The government has finally lifted the ban on public religious activities subject to certain guidelines. The pressure to lift bans or lockdowns on all activities be they economic, social or religious has been enormous not just in Nigeria but all over the world.
In the US State of California, three churches took the State governor to the country’s Supreme Court challenging the restrictions placed on religious activities. On May 27, the apex court in a 5/4 decision ruled that the restrictions were not a violation of rights but in the interest of public good. It’s interesting to note that the US Supreme Court is well known for its protection of religious liberties.
Interestingly, as more US States ease the ban on religious activities, some places of worship, on their own, are asking worshipers to continue to stay home.
In Nigeria, religious leaders did not initially resist the restrictions even though they may not have liked it. But over time and for whatever reasons, some became belligerent and began to question the rationale for closing down places of worship. They argued, just as president Trump did, that places of worship provide essential services. For instance, a very popular pastor said that churches provide healing just like hospitals and that it was timid for religious leaders to simply accept the ban and their fate.
Now that the ban is lifted, we have entered a new phase of the covid-19 experience. We must think about what to expect as worship places are the biggest indoor assemblage of people in Nigeria. It will be foolish to behave as if there is nothing to fear. International reports say that of all documented super-spreader events: three were from churches.
A few stories that will guide us
Of 92 people identified attended a local church gatherings from March 6 to March 11, 35 later tested positive, including the pastor and his wife. Three people died.
An additional 26 people living in the community who’d had contact with church attendees also later developed COVID-19.
A couple from Singapore worshiped at a local Mount Vernon church. A few days later, 52 members of the church became sick and tested positive for covid-19. Medical investigators traced the infection to the visiting Chinese couple from Singapore. According to the Washington Post, the investigators which included scientists, police officers and special disease trackers, also discovered that another infected worshiper who was not at the service where the visitors from Singapore were present may have picked the disease from where the transmitting visitors sat during an earlier service.
Skagit County, USA
A group of worshipers in a choir group came together to rehearse songs. They observed prescribed protocol of social distancing and hand washing. However, after the practice session, 87% of members of the choir became sick and tested positive less than two weeks later.
According to a report carried by CNN, medical investigators determined that “The act of singing, itself, might have contributed to transmission through emission of aerosols, which is affected by loudness of vocalization.” The investigators also said that “some people, known as superemitters, release more aerosol particles during speech than their peers.”
The story led the American Centre for Disease Control to issue this guideline:
“Consider suspending or at least decreasing use of a choir/musical ensembles and congregant singing, chanting, or reciting during services or other programming, if appropriate within the faith tradition. The act of singing may contribute to transmission of COVID-19, possibly through emission of aerosols.”
“In California, although large gatherings were prohibited by Governor Newsom, some churches ignored that. In Sacramento, 71 were infected at one service.” (Forbes magazine A Stairway To Heaven? Reopening Churches And Coronavirus)
“At least 33 African American bishops, reverends and pastors have died. The Church of God in Christ, the largest black Pentecostal denomination in the U.S., has lost seven bishops to the coronavirus.” ABC news.
After restrictions were eased in Germany recently, forty people became infected at a Baptist church, although the church was disinfected, attendees had maintained distancing and been given hand sanitizer. Six required hospitalization. (BBC)
As of May 28, 2020, a total of 5,212 coronavirus (COVID-19) cases were related to Shincheonji Church in South Korea. (Statistica)
A pastor, Frankline Ndifor of Kingship International Ministries Church, Douala who had claimed curing hundreds of covid-19 positive members later came down with the disease. Concerned worshipers called a medical doctor to attend to him after observing that he had gone into respiratory distress. But it was too late. He died within 10 minutes of the arrival of the doctor. Hundreds of his followers began a singing session in front of his house, broadcast by several local radio stations. They claimed that their prophet was not dead, but that he was rather on a spiritual retreat with God and would return soon. The charade continued until the governor of the region deployed policemen and a special covid-19 team to remove the body for burial. Now the congregants, according to the Voice of America, are in confusion over what may become of them.(BBC)
A word for religious leaders.
With only 10,578 cases as at June 1, 2020, Nigeria appears to be already overwhelmed. Yet we have not reached the peak let alone flattened the curve. As you may have noticed all the above stories does not include other places of worship such as mosques, temples etc.
The ball in now in the court of State governments, religious leaders and worshipers as scientists continue to battle to understand the wayward ways of the novel virus.