Organised religion can play a crucial role in helping tackle COVID-19

Faith leaders need to play positive roles in educating their communities about the disease rather than attribute it to divine will

By Shahid Akhter
Published: Thursday 30 April 2020
Photo: Pixabay

The devastating novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has spread across the globe and put local, national and international health systems under tremedous strain. Almost 3.2 million people are infected and 228,846 people have died.

Countries have been cut off from one another, their economies shattered. Several organisations and individuals are currently engaged in finding a vaccine for the disease.

While governments, scientific bodies and health institutions are relentlessly fighting the pandemic, the role of religious institutions and spiritual capital in terms of accountability is being seen as docile. In human history, from a small-scale disaster to a massive catastrophe, theological discourse has always ended up attributing everything to a single cause: Divine wrath.

The Black Death or bubonic plague pandemic in 1348, that had killed 50 million people or over 60 per cent of Europe’s entire population, was considered as an act of God.

The Great Lisbon Earthquake, that caused almost 75,000 deaths in 1755 and the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu pandemic that affected 500 million and killed 50 million people worldwide, were also labelled as a demonstration of God’s wrath.

Therefore, it has often been a question in every colossal disaster: How could an omni-benevolent God have sanctioned the deaths of so many innocent people?

Eighteenth-century philosophers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, Johann Von Goethe, Adam Smith, etc contested God’s role in the Great Lisbon Earthquake and claimed that disasters were due to human activity rather than functions of nature or the resentment of God.

For example, the people who died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2011 Fukushima earthquake-induced tsunami, were living in low-lying coastal zones and also ignoring the warnings to flee the tsunami.

Similarly, Hurricane Katrina should not be blamed for deaths in New Orleans. Rather, people’s actions and a large number of flaws in the system are to blame. Each of these claims falls short of being credible, when several are examined.

Stating that any disaster is God punishing people for their sins can only add to the pain of those who are already devastated by the disaster, and it always remains a part of strong criticism in the theological sphere.

Despite restrictions and strong warnings to congregations about maintaining social distancing to contain COVID-19, various religious groups across the world defied orders and organised huge social gatherings.

For instance, a Louisiana pastor ignored the state order and held a church service with hundreds of people. Almost 25,000 people gathered in Bangladesh to pray to God to rid the country of the pandemic.

Similarly, 3,000 Tablighi Jamaat members came from different parts of the world and converged on Delhi. Also, thousands of devotees assembled on the occasion of Ram Navami in various parts of India in a demonstration of their religious faith.

In addition to all these, numerous similar examples vividly exhibit the negation of maintaining social distancing and avoiding social gatherings. Such a core religious belief system is undeniably detrimental to the goal of controlling the outbreak of this contagious disease.

A positive role

However, religious institutions especially local temples, churches, mosques, and synagogues could play a very important role in building a resilient society to combat the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

All these premises including religious schools, seminaries and colleges can be used as quarantine or clinical centres to cut expenses of constructing new hospitals. More than that, religious places play a critical role in providing spiritual services and can provide social, educational and emotional strength to the surrounding communities.

According to a study, 85 per cent of the world’s population has faith in religion and in many cases, religion occupies a central place in their lives. It is a significant component to strengthen the psychological resilience of the individual and community in the face of a crisis.

It encourages people to assist the sick, the poor, orphans, oppressed or those who are affected by disasters.

For example, the response of Christian organisations to mitigate the plague epidemic during the Roman Empire and the support of faith-based organisations to help the victims of Super Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 are remarkable instances.

The cooperation of religious communities with public health initiatives to help fight the Ebola outbreak in 2014 is another example. Religious organisations have been at the forefront to alleviate human suffering in both, natural or human-induced disasters. 

In the present crisis, forging a collaboration of religious institutions with the public health system and other activities can lead to many improvements in addressing emergencies at the national, regional and local levels.

The religious leaders / preachers of all local communities are often more trusted locally and have a higher outreach to people than government officials or other leaders. Subsequently, local faith leaders are considered key actors in peacebuilding initiatives and the development of a community-based disaster management system.

They can play a crucial role in executing and distributing essentials materials supplied by the government or various organisations among the needy in society.

Across India, millions of people are suffering from hunger and starvation due to the nationwide lockdown. In such a situation, faith leaders can immediately reach out to the affected, with sufficient solutions.

All religious leaders and faith-based organisations need to build solidarity and take steps to educate their communities about the disease rather than look backwards and speculate about why God created COVID-19.

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