Sunday, November 2, 2014

Ebola and Faith Healing

The 2014 Ebola epidemic has claimed thousands of lives in western Africa, with Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea reporting almost 5,000 deaths as of October 29th. Nigeria has also reported 19 laboratory-confirmed Ebola cases and 8 deaths. While medical professionals race to help Africa's Ebola victims, some believers are resorting to faith healing, with tragic consequences.

Pentecostal Christianity, with its belief in spiritual gifts such as healing, is a growing presence in western Africa, and some adherents have responded to the Ebola epidemic with fantastic faith healing claims. Some western evangelists boast of faith healings during their African celebrations, and in doing so, they encourage superstitious beliefs among their followers. As the stories below demonstrate, superstition can have dangerous consequences.


Friendly Atheist recently drew attention to one Liberian preacher's response to Ebola. According to the Telegraph, Liberian preacher Edward Adjei claims that he can thwart the Ebola epidemic through an exorcism of the presidential palace, three days of prayer, and a ceremonial scattering of Christ's blood in the form of soda pop. Liberia's presidential palace -- "our country's gateway to Heaven" -- has been "desecrated", driving God to turn his back on Liberia and withhold protection from Ebola, Adjei insisted.

In a Telegraph video, Adjei argues that Ebola is a Satanic machination.
"To me, to my best of knowledge and according to what God has revealed to me, Ebola has demonic influence ... Every disease and every sickness that has no cure has demonic influence. It's a Satanic mission to destroy humanity."
Adjei also insists that the presidential mansion must be purged of demons in order to rid the country of Ebola.
"The Lord revealed to me that the mansion needs consecration. We have to consecrate the mansion because it has become a residence of demons."
While Adjei's story is absurd, other faith healing stories emerging from Liberia are more desperate and tragic in tone. The Los Angeles Times recently shared the story of Dorothy Sawer, a "prayer warrior" for Conqueror's Tabernacle Church in Monrovia, Liberia. Sawer, who lives in the poverty-stricken New Kru Town neighborhood, is part of a Pentecostal church that claims to heal diseases through laying of hands. Unfortunately, Ebola can be transmitted through touch (as it lives in bodily fluids such as sweat), and has sickened many pastors and faith healers in Liberia. Even though Ebola had ravaged New Kru Town, Sawer was unafraid.  "I wasn't afraid because I believed God was with me," she told the Los Angeles Times.

Despite Sawer's earnest prayers, Ebola claimed the life of her pastor, Varney Garpou, a tragedy she attributed to God's will. "Maybe some people never had the faith that they could make it and some people lose hope," she said. Sawer and her son later contracted Ebola, and at the medical center where she received care, she watched other patients die of the disease. Sawyer still prays for the afflicted in her role as prayer warrior, but she no longer touches people during her prayer sessions.


Attempts at faith healing have exacerbated the Ebola epidemic in some regions. For example, AFP reports that a herbalist in Sokoma, Sierra Leone claimed that she could cure Ebola, and that infected persons from Guinea sought her out for treatment. When the herbalist died, her female neighbors contracted Ebola at her funeral and spread the virus over a wide area. AFP notes that Enola's early spread in west Africa may have been due to regional funerary rites, in which relatives touch the dead bodies of their loved ones. The New Yorker explores the case in greater depth here.


Even though Nigeria was not hit as hard by the Ebola epidemic, the country has no shortage of preachers responding to the Ebola epidemic with faith healing. For example, Nigeria's Daily Post reports that T. B. Joshua, founder of Synagogue Church Of All Nations, shipped 4,000 bottles of holy water to the Sierra Leone government so as to "spiritually fortify" the country against Ebola.

One proponent of faith healing seemed confused about Ebola's history. In a July 26th Facebook entry, Nigerian pastor Ituah Ighodalo claimed that a Christian faith healer named John Lake and and his "Holy Ghost filled team" had stopped an Ebola epidemic in Africa years before. However, Abby Phillip's commentary piece in the Washington Post observes that Ebola first appeared in 1976, decades after John Lake's death. Ighodalo posted a Facebook message the following day, explaining that Lake allegedly healed victims of the bubonic plague, not Ebola.

Nigerian officials fear that faith healing attempts could only make the Ebola outbreak worse. According to the Centre for African Journalists, state officials in Nigeria have warned the public about pastors who claim that they can cure Ebola victims through faith healing. Nigeria's Leadership Newspaper reports that the Lagos State Government has warned faith leaders that churches and faith healing houses could exacerbate the spread of Ebola. Abdulsalami Nasidi of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control urged faith healing houses to report any patients showing Ebola symptoms to the government, so as to stop the spread of the virus. (Hat tip to the Washington Post.)

Fortunately, some African voices are criticizing faith healing and calling for a more enlightened approach to the epidemic. In a commentary piece at Sahara Reporters, Nigerian humanist Leo Igwe condemns faith healers as frauds, mocking them for their impotence in the face of the Ebola epidemic.
"As the governments of West Africa struggle to contain the spread of the Ebola virus, I am wondering where all the men and women of God who claim they can heal the sick and who conduct faith healing sessions in countries across the region are.

Where are all the continent’s miracle workers now that people desperately need healing; where are the anointed men and women of God now governments urgently need to contain the spread of Ebola? Where are all the pastors and preachers who have built their religious and business empires marketing miracle cure claims to gullible, ignorant desperate folks in cities and villages across Africa over the years? Have their miracle stocks suddenly gone dry? Or don’t they have any miracle package that is compatible with Ebola? What are our faith healers doing now? Can’t they singly or jointly take the spiritual battle against Ebola to affected communities and demonstrate to the world that their God is truly a miracle God?"
Igwe urges his fellow Africans to abandon superstitious faith healing in favor of evidence-based medicine.
"This challenge has become necessary if Africa must move forward and if the ongoing deception and exploitation by fake(faith) healers will end. There is no evidence for faith healing at all. Africans spend fortune on faith healing schemes. This challenge has become necessary if African people and their governments must improve the health care system and be able to provide effective responses to outbreak of diseases like the Ebola. Africans need to maximize their limited resources and stop investing and wasting money in useless cure schemes. Africans need to channel their funds into promoting evidence based health care system."

When religious fervor meets desperation, people may seek succor in dangerous superstition. How many Ebola victims sought out futile faith healing instead of medical attention, only to die? How many Ebola victims had no access to medical facilities, and thus sought help from faith healers because no other help was available? The prevalence of faith healers in Africa is entwined with poverty, infrastructure problems, ignorance, and desperation, and the Ebola epidemic has only highlighted this tragic state of affairs. Ebola will be vanquished with education, sanitation, and the efforts of dedicated medical professionals, not superstition, and I hope that impacted countries can secure the resources they need to combat the epidemic.


  1. So sad. I have faith that faith healing will not cure ebola!!

  2. Knatolee -- Very sad. Superstition is compounding human suffering.

  3. And beyond the faith healing, so many survivors including orphaned children are being shunned. Ignorance is never a good thing.

    1. Agi Tater -- It's tragic to learn of survivors and orphans being shunned by their communities, even though they're no danger to others. So many forces are coming together to amplify human suffering in Ebola-affected areas.

      Ignorance isn't limited to faith healing and fear of survivors, sadly. Some communities attribute Ebola to witchcraft, which is complicating efforts to combat the epidemic.


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