Whenever man is confronted with a terrifying aspect of the world in which he lives, his natural instinct is to seek to understand the new phenomenon and bend it to his will. Pre-historic man opted for ritual as a means of mollifying and dominating his environment, but man soon moved from the age of rituals to the age of science, the advancement of which conferred on mankind enormous powers of manipulation and exploration, and the illusion of omnipotence. The paradox, however, is that the more man conquers his space, the more he is confronted with the realization that there is still a lot about the world that he is yet to know. Science has helped man, but it has also failed him, and each time man is confronted with yet another unknowable, he falls back on his primordial code of religious ritual.
Man also tries to tame nature, still, Nature continues to show him that there is something else that is beyond man. The limits of science that man has experienced is a reminder of the fact that man with all his intelligence cannot alter the Order of Things and of Nature. It is therefore instructive that the current Corona Virus pestilence has been traced to man’s tampering with animals: eating all kinds of animals, from snakes to bats, selling them in the markets, both clean and unclean animals, against the order of nature. When man engineers and suffers for his own vulnerability, he simply attributes the occurrence to a mysterious force, and at that moment, he remembers the superiority of the Cosmos and of an Original force that he refers to as God, and worships through the vehicle of religion.
This has been an aspect of COVID-19. Religion has played a prominent role in the spread and containment of the disease, as cause and effect, as explanation, as obstacle and as balm and risk, with clear indications of the conflict between religious freedom and public good. It is noteworthy that shortly after the formal announcement of the incidence of COVID-19 in Wuhan, Hubei Province in China on December 31, 2019, the next major item on the Chinese calendar was a religious, cultural and traditional event, the Lunar New Year, the Festival of the Spring, preparations for which actually begins as early as December 23 or 24. Contemporary attitudes to religion in China are mixed and ambivalent, but even those who insist that the Chinese Lunar New Year is strictly cultural – a holiday period, a time to re-unite with family – do not overlook its religious overtones: the spirituality of it as evidenced by the “send off of the Kitchen God”, praying to the Jade Emperor God (the Bai Tian Gong), ancestral worship, visits to temples, the firing of loud firecrackers, and the staging of the Dragon Dance to scare off evil spirits. China may proclaim state atheism as an ideology, but the people are deeply religious at heart.
At the commencement of the COVID-19 pestilence, religion was the first victim. China promptly shut down many parts of the country. The Lunar New Year 2020 could not be celebrated. No temple was opened. No dance or festival could take place. Persons who had travelled from one part of the country to the other to observe the two-week Lunar New Year festivity were stranded either in transit or behind closed doors. For me, this was the first indication of the meeting point between COVID-19 and religion. Lunar Year 2020 – the Year of the Dog – is the dullest ever in more than 100 years. The people of China complied. They did not insist that the world will end if they did not send off “the Kitchen God.” Nobody protested that they must have “the Dragon Dance.” People moving beyond superstitions and obeying the call of science is important in the war against pandemics.
As the virus embarked on a trans-national journey, we encountered other scenarios elsewhere. South Korea was the next major stop for the virus after China. As COVID-19 sero-prevalence in that country jumped drastically, it was observed by the authorities that religion was a major obstacle. South Korea which had successfully combatted the SARS-Cov epidemic, with its highly sophisticated medical facilities, suddenly found itself unable to check COVID-19. The figures climbed daily and the highest numbers were reported from the Daegu region. Eventually, the explosion in numbers was traced to a Christian group known as the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a secretive religious group that is regarded as a cult. Even the Catholic Church called for a dissolution of this occultic church where members refuse to obey rules of social distancing, and hence endanger themselves and others. The 88-year old leader of the group, Lee Man-Hee and 11 others are likely to be charged for homicide and violation of the Infectious Disease and Control Act. Angry South Koreans want the church disbanded. But it was not only in South Korea that religion presented itself as a risk.
In various parts of the world, believers have become slaves of the faiths that they profess, and ignored the warnings of health authorities and political leaders. On the Muslim side, believers, in search of COVID-19 protection, trooped to holy sites in Saudi Arabia to kiss the Kaaba and receive cure, protection and salvation. The Saudi government has since suspended pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina, and is considering cancelling this year’s Hajj. Even the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem has been shut down. In Iran, an epicenter of outbreaks, home to major Shiite shrines, the authorities, after weeks of resistance and denial, have finally shut down shrines in Mashdad and Qum. Across the Middle East, Friday prayers have been cancelled. All major holy sites of the Islamic religion are on lockdown. In India, where the people love religious rites like Lollipop, the government cancelled the annual festival in honour of Lord Rama in Ayodha. In Iran and India, the people protested. They were not pleased at all. On the Christian side, churches across the Western world and elsewhere have been shut down. In Italy, another epicentre of the outbreak, and home of the Vatican, Catholic Mass has also since been cancelled. Even the Pope now conducts virtual Mass. In one church in Italy, members of the congregation were asked to send family pictures. Family portraits replaced human beings in church. Corona Virus has changed the mode of worship and everything else.
In Africa, the response of religious leaders to COVID-19 has been for the most part, ridiculous, if not absurd, with only a few voices of reason in-between. It is difficult to overlook the opportunism of these African religious leaders. The first pattern that emerged was that of many religious leaders, mostly Christian Pastors claiming that they had predicted the Corona Virus affliction or that they have an idea of what the cure would be. Nigerian clergymen – Prophet G.F. Adetuberu and Prophet T.B. Joshua were said to have predicted Corona Virus long before it happened, and their followers provided video evidence to that effect. The latter Prophet would later speak up when he predicted that COVID-19 will disappear after a heavy rainfall on March 27. Many Nigerians looked forward to that rainfall on March 27. People tend to believe pastors and astrologers in Africa. On March 27, there was no heavy rainfall, and the number of COVID-19 cases in Nigeria has increased geometrically since then!
Other Pastors have also offered solutions. By February 5, a Ghanaian Pastor, Daniel Obinim, CEO of the International God’s Way Church launched a Corona Virus Anointing Oil which he claimed would cure the disease. A bottle of the oil costs 200 Ghanaian Cedis (about 37 US dollars) and according to him, it has been approved by the “heavenly department of the FDA”. Obinim would later deny the claim. But there has been no denial yet from a Kenyan colleague of his, Climate Irungu Wiseman, founder of the Bishop Climate Ministries in Camberwell, London who is also selling a protection oil called Plagues Divine Protection Oil, at the rate of 91 pounds per bottle. Bishop Climate claims that his oil works and he has since sold over 1, 000 bottles. In Nigeria, Pastor Elijah Ayodele also says he has found a Corona cure: holy water and anointing oil- the only difference is that he is willing to give out his solution free of charge. It is not only African pastors that are guilty. Pastor Kenneth Copeland says he can blow Corona Virus away. Pastor Jim Bakker, another US televangelist claims he can cure corona virus too.
The effect is that across the world, the religious right has been defying stay-at-home restrictions to hold vigils and prayer sessions in the belief that Corona Virus can be cured through supernatural means. They have in many countries received the support of political leaders. In the last month, the Presidents of the United States, Uganda, Kenya, Ghana and South Africa have declared National Days of Prayer. The Vatican is not left out. On March 27, Pope Francis declared a Special Day of Prayer. He was joined by Catholics worldwide. Religious groups have also declared special days of fasting and prayers. This may be an expression of faith and social solidarity, but it has also prioritized superstition over science. It has also prompted many church-goers to reject the health guidelines on Corona virus and insist that they are covered by “the blood of Jesus”. But of all the claims by Pastors that I have read about, the most ridiculous would be that of a certain Nigerian Prophet, Dr. Goodheart Val Aloysius, the Metropolitan Senior Pastor of Father’s House International Church in Calabar. “My Father, My Father” as he is otherwise known, has called on the Nigerian government to gather all COVID-19 patients in the country together in one place and on Monday, April 13, he will pray for them and they will all be healed. He says if he fails, the government of Nigeria should ‘hang” him. It will be nice to see a rope around the neck of many of these Pastors who have been misleading people. The Federal Government should take him up on his offer, and get the hangman ready.
So far, security agents have had cause to disperse worshippers who fail to obey the rules of social distancing, but perhaps the time has come for religious leaders to be arrested and punished. In Lagos, Nigeria, two Pastors have generated even more disturbing controversies by claiming to know the source and nature of the Virus. On March 27, Pastor Johnson Suleman of the Omega Fire Ministries was reported as having said that the virus is a “chemical weapon” invented by the Chinese to embarrass US President Donald Trump. He added that the disease is spread through testing and hence, Christians should not go for testing or use any Corona vaccine, lest they are turned into slaves under a New World Order. The dust had hardly settled on Apostle Suleman’s conspiracy theory when another famous Pastor, Chris Oyakhilome stretched the New World Order Theory further by announcing that there is a connection between 5G technology and Corona Virus and that the Nigerian Government is laying 5G fibre cables in Abuja and Lagos to promote an anti-Christ agenda. Whatever may be the purpose of these Pastors making all kinds of claims, they have not been helpful at all. Corona Virus has turned pastors into scientists, herbalists and historians. They should be called to order!
The bigger problem may well be that political leaders are also buying into the spiritual narrative and after days of lock-down in Nigeria, many state Governors are beginning to lower their guards. Last week, the Katsina state government announced that it had lifted the ban on Friday Jumaat prayers. In Bauchi state, the state Governor Bala Mohammed who tested positive for COVID-19, and later tested negative, went straight to the mosque for Friday prayers. The pictures did not show him observing social distancing! Some other states in fact more or less suspended the stay-at-home order. In Abia, Ebonyi, Ondo, Ekiti, and Niger states, Christians were told they could go to church for Easter. Ondo state has since done a volte-face after recording a second Corona case. In Abia, the excuse is that the state has no reported case of COVID-19. Governor Okezie Ikpeazu in fact boasted that there will be no COVID-19 in the state because it is the only state in Nigeria that is mentioned in the Bible! Ikpeazu has a Ph. D in Biochemical Pharmacology. Corona Virus is beginning to make ordinarily intelligent people sound strange. On Friday, mosques in the Middle East were empty. On Sunday, the Pope conducted Easter Mass in an empty Cathedral. Africans are busy carrying received religion on their heads! If they were making original and informed statements, we would understand, but most of them are merely imitating the ultra-religious right in Europe and North America without making an effort to think.
The duty of the religious community and its leaders is to support the people and lead them aright, not to use Holy Books to promote disease, murder and suicide. But let us reserve words of commendation for those religious leaders who have demonstrated leadership and commonsense. Some churches and mosques, in the face of it all, have contributed in cash and kind to the war against COVID-19, in addition to the direct distribution of relief materials to aid the poor. I also salute those Nigerian Pastors who have refused to join the 5G conspiracy theory and any such other theories. In Rivers State, Governor Nyesom Wike, on Thursday, April 9, held a state-wide broadcast in which he relaxed restrictions on religious gatherings for Muslims and Christians in the state. The Catholic Church in the State opposed the Governor’s directive and asked its congregation to stay home and stay safe. That is leadership. No political leader should politicize COVID-19. Wike eventually reversed himself. At the appropriate time, there will be need to look at the heroes and villains of the Corona Virus season, surely most of the villains will be political and religious leaders who opted for myth, conspiracy, superstition and witchcraft. Meanwhile, President Muhammadu Buhari has extended the lockdown order in Ogun, Lagos and the FCT. Ekiti state has also done so. Religious bodies must comply.
– Abati is a respected columnist and scholar