Anti-Poverty Week is important to Columban missionaries whose ministry includes standing alongside communities and promoting responses to underlying issues that cause and exacerbate poverty. The theme for this year’s International Day for the Eradication of Poverty (October 17) is ‘Building Together: Ending Persistent Poverty, Respecting all People and our Planet.’
The United Nations reported on August 30th 2021 that millions more people worldwide have been pushed into poverty since the Covid-19 pandemic, including in the region of South Asia where Columban missionaries live and work. Rates of poverty were already high in these countries. Furthermore, communities already living in generational poverty have had their circumstances worsened by the lack of access to healthcare and safety nets during the pandemic.
People living in poverty are also amongst the worst impacted by climate change and other environmental emergencies. In Fiji where Columbans have ministered for seventy years, communities have experienced increased hardship over the last decade. A February 16th 2021 blog from the Development Policy Centre of the Australian National University states people living in rural areas of Fiji are more deeply impacted compared to those in urban areas. Tropical cyclones Winston in 2016, Yasa in 2020, recent severe flooding events and the Covid-19 pandemic have further slowed economic growth, particularly in the tourist and agricultural sectors. This has exacerbated poverty with multiple impacts on people’s lives. The Development Policy Centre Blog states this trend is likely to continue. Extreme weather events and the emergence of new infectious diseases and pandemics are linked to climate change and the unsustainable use of nature’s resources. This knowledge highlights the need for joint responses to issues of poverty.
In a statement on the 24th September 2021, the World Health Organization welcomed commitments made by global leaders at the recent Covid-19 Summit to support low and middle-income countries dealing with the pandemic. There are new commitments to increase supplies of Covid-19 vaccines, diagnostic testing and medical equipment for vulnerable populations. Vaccination in poorer countries has been hampered by export bans and the hoarding of vaccines by wealthier countries. These arrangements will enable vaccination of 40% of the populations of all countries by the end of 2021 and 70% by mid-2022. Whilst this will go some way to addressing gross inequities, the predicted vaccination rates will still be significantly lower than those of wealthier countries including Australia.
Pope Francis in his Encyclical letter Fratelli Tutti speaks of the freedom accrued through globalization of markets by ‘opening up to the world.’ The Pope states: “As a rule, the advance of this kind of globalism strengthens the identity of the more powerful, who can protect themselves, but it tends to diminish the identity of the weaker and poorer regions, making them more vulnerable and dependent” (#12).
The United Nations also states inequalities worldwide have become more visible during the pandemic through entrenched discrimination and stigma that excludes people living in poverty from having their voices heard. Columban Fr Ray Collier reflected in the June 2021 edition of the Columban Far East magazine, “I know that my God lives in my invisible neighbour. Todays exploited and silenced people are our invisible neighbours. To make them visible we must recognize them…we must walk and talk with them and listen attentively.” Fr Ray said of the story of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke, “He did not leave and forget the wounded person, instead he returned to see what else might be needed.”
Discrimination based on ethnicity, religion, gender, disability, socio-economic status and other factors have multiple links to poverty. This is evident in discriminatory policies such as urban planning, the development of industries and major roads that result in worse air pollution in communities who experience marginalization compared to wealthier communities, affecting health and life expectancy. There are examples of this around the world.
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference media outlet Cathnews, reported on September 16th 2021, that the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council and The Salvation Army have issued a joint statement on the mounting risks posed by climate change to vulnerable communities. The joint statement is based on experience and research from recent bushfires and droughts where there were increased rates of family violence, poorer health, deaths, financial hardship and social isolation in communities already experiencing hardship. The two agencies advocate for additional supports for these communities as part of national planning towards responding to climate change in Australia.
Worldwide there is ample evidence that strategies to eradicate poverty, deliver effective Covid-19 recovery and climate action are inter-connected. This awareness offers the global community opportunities to create a more just and sustainable future. Many Church and civil leaders promote integrated responses to social and ecological issues in our times, in line with this year’s theme for the International Day of the Eradication of Poverty – ‘Building Together: Ending Persistent Poverty, Respecting all People and our Planet.’
Within our region, the Federation of Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of Oceania, which includes the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference continues to speak out about climate change and the responsibility of the global community to reduce greenhouse gas emissions amongst other responses. Many layers of the Church are taking up the vison of Pope Francis outlined in his 2015 environmental Encyclical Laudato Si’ – on care for our common home, to let ‘solidarity and care well up within us’ and respond to the urgent twin cries of Earth and all peoples (#58).
Sr Caroline Vaitkunas RSM
Peace, Ecology and Justice Team member
Columban Mission Centre, Essendon
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