© WHO LesothoFor Sister Juliet Lithemba, the past year was “nothing less than grace and mercy from above,” as she explains. The 77-year-old resident of the Sisters of Charity’s Mt. Royal Convent of Ottawa in the Leribe neighborhood of Lesotho didn’t know much about COVID-19 until her monastery home and fellow sisters were infected with the deadly virus.
Since 1964, when she was only 20 years old, she has devoted her life to worship. In 47 years of engagement, she has never seen such chaos from illness as it did during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sister Lithemba was one of the first people identified as a confirmed case at her monastery in May 2020 when she first believed she had caught a cold.
“It was no surprise to me that I had flu-like symptoms because the common cold has plagued me all my life,” she said.
It didn’t get any better as days passed before she went to Motebang Hospital, a facility just blocks away from the monastery, for treatment. The nurse who assisted her that day asked her to test for COVID-19.
After Sister Lithemba tested positive for the virus, she was taken to Berea Hospital for isolation and monitoring. She had oxygen every day for 18 days.
“I was even taught how to operate the oxygen machine. It was going to be a long hospital stay. I’ve learned that over the course of the days, ”she says. Directly across from her bed was her co-sister from the convent, who was having difficulty breathing, eating, or even drinking water.
“She couldn’t swallow anything or hold it down,” says Sister Lithemba. Unfortunately, her neighbor died later.
The virus had spread so widely that every other day a nun was taken to the nearest private clinic for oxygen. The oldest among the sisters was a great 96.
“Too Many Warriors” lost
In total, the monastery recorded 17 positive and three negative cases. Unfortunately, of these confirmed cases, seven died.
“Those were difficult times for us. We lost too many warriors in this battle and life will never be the same, ”says Sister Lithemba. You and other residents of the house say they don’t know how or where they might be infected at this point.
After the first wave of the virus, the monastery home hired a cleaning and disinfection company, ordered everyone to adhere to the COVID-19 protocols and to leave all of their employees on campus.
Her guest rooms were temporarily closed to reduce movement in and out of the house.
“At the moment everyone had to stay in their rooms. There are disinfectants in every room and at all entry and exit points. We keep a physical distance in our dining room and in our daily prayers. We have witnessed the existence of this virus in the hardest possible way and we take our security very seriously, ”says Sister Lithemba.
To protect the elderly in Lesotho, the government has launched an initiative known as the Risk Communication and Community Engagement Campaign. With support from the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and other partners, the authorities have created targeted messages for specific groups in the community such as the elderly, the vulnerable and community members with various conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
© WHO Lesotho
A WHO risk communications team is working with government officials at a COVID-19 news development workshop in the Leribe district of Lesotho.
“Aging populations are particularly susceptible to COVID-19 and have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, as they have the highest risk of contracting the virus infection due to a weakened immune system and pre-existing health conditions,” says Richard Banda, representative of WER Lesotho.
For this reason, the UN team in Lesotho supports community engagement activities, especially for those in need of protection, and organizes special meetings where discussions are held to promote hygiene while the do’s and don’s of the COVID-19 pandemic are observed.
“We need to step up our work to achieve universal health coverage and invest in addressing the social and economic determinants of health, eradicating inequalities and building a fairer, healthier world,” added Banda.
By mid-April, Lesotho had recoded nearly 11,000 cases of the virus with 315 deaths, according to the WHO. The country launched its COVID-19 vaccination campaign on March 10, 2021 after receiving vaccines through the COVAX facility. So far around 16,000 doses have been given, mainly to frontline workers.
“Every disease needs a cure, and even if this vaccine isn’t perfect, it will at least minimize the chances of death and serious illness. That is the hope we need, ”says Sister Lithemba.
It is now considering all available preventive measures to lower the infection rate until the country gets the pandemic under control.
As one of the survivors of COVID-19, Sister Lithemba urges the authorities to use resources so that the community engagement teams can visit every corner of each district. This should focus on reaching everyone, including those in hard-to-reach areas.