What Can Religion Offer in the Response to COVID-19?
The global outbreak of Covid-19 was bound and indeed it has impacted faith communities all over the world. Besides providing information on the disease, the World Health Organization (WHO) organized a series of discussions which included some religious leaders. A draft set of guidelines for faith communities was availed online for comment, prompting lively online discussion before a final document was produced. In the months that followed, as country after country issued strict public health directives, many other organizations developed guidelines for religious communities and leaders, as well as numerous articles, webinars and other faith-directed resources.
It became increasingly clear that diverse religious communities—like other segments of society—were adjusting, willingly or grudgingly, to the shocking disruptions the coronavirus had wrought on virtually every facet of normal life. It also became apparent that religious leaders and faith groups had distinctive insights to share and practical roles to play.
For those of us tracking and analyzing religious responses to COVID-19, these developments raise several key questions. What contributions—positive and less so—are religious communities making during this pandemic? What lessons can we learn from past global health crises, and the current one? And how might policymakers better integrate religious voices in public health, as well as in the economic and social recovery to come?
Broadly speaking, it has interfered with three aspects of religious life: congregation, religious rites and pastoral care, and charitable work. All of these realms reveal how painful it can be when religion is left out of pandemic plans. But they also demonstrate the creativity and generosity of religious leaders, who have worked to adapt to the circumstances, finding ways to practice faith and serve their communities even under exacting restrictions.
The high-profile religious gatherings that captured headlines in early March 2020 quickly became “super-spreader” events in the lore and realities around the coronavirus pandemic. Non-religious gatherings, like sporting events and concerts, posed similar risks. So it made sense in terms of public health for authorities to move quickly to limit large gatherings. But congregation, of course, is a central part of the ethos of many religious communities. Efforts by public health officials to limit events like church gatherings have led some adherents to see these measures as an imposition on their freedom of religion, creating significant tension between the public and the state. Yet only a minority of religious leaders seem to have flatly rejected prohibitions on gatherings; large majorities of people support them. Around the world, individual houses of worship—churches, mosques, temples—have chosen to close in response to the pandemic, and popular pilgrimage sites have, too.
To reduce the need for in-person gatherings, religious leaders are coming up with innovative and creative options that have inspired their communities to accept and adapt to the new reality. Today, believers who attend religious services regularly have transitioned to online observance. Some religious leaders now offer drive-through church services and host fellowship meetings over Zoom, while some Christian communities offer virtual baptisms and even weddings.
Pope Francis delivers prayers in an empty St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican. Others have found ways to adapt practices instead of simply moving them online. Experts on Jewish law have outlined adjustments to religious rituals—reducing, for example, Jewish marriage and, heeding public health guidance to refrain from physical contact, religious institutions have adapted time-honored practices including choral singing and the sign of peace—a traditional Christian greeting, usually a handshake or an embrace during a service—so that where in-person congregations are held, people do not need to touch to participate.
Yet for some religious rituals and rites, it’s been harder to adapt. The corona virus presents barriers to caring for the sick and to performing certain death and burial rites—core religious practices that are especially painful, and especially needed in a pandemic that has already claimed hundreds of lives. There are few ready substitutes. Clerics have found it difficult to give spiritual support and guidance to the sick, especially to those who are quarantined in hospitals. And after their loved ones suffer lonely deaths, families and communities in different corners of the world face restrictions on traditional mourning rites. Many funerals—usually a time for communal fellowship in the face of loss—are conducted with few, if any, people physically present.
Public health measures for safe burial practices have already clashed with traditional rites and what is considered proper and dignified respect for the dead. The pandemic’s impact on religious groups is also felt beyond the spiritual realm, affecting the broader community that benefits from, or even relies on, religious charity. The importance of caring for the most vulnerable is deeply embedded in many traditions, and many religious communities provide essential social services like child care and hunger relief. Closing a house of worship to prevent the spread of the corona virus can put the beneficiaries of these programs in serious danger.
Religious leaders and faith-inspired organizations have mobilized to respond to the pandemic’s impact on vulnerable communities, with volunteers and financial resources to meet the needs of the sick, the elderly and poor communities. In many parts for example, Catholic / Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, organizations are working to address food insecurity, a key concern given predictions that global hunger will double due to COVID-19. Faith leaders are also aiding the elderly and people with disabilities—often homebound populations at higher risk for severe illness if they contract the corona virus—by delivering groceries and providing other assistance.
Above all, religious groups are helping people find meaning and maintain hope in the face of threats and disrupted lives. When people are afraid, hungry and lonely, they seek comfort and explanations for their suffering, as well as glimpses of hope from God.
Even as the pandemic highlights injustices and wrongs in society, people look to faith teachings for inspiration for the path forward. Religious traditions remind people that their forebears were tested and emerged stronger from past trials, providing some reassurance that they will in this crisis, too. May we remain steadfast in faith and faithful to God’s teachings as we pray for Covid-19 to end.
Niwamanya Winnie Flower, KKCRA youth Treasurer,Kabale Diocese.