As the COVID-19 global pandemic spreads around the world, some societies have been quick to adjust and others have been a source of public anxieties and displeasure. And while some religious groups have gone to work to fight the virus, others in countries like the United States, South Korea, Tanzania, Kenya and Indonesia have contributed to the public health challenge. So is religion helping or hurting Africa’s fight against coronavirus?
In the early months of the outbreak of the pandemic in the US, some televangelists encouraged their followers to challenge and/or defy states’ public health directives. In Tanzania, President John Magufuli – a man with a doctorate in chemistry – is reported to have likened the COVID-19 pandemic to Satan urging people to continue praying in numbers against this evil. On April 16 he even called for three days of public prayers for God’s protection and healing. Meanwhile in South Korea, a religious sect, Shincheonji Church of Jesus was at the centre of the coronavirus outbreak in that country.
Tanzania is not alone in placing religion ahead of health. In Kenya, President Uhuru Kenya hosted religious leaders to a day of national prayer just before the government suspended all social gatherings/events. As the public health measures took effect, some religious leaders said that their places of worship would remain open to the public, against government directives.
This business-as-usual attitude among some religious and political leaders threatens to undermine public efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus – so what can be done to make religion a more constructive force.
Religious goods and religious bads
In many parts of the world, vulnerable and neglected communities wholly depend on some religious institutions for vital social services, including health and education. There is no doubt in these moments of extreme societal disruptions all resources, including faith, must be mobilised to alleviate people’s sufferings. As in normal times, religious organisations are playing an important role in providing services during the pandemic, filling in gaps where the state is not present.
Equally, we must all remain alert to how some religious leaders – in collusion with the political class – obscure what their communities really need. There is a need not only to debate the role of religion in global pandemics, but also its costs/benefits to other spheres of life, including good governance.
In Kenya, corruption and ethnic politics are among issues of public concern, and often been said to undermine better service delivery and governance. The fervent displays of religiosity by almost all the political class has had remarkably limited impact on this – and nor has extremely high levels of attendance at churches and mosques prevented ordinary Kenyans from voting for leaders accused of committing serious crimes. By practice, religion is meant to bind its adherents to values such as honesty, fellow-feeling and the common good. So it is difficult to explain how such values are compatible with endemic graft and the subversion of democratic institutions. In some cases, religion appears to be a tool that political leaders can use to try and absolve themselves of past sins, as when they attend prayer meetings, pledge to keep the peace around an election.
Something similar appears to be happening today in Tanzania, where President Magufuli is both allowing religion to influence his response to COVID-19 and using it as a justification. In such cases, working out the appropriate role of religion, and whether it is a force for good or bad, can be extremely difficult and contested.
When societies evolve around religious identity, as in both Kenya and the United States, public health directives can be a symbolic struggle over the meanings of public goods, the right to health and religious expression. In the examples cited above, various strands of religion entwine with the delivery of health and other social services, creating a spiritual welfare state that is more than the sum of its parts.
It is precisely this rich nexus that has enabled a number of leaders to politicise religion for their own good. Former Zambian President, Fredrick Chiluba, for example, declared Zambia to be a Christian nation in a bid to further strengthen his support base. In doing so, he sought to combine religious authority with democratic legitimacy, repeating the fusion of spiritual and political power that was so widespread in pre-colonial African governance systems.
This complex picture raises a number of thorny questions. How far does the right to religious expression extend? How can one believe and practice religion reasonably? How do different types of religious group impact on public health?
Types of practice, types of impact
In Africa, there are three main ways in which the divine or religiousness is sought, each of which has profound implications for how religious leaders and their followers have behaved during the coronavirus crisis. As countries begin to exit lockdown, it is critically important to think about how these different ways of worshiping are likely to impact on public health guidelines.
First, there are religious groups where the divine is sought in altered states of consciousness, spells and trances. Both the adherent and suppliers of these services focus on rituals and practices that generate altered consciousness. Partly as a result, adherents of this way of relating to their divine typically remove themselves from ordinary life to a significant extent. And precisely because such groups seeks to remove themselves from everyday experiences, they are less likely to follow public health guidelines. This helps to explain why the South Korea religious sect, Shincheonji Church of Jesus, became such an important incubator of the disease in that country – and also why the sect did not spread coronavirus as widely as they might have to the rest of the population.
Second, there are religious groups who seek to access the divine via historical experiences/moments. They focus on events happening in the world, such as disasters or pandemics, to draw predictions and prophesies. Such unprecedented events provide them with moments of finding meaning in how to relate with their divine and experience it. In other words, their divine or religious experiences relate to moments of crisis, experiencing the return of people to their maker. Some American televangelists and prophecy-based religious groups fall into this category. In the age of disinformation, conspiracy theories, and fake news, this way of accessing the divine may make containing diseases more difficult precisely because crises such as pandemics are seen to be driven by deeper religious processes (the end of the world) or by (a lack of) individual morality. On such a worldview, they are therefore not amenable to standard public health strategies such as washing hands, which are likely to be seen as a waste of time. This helps to explain why one leader of a church in London has been accused of selling plague protection kits to his followers for £91.
Finally, there are religious groups that seek to access the divine via things such as relics, statues, and specific buildings. Here devotion is directed towards objects, places, persons, animals or rituals. The religious supply chain is therefore sacramental. President Magufuli political statements encouraging people to go pray in churches and mosques can be interpreted as being sensitive to these groups. Because the divine is sought in spaces and objects, attending a Church or a Mosque is seen to be critical to religious expression. As a result, any attempt to prevent large gatherings can be extremely controversial. In turn, this may persuade political leaders to make exemptions for religious groups – especially where they are politically influential – turning them into a potential vector of the disease.
Divining the future
As we think about how to respond to COVID-19 and future pandemics, it is therefore worth considering how different types of religious groups may complicate efforts to enforce public health guidelines. Of course, for each group mentioned here there are hundreds that have voluntarily adopted the measures advocated by health and government officials. Religious organizations will also play an important role in the weeks and months ahead both in terms of providing health services and economic relief, and in terms of offering individuals and communities much needed emotional support and spiritual comfort.
But these caveats notwithstanding, it is critical that we understand the social, economic and political costs of religious groups that refuse to comply with urgent health policies. This is important not only for the health of the individuals in these groups, but also for the survival of our broader societies.
Zac Chiliswa is a Doctoral Student in media & politics at the University of Leeds & Leeds Trinity University, UK. Email