Today, Friday 10th April, is a remarkable day among many religious people in Malawi. For Christian faithful it marks Good Friday. For the Muslims it marks Jumu’ah, the Friday congregational prayers and, in the next few days, we will be talking of Ramadan.
However, due to physical distancing measures due to the COVID-19, most faithful across the religious divide will not be able to join their fellows in flesh, but perhaps in spirit. Many wonder, will God deliver us from COVID-19 if we pray in isolation at home?
For others, this puts many a believer in a quagmire: to sacrifice one’s love for God by staying at home or sacrificing my health to the COVID-19?
In trying to resolve the dilemma, we may be seem to be pitting science against religion. This is a matter where a majority cannot agree.
Before I went to publish this article, I polled 30 of my contacts via WhatsApp. Out of these, 28 thought staying at home is the right thing for now. Two were outright: God first.
Well, the outcome may suggest two things: my circle is characterised by in unreligious men and women or people are just under intense fear of the COVID-19.
Epidemiologists say early in outbreak, each COVID-19 case infects approximately 2.5 others on average. There’s approximately 5 days between one infection and the next, they say. So we would expect one case to lead to 244 (2.5 ×6) more cases in a month.
Right now, we know that COVID-19 is in our midst. We know that social gatherings are being banned selectively- voter registration continues, markets operate, ADMARC is flexing muscles to go in the field to buy produce and churches have bargained for immunity.
The scenario we have in Malawi illustrates a confused one. One similar to a proverbial gentleman who took five steps forward and six backwards and expected to reach destination like the one who pursued his trip continuously, non-stop.
Taking drastic measures to limit the transmission rate of COVID-19, like closing schools, canceling some public events, and sending people home from work, may resultantly be useless if others continue to do the very thing that is being plotted against.
Early in the outbreak is exactly when robust measures can be most effective. Minister of health Jappie Mhango Mhango should know better.
Isn’t it him who argued against people congregating to register for fresh elections? Show me where they registering to vote but don’t patronize a religious gathering and I will let you be! Otherwise this is symptomatic of politicking at a matter of life and death.
Other Christian denominations have taken caution urging faithful to stay safe and stay at home. Some have intensified sermons on radio, TV and others are taking the word of God online.
Muslims have also seen their way of worshipping disrupted. The coronavirus pandemic has pushed Muslim leaders to issue Fatwas (religious guiding opinings) on ban on all mandatory congregational prayers.
Interestingly, the Muslim call to prayer has even been amended. Yes, instead of saying “hayya alas-salah” Arabic for “come to prayer”, the call to prayer now reminds faithful, in areas hit by the COVID-19, to pray at home by stating: “al-salatu fi buyutikum” Arabic for “pray in your homes”.
The overriding interest for the stringent measures is to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among some of the Christian and Muslim congregants and protect citizens, including those from other faith groups.
However, I have seen written communication from the Evangelical Association of Malawi, the Episcopal Conference of Malawi and the Malawi Council of Churches are not comfortable with a complete ban.
I am informed they have renegotiated with government to have the ban on religious gatherings lifted and revert to the 100 congregants limit.
To believe limiting congregants to 100 is safe is taking religiosity to another level. With potential for one person to infect about 244 in a month (at church, then later on at home, shopping mall, work or anywhere else), it will take a miracle to avoid this from happening especially that we now have COVID-19 is in our midst.
There are two main dangers illustrated here: indecisiveness on the part of government and endangerment to the congregants in particular, and subsequent widespread community transmission generally. The decision by the churches to continue with 100 people congregations simply because there is no longer a ban is a dangerous one.
With the figure of known cases jumping from 3 to 9 in a week, in Lilongwe, Blantyre and Chikwawa, it is evident that the novel coronavirus is already spreading locally in several communities. Among those infected are believers patronising churches, Mosques and other such places.
Our epidemiologists say measures to limit the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the Coronavirus, are most effective right now, in the early stage of the outbreak when few people are infected and the most lives can be saved.
Staying away from religious gatherings (not God!) is a panacea to put the COVID-19 in check.
With a health system that is prone to breakdown with as many as only 30 COVID-19 cases, religious leaders pushing to delay flattening the curve and government officials responsible for concessions being made are, in my view, complicit to a potential public health disaster waiting to happen in Malawi.
It’s a no brainer; it has been told over and over again in countries that experienced the pandemic earlier. The COVID-19 disease becomes more dangerous the longer the country waits to implement such containment measures, particularly since it can spread even before an infected person shows symptoms.
Honestly, I want to belong to the side of righteousness. But I don’t believe righteousness is walking into danger in search of a solution that can be sought alternatively, at home, away from religious buildings but not an inch from God.
I want to trust politicians entrusted to manage my welfare and that of the general public. But it’s unsettling when these politicians weigh in on a seemingly politically correct decision that, however, endangers the country’s public health.
It is of no utility to be selective on which groups to ban and which not to ban. To imagine 100 people chanting Zikr or spiritual chorals at Mosque or Church respectively are any safer is wrong. Without capacity to test, we’re blind to the actual magnitude of the problem before us. Staying at home is holier than posing a danger to one another.
My heart bleeds that the very people that condemned others for not seeking medical assistance on account of their religiosity at a time the country faced a public health danger are the ones acting holier, endangering their faithful. Or perhaps they take solace in the fact that they will pray for healing? I would rather we join hands in praying for the nine COVID-19 patients in the safety of our homes than risking to harm ourselves or those we pray with.
Of course, I am on God’s side, the side that wants no harm done. I am swayed by the thinking of those behind the closure of St. Peter’s Basilica and Square, the most notable sites of Catholics. The holy place was closed at a time there were 8 COVID-19 cases at the Vatican. Imagine if it remained open.
The religious leaders behind the closure of the Church of England congregations shaped my opinion. And I wonder why should the Malawian scenario be any different?
In the home of Islam, Saudi Arabia, worshippers have not been allowed to enter Mekkah’s Grand Mosque nor the Prophet’s Mosque in Medinah. Then why should Limbe Muslim Jamaat or Che Mwamadi Masjid be exempted from a shutdown if Muslims are at risk?
In Austria, Germany, Belgium and several other EU countries, Sunday Masses and other public prayers were stopped. In South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe closer to home, congregational prayers are suspended.
A striking contrast is that our religious leaders had to impress on government not to ban religious gatherings while elsewhere, religious leaders worked with government officials to devise best ways to protect citizens.
When I tested this argument with a close friend before publishing this article, she responded seemed to be on the other side.
“Their belief is weak,” she retorted jokingly, making reference to faith leaders from the foreign nations referred to above.
“Belief is no belief at all if it places believers and non-believers at risk,” I responded and immediately switched to politics knowing she wouldn’t be swayed by my unpopular take on religion.
Trust me, we aren’t meeting until after at least 21 days. She must complete quarantine after every Church attendance. Her belief and mine are divergent yet we are unified by our love for a healthy life and, above all else, God. Based on my belief that a person with ill-health cannot profess his or her faith well, I would rather preserve the former to guarantee the latter.
If each one of us prayed from home, would God not deliver us from COVID-19? I believe He can. But we just need to act responsible and – for the love of God stay home!
God bless Malawi!