Nigeria: Reopening Religious Houses Is Perilous

3 June 2020
opinion

Cosmas Odoemena argues that it is not yet safe to open worship centres

Just as it filtered in that government has approved the reopening of religious houses my younger sister sent this: "COVID-19 is real. My hubby just lost one of his hometown friends. He came to my wedding with his Yoruba wife. He died at the Yaba isolation center."

"So sad. May God grant his soul rest and his family the fortitude to bear his loss."

Honestly, the lifting of the ban on religious gatherings when the COVID-19 curve is not flattening does not seem to be well thought-out. It's a risky step driven by emotions and not by science.

Many religious leaders have been bringing pressure to bear on government to reopen religious houses. Curiously among their requests is that government should not put a cap on the number of people that can be in attendance in any religious service. One popular pastor called social distancing in church "unbiblical" while another high-sounding pastor called it "blasphemous infidelity." One of them even said the wearing of face masks is "unscientific". From all this, it's clear they will be in breach of these guidelines.

Why ever contemplate reopening now in the first place? Many of these pastors have disdain for science. But the coronavirus is not a "spiritual problem." It's a scientific problem. And should be confronted scientifically. I wonder where the fake prophets were when the coronavirus crept in unannounced.

Medical scientists are working hard to find a cure or vaccine. Where are the fake healers and miracle workers now? They are only concerned with tithes and offerings that are no longer coming in.

Now, how does government intend monitoring compliance? Will it focus on the big churches or the small churches? Or the big mosques or the small mosques? Maybe at the beginning there might be monitoring, but with time government will grow weary, and monitoring will relax. But the virus does not relax!

Even during the lockdown itself, were people not moving about freely? How then would the lockdown have been effective? Are they observing the ban on interstate movement? How many are using the face masks? Even when they have the masks are they being properly worn? Many wear them at the level of their jaws. Some at the level above their upper lips. How then will the virus be contained? The irony is when these same people who won't observe these simple measures are the same people who will be at the churches or mosques; to be "monitored" by officials who have never followed these measures themselves; and superintended by religious heads who don't believe in the virus themselves!

Again, where is the science or even logic in allowing churches or mosques to admit any number of people while putting a cap of 20 on other places? When the number of coronavirus virus cases was below 100, religious houses were closed. Now that the number of cases has exceeded 10,000 religious houses can reopen. Why close them in the first place?

Hard as it is to accept, religious houses are not the safest of places for now.

A Catholic church that reopened in Houston, in the United States of America had to be closed again after five leaders tested positive for the virus. In Arkansas, also in the US a series of church activities resulted in many people contracting the virus with some losing their lives. There have been reports of church-related spread of the virus in France and South Korea. German officials are now tracking down those who attended a church service in Frankfurt after 107 tested positive for coronavirus following the ease of lockdown.

Churches have been streaming their services to their members, what the Economist cynically called "Our father, who art in cyberspace." I miss going to church. I miss the solemn service, the rituals, the Sacraments, the Holy Communion.

But I also know we are fighting a common enemy that takes advantage of our emotions. Would I want to come back to church? Heavens yes! Would I risk the coronavirus in the belief that God will save me? Hell no! Even Jesus told the devil "Thou shall not put thy Lord thy God to the test." To a man who did not tie his camel because he trusted in God Prophet Mohammed said "tie the camel first and then trust in God".

It's known that singing, and handholding that occur in churches make them fertile grounds for spreading the virus, especially via airborne droplets. You can decide to go to a bar and sit all by yourself. Even in the markets you can try to avoid people. That will not happen in a church. Churches and mosques thrive on association.

Moreover, the virus seems to affect people 50 years and above more. In this demographic you are likely to have more people with underlying health conditions. Unfortunately these are the people more likely to go to church. Many will come to church asymptomatic so checking temperature is of little use. And the asymptomatic ones may end up spreading to those who might come down with a severe infection. Some who would otherwise be cautious might lower their guards because they believe they are in the church.

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Epidemics are known to occur in waves. So if after the first waves measures to curtail the first wave are not strictly adhered to, there could be a second wave with even more devastating effect.

Even taking precautions may not suffice, as happened in a church in Georgia in the US. It reopened in late April with only 25% of members at a time, they sat six feet apart and with the church doors open so doorknobs wouldn't be touched frequently. Several members ended up testing positive for the virus forcing the church to shut again.

Churches are essential in people's lives but equally essential is our love for our fellow human beings, and that's what Jesus himself preached. Love to fellow humans is manifested in observing what have been laid down to protect us all from the virus. Avoiding crowded places, keeping social distancing, washing our hands regularly, and wearing face masks properly, and encouraging others to observe these measures.

Prophet Muhammad again advised "If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; if the plague outbreaks out in a place while you are in it, do not leave that place."

The church itself is not the building, but the people of God united in love. Perhaps Jesus foretold of this when he said "believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem."

"Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks."

"God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth."

Dr Odoemena, a medical practitioner, wrote from Lagos

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