COVID-19 convent outbreak shows risk to seniors


For Sister Juliet Lithemba, the past year has been “nothing short of grace and mercy from above,” as she explains it. The 77-year-old resident of Mt Royal Convent of the Sisters of Charity of Ottawa, located in Lesotho’s Leribe district, didn’t know much about COVID-19 until her convent home and fellow sisters were infected by the deadly virus.

She has dedicated her sisterhood life to the religious service since 1964 as a 20-year-old girl. For 47 years of her dedication, she has never seen such havoc brought about by a disease as COVID-19 has done.

Sister Lithemba was one of the first people to be identified as a confirmed case in May 2020 at her convent when she first thought she caught a cold. “It didn’t come as a surprise to me that I had flu-like symptoms because all my life, I have been troubled by the common cold,” she says.

It didn’t get any better as days passed by until she visited Motebang Hospital, a facility just a few blocks from the convent, to get treatment. The nurse assisting her on that day told her to test for COVID-19. After testing positive for the virus, Sister Lithemba was transferred to Berea Hospital for isolation and monitoring. She was on oxygen every day for 18 days.

“I was even taught how to operate the oxygen machine. It sure was going to be a long hospital stay. This, I learned as days passed by,” she says. Right opposite her bed was her fellow sister in covenant, who was having a hard time breathing, eating or even drinking water. “She could not swallow or keep anything down,” Sister Lithemba says. Later, her neighbor died.

The virus had spread so widely that every other day a nun would be taken to the closest private clinic for oxygen. The oldest among the sisters was 96 years old.

In total, the convent home confirmed 17 positive cases out of 20. Unfortunately, of these confirmed cases, seven passed on.

“These were trying times for us. We lost too many warriors in this battle, and life will never be the same,” Sister Lithemba says. She and other occupants at the home say they do not know how or where they could have been infected at the time.

After the incidences, the home procured a cleaning and disinfecting company, ordered everyone to adhere to COVID-19 protocols and let all their workers stay on campus. Their guest rooms were temporarily closed so as to have less movement in and out of the home.

“At the moment, everyone had to stay in their rooms. There are sanitizers in every room and all entrances and exit points. We adhere to physical distancing in our dining hall and when we go for our daily prayers. We have witnessed the existence of this virus in the harshest way, and we are taking our safety very seriously,” Sister Lithemba says.

United Nations agencies help with COVID-19 response
To protect the senior populations of Lesotho, the government has been carrying out an initiative known as the Risk Communication and Community Engagement campaign. Supported by the World Health Organization, UN Children’s Fund and other partners, authorities have designed 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.

“Aging populations are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 and they have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic as they are at the highest risk of contracting the virus infection due to weakened immune systems and pre-existing health conditions,” says Richard Banda, Representative of WHO Lesotho.

That is why the UN team in Lesotho is supporting community engagement activities, especially targeting vulnerable people, organizing special meetings where hygiene promotion talks are conducted while observing the Do’s and Don’ts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As we celebrate this year’s World Health Day, we must intensify our work to achieve Universal Health Coverage, and to invest in addressing the social and economic determinants of health, to tackle inequities and build a fairer, healthier world,” Mr. Banda added.

Lesotho launched the COVID-19 vaccination campaign on 10 March 2021 and over 13,000 frontline workers have so far received their first shot. “Every disease needs a cure, and even if this vaccine is not perfect, at least it minimizes the chances of death and being critically ill. That’s all the hope we need,” Sister Lithemba says.

She now takes into account all the preventive measures to reduce the rate of infection until the country has control of the pandemic.

As one of the COVID-19 survivors, Sister Lithemba urges authorities to avail resources to enable the community engagement teams to visit all corners of the districts. This, she said, should focus on reaching out to everyone, including hard-to-reach areas.


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