwalo says her facility  — whose walls are plastered with signs reading “welcome to the clinic of hope and love” — now has just 300 regular clients.

“I’m worried for the care they’re receiving at government hospitals,” she says of her former patients. “Some of them have a good quality of care, but some do not.”

She is also concerned about something less tangible: a sense of connection between the health of the body and the health of the spirit, and the prudence of treating both together. 

“The question for us [the church] has always been, how do you help these people [infected with HIV] live a human life?” says Stuart Bate, the former grand chancellor at St. Joseph’s Theological Institute in South Africa. “It’s not a question simply of blood going ‘round in your body. It’s a question of the humanity and dignity of the life you live.”

This story was reported with support from the Ford Foundation.

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