Over the last month there has been much discussion about religion, as the world celebrated major religious festivals – Pessach, Easter, Vaisakhi, Navratri, Buddha Purnima and Ramadan – under lockdown. Public health policy makers were skeptical if physical distancing, the key strategy for most countries struggling to contain COVID-19, can be achieved during religious festivities traditionally marked by large gatherings.
And yet, with a few notable exceptions, religious adherents the world over have complied with the new norms necessitated by a prevailing pandemic. As the world grapples with this new normal of physical distancing, religious leaders will play a major role in deciding the future of the virus.
In the UK, all places of worship have been closed. The UK’s Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Mirvis, said on national radio that there is both a “religious and a moral imperative” to “stay at home”. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, broke tradition and delivered his Easter Sunday address from his kitchen, commending churches across the country for “responding to this challenge in innovative ways”.
However, in some countries, religion undermined the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the US, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis designated religious services as ‘essential activity’ days after a Pastor within the state was charged with unlawful assembly and violation of a public health emergency order1. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio complained about a large congregation of mourners at a Hasidic Jewish funeral, igniting strong condemnation from members of the Jewish community2.
In South Korea, a church congregation is thought to have been the origin of thousands of first cases in the country. In Malaysia, a large gathering of 14,000 delegates of the Islamic mission Tablighi-Jamaat in Kuala Lumpur is widely considered the cause of the second wave of the pandemic in the country. Attendees returning to Brunei, Indonesia and Cambodia from this gathering later tested positive for COVID-19. An Islamic gathering in the mission’s Delhi headquarters also saw thousands infected with the novel coronavirus.
Enabling public health
In certain societies, discussions involving religions are often seen as a potential quagmire, conflated with culture and politics. Some religious communities believe that certain public health initiatives are directly opposed to their freedom to worship and could feel that they, rather than the virus, are under attack.
However, religions can be enablers of public health, and religious organisations can be important partners, especially in less secular societies.
In the middle of the pandemic on 7 April 2020, the World Health Organization issued an interim guidance titled Practical considerations for religious leaders and faith-based communities in the context of COVID-193. The WHO acknowledged that “religious leaders, faith-based organisations, and faith communities can play a major role in saving lives and reducing illness related to COVID-19”.
There have been many examples in the past where religion had a positive role in tackling infectious diseases. In India and Pakistan, religious leaders helped increase the uptake of polio vaccines; in Nigeria, religious leaders played a key role in mitigating the effects of Ebola, through the provision of health, education, and social support.
The WHO guidance also points to the “special role of religious leaders”, faith-based organisations and communities in education, preparedness and response to COVID-19. The organisation can help by sharing evidence-based information and avoiding large gatherings, as well as mitigating domestic violence and improving mental health among their congregants. In the US, religious organisations and faith communities play key roles in responding to crises, disasters and public health emergencies.
The science-religion balance
In a pluralist society, different worldviews inevitably exist. Atheists may find it absurd that a person disregards substantial risk of infection in order to attend an ‘in person’ service. And while services may not be seen as ‘essential’ by some, they will be for others, especially given that religion can serve as an important coping mechanism, a source of emotional support4.
This is one place where religion comes into play, by understanding a rationale for non-compliance with social distancing. But religious leaders are often central to communities5 and have expansive networks within which to disseminate public health messages, including the rapidly evolving COVID-19 related guidelines.
Religious leaders often have good links with those who are vulnerable within their communities, such as the elderly, the poor or migrants, who may be harder to reach through ‘official’ channels. Religious leaders as respected figures can make decisions earlier than governments to suspend congregational events. For example, the annual Hajj pilgrimage, which saw more than two million pilgrims descend in Mecca last year, is scheduled in July this year but may be cancelled .
Religious leaders can play a direct role in implementing health policy. After attendants at a religious gathering in Malaysia failed to come forward to be tested, the Minister for Religious Affairs issued a statement saying that it was a religious obligation to be tested.
Religion and science are not necessarily opposed. Many religions have laws that are compatible with public health strategies and allow the ‘lesser harm’ or ‘public interest’ to prevail. So, empathetic, proactive and early engagement with religious leaders and communities can play an important role in public health emergencies.
For their part, health professionals and medical scientists must ensure that there is effective communication and a serious attempt to enhance health literacy. If not, we may alienate religious groups, rendering them less likely to comply with the public health guidance crucial for tackling COVID-19. Public health policy will ignore religious communities at its own peril.
(*Sima Barmania is a consultant at the United Nations University-International Institute of Global Health, London/Kuala Lumpur, and **Michael J. Reiss is a Professor of Science Education at the University College London.)
1. Luscombe, R. The US churches and pastors ignoring 'stay-at-home' orders. The Guardian. April 5, 2020 Article
2. Evelyn K. New York mayor criticized for tweet about packed Jewish funeral. The Guardian. 29 April 2020 Article
3.World Health Organization. Practical considerations and recommendations for religious leaders and faith-based communities in the context of COVID-19 (2020) PDF
4. VanderWeele, T. J. On the promotion of human flourishing. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 114, 8148-8156 (2017) doi: 10.1073/pnas.1702996114
5. Tomkins A. et al. Controversies in faith and health care. Lancet 386, 1776-1785 (2015) doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(15)60252-5