A woman takes part in an animist ritual in Laos. (Photo: YouTube)
During a visit to a village in the northern Lao province of Luang Prabang, this reporter witnessed a healing ceremony being performed by several locals.
It involved a sacrificial chicken and various incantations. The aim was to heal a woman who had come down with what appeared to be dengue fever.
Lacking access to modern medicine, or the means to pay for it, locals across the rural hinterland in one of Asia’s poorest nations continue to put faith in traditional forms of healing whose efficacy is questionable at best.
Many of the country’s 150,000 or so Christians do so too, as they are among the communist nation’s most disadvantaged minorities. Their main hope of cures may lie in traditional remedies and prayers.
Right now many Laotians are in need of hope and prayer as dengue fever, a potentially deadly viral infection spread by mosquitoes, continues taking a toll across the country.
Thousands of Laotians, many of them desperately poor, have recently been infected by a disease that is one of the fastest-spreading maladies in Southeast Asia, according to the World Health Organization.
Dengue is endemic in Laos and locals are at risk of contracting it all year round, especially during warmer and wetter months, from May to October, when the mosquitoes that carry it thrive.
Without proper health care, those who get infected routinely end up enduring far more suffering than they should, whether they are Buddhist, animists or Christians. And proper health care is widely unavailable for most citizens, especially in the impoverished countryside, away from urban centers.
“With weaknesses in financing, health records, infrastructure and management of health services, medical care in Laos remains inadequate and unevenly distributed,” explains Pacific Bridge Medical, an international consulting firm.
Despite a plan by the health ministry to achieve universal health coverage by 2025, only a fifth of Laos’ 7 million citizens are currently covered by health insurance programs. The rest are mostly left to fend for themselves the best they can — even if that means slaughtering chickens to appease spirits that many believe cause diseases like dengue fever.
Before the communist takeover of 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War, Christian missionaries and emissaries from the West made inroads into helping spread modern medical practices into impoverished rural communities, but the nativist Pathet Lao (Lao Nation) communist movement put an end to that.
The communists have kept Laos mired in dire poverty ever since and, nearly half a century on, continue to maintain a highly repressive political regime whose main aim is to perpetuate the Communist Party’s rule at all costs. The result has been that just as Laos has become permanently sickened as a nation, so have many Laotians been sickened by chronic maladies that could easily be cured with proper medical care.
In non-Christian villages, many Christians, whose faith is seen as an alien implant by many locals, are at an especial disadvantage as they may find themselves ostracized by their neighbors and denied needful assistance by village chiefs or officials. Yet despite religious differences between majority Buddhists and minority Christians, poor Laotians can’t help suffering side by side when they get sick.
Foreign visitors to Lao villages can hardly fail to notice the many children with snotty noses, their prematurely ageing parents who appear battered by hard lives and their grandparents stricken down with chronic ailments from arthritis to cataracts to gout.
Christian visitors to the scenic country may feel inclined to offer prayers for the sick they encounter. Yet many Laotians need more than that. They need medicine that can ease their pain and heal them.
Laos’ Christians are among Asia’s most persecuted religious minorities and the Vatican has largely ignored their plight. Many Catholics in neighboring Thailand, who by comparison with their brethren in Laos are highly privileged, have done likewise.
It’s high time that foreign Catholics who are in a position to do so started offering succor to their impoverished coreligionists in Laos. It’s time for speaking up for persecuted Christians in Laos and it’s time to redouble efforts to bring the benefits of modern medicine to the sick and needy, be they Christians or Buddhists or animists.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.