• Chahat Susawat

Religion during Coronavirus

For the Holy water is not a hand-sanitizer and prayer, not a vaccine. MATTIA FERRARESI

In the American state of Louisiana, a Christian preacher defies authorities worried about the spread of novel coronavirus and insists on holding a service that draws more than 1,000 people. In Malaysia, a gathering of nearly a quarter of a million Muslims in late February has been pinpointed as a “super-spreader” of the virus across the world. A majority of South Korea’s 10,800 cases have been traced to a meeting of the ‘Shincheonji’ Church of Jesus, a Christian denomination. Jewish temples in Israel, identified as one of the hotspots for the spread of coronavirus, finally agreed to shut a few weeks ago.As the spread of novel coronavirus continues to grapple billions of people across the world with governments and scientists struggling to find a response to this grave pandemic, people turn to religion and faith for solace. The dread over the global spread of the virus has drawn faithful to sacred places for their ‘protection’, more than ever.

So, what is it that spans the boundaries of rational thinking and makes thousands of people defy the basic rules meant for their protection in the false ambit of religion’s protectionism?

For believers, Religion is the fundamental source of spiritual healing and hope. It acts as a remedy against despair, providing emotional and psychological support. While all this is true, what we need to understand is that amidst such threatening global pandemic, what is good for the soul may not always be good for the body speaking from a scientifically based medical perspective.

“None of us fear Corona,” said one of the faithful at an outbreak’s center.

Believers worldwide are running afoul of public health authorities’ warnings that communal gatherings or religious interactions, the keystone of many religious practices, must be limited to curb the spread of the virus.

Religious extremists across the world, and in nearly every faith, are contributing to a global pandemic by refusing to abide by scientific advice and hold off on gatherings. Whether in the Iranian shrine city of Qom or the Bible Belt of the United States, the zealots are sometimes even touting their hocus pocus as cures to the pandemic. In some cases, they have led people toward cures that have no grounding in science. In Myanmar, a prominent Buddhist monk announced that a dose of one lime and three palm seeds would increase immunity against the virus. In India, videos emerged of Hindu activists drinking cow urine and bathing in cow dung, to stave off the coronavirus.

Is it right to say that religions across the world are helping the coronavirus disease to span its area of influence? Absolutely not. Blame can be put upon certain hardcore religious preachers who are failing to lay their faith in modern scientific measures but not upon the religions.

Responding to the extremity of the pandemic, many faiths continue to support the guidelines by adopting various measures. Religious authorities across the world have closed the places of worship, limiting public gatherings. Friday Prayer has been canceled across the Middle East. Muezzins in the West Bank and Kuwait entreat the faithful to avoid the mosque and instead pray at home. In an unprecedented step, Saudi Arabia suspended pilgrimages to the holy sites of Islam; Mecca, and Medina. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was closed after a coronavirus case was confirmed in the area. In the United States on Monday, congregants at a Washington, D.C., church were asked to self-quarantine for two weeks after a priest who had recently given them communion tested positive for coronavirus.

Many have adopted technology in the face of not being able to organize gatherings. The Pope’s Sunday Mass was live-streamed, so was a burning rite performed to dissipate the virus at the Kinpusen-Ji Buddhist temple in Japan. South Korean churches offered YouTube-only services for the first time anyone could remember, which left some feeling distant from God. How do you feel the warmth of communal prayer, the experience that draws the faithful to houses of worship around the world, in the cold blue light of a live-streamed service?

We are the “Easter people”, which many Christians are fond of saying, emphasizing the triumph of hope and life over fear. But how do the “Easter people” observe their holiest day if they cannot rejoice together on Easter morning? Can Muslim families celebrate Ramadan if they cannot visit local mosques for prayers or gather with their loved ones to break the fast?

All religions at some point of time or the other, have dealt with the challenge of keeping the faith alive under the adverse conditions of war or diaspora or persecution, but never all faiths at the same time. Religion in the time of quarantine will challenge conceptions of what it means to minister and fellowship. Not only that but it will also expand the opportunities for those who have no local congregation to sample sermons from afar. And maybe, the culture war that has branded those who preach about the common good with the epithet “Social Justice Warriors” may ease out amid the very present reminder of our interconnected humanity.

The tension between spiritual comfort and physical health that in some ways is an irreconcilable one — a dilemma in which acting to protect an indisputable value inevitably generates some sort of interior starvation, stands as a major challenge. However, no one should dispute the need to strictly limit ritual gatherings and comply with public safety regulations. Nonetheless, there’s something sad about how even around this time when the global cases of novel coronavirus have crossed 2 million mark and the death toll topped 1 million, the tension has barely been treated as something real, to be genuinely grappled with. For us it is crucial to respond thoughtfully and prudently to this pandemic, we need to understand what is essential and what is not. Pope-Francis has called the pandemic “a time to separate that which is necessary from that which is not”. In the end, the survival of religions may depend on their finding a way of explaining to followers, in their terms, why their spiritual duty now lies in suspending rites hitherto regarded otherwise as vital.

But does the religion really act as a place of comfort and cure when the world faces the threat from a virus that makes no distinction between believers and atheists? The answer is plain a No. We need to understand that Religion is not infallible and the very specificities of COVID-19 i.e. its rapid wildfire like spreading properties asks us to follow various protective measures like social distancing which completely goes against the very principles of mass gatherings, let alone any religious ones.

By Chahat Susawat