Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on religion

impact of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic caused by coronavirus disease 2019 has impacted religion in various ways, including the cancellation of the worship services of various faiths.


Dealing with religious congregations (RC) in times of epidemics could be challenging. Most world religions prescribe congregations of its adherents at local, national, and international levels as part of their faith. This mobilization and gathering could serve as a potential focal point for dispersal of novel pathogens, especially those transmitted through the respiratory route. The events related to the COVID-19 spread among religious assemblies seemingly corroborate this. Ideally, to circumvent this possibility, assemblies of people need to be suspended during such times. ~ Sayed A. Quadri
It’s an ideal setting for transmission. You have a lot of people in a closed space. And they’re speaking loudly, they’re singing. All those things are exactly what you don’t want. ~ Carlos del Rio
  • The epicentre in the Middle East’s most-affected country, Iran, appears to be in the holy Shia city of Qom, where a shrine there sees the faithful reach out to kiss and touch it in reverence.
    “Saudi Arabia renews its support for all international measures to limit the spread of this virus and urges its citizens to exercise caution before travelling to countries experiencing coronavirus outbreaks,” the Saudi foreign ministry said in a statement announcing the decision.
    “We ask God Almighty to spare all humanity from all harm.”
    Indonesia’s foreign minister on Thursday urged Saudi Arabia to allow its citizens to continue their Umrah pilgrimage. Indonesia is the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country and it often sends about one million people on the pilgrimage every year to the kingdom.
    “The immediacy of this will impact our citizens because at the time of the announcement, there are Indonesian citizens or maybe citizens of other countries who have flown there,” Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told reporters.
  • In May, a poll by the University of Chicago Divinity School and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed 43% of evangelical Protestants, a group I’d identified as when both a Southern Baptist and charismatic believer, say they think COVID-19 is a message from God. Not that God caused it, but that he is using it to tell the world to change.
    More than that, 55% of all believers feel God will protect them from the virus.
    COVID-19 has made groups more vocal, more determined and emboldened to march forward with their mission. It is the same visceral imperative many of us feel with racial equality. It’s seen as life and death. Gathering together is the best way to get out the message and be heard. But accompanied by their belief that God is protecting them against a government mask mandate, these particular groups of Christians are spreading more than the Word of God.
  • Christianity is based on one singular belief: Jesus raised from the dead. Once you believe in one miracle, the pathway is paved to believe in the next. Not all branches of faith go as far as handling snakes, but they’re all rooted in the one miracle that overrides our intellect. That’s why, as a young, idealistic Christian who only wanted to grow in my faith, I was prayed over to sever me from my intellectual and rational thinking.
    This global pandemic has revealed there’s already a virus inside some American forms of belief — ones that believe God isn’t powerful enough to exist outside of gatherings or ones who believe this is in God’s plan so he can show his power.
    This kind of spiritual terrorism is showing up on a national scale and, as in my own faith journey, only reason can get us out.
  • Public health experts strongly urged churches to cease congregational meetings during the worst parts of the pandemic, noting that religious services were an ideal vector to spread the virus. They pointed to incidents such as that in March 2020 when a choir practice in a church resulted in 87% of attendees being infected with COVID-19, and two members losing their lives.
    But the closures were met by a massive backlash among conservative Christians who believed that executive orders closing religious institutions were a clear violation of the First Amendment’s freedom of religion protection. Some places of worship simply ignored state closure orders. As the pandemic wore on and people tired of socially isolating, many churches, mosques and synagogues began to reopen.
  • [I]t does seem fair to conclude that those who attended church more frequently in 2020 were also more likely to be infected with COVID-19. There is now plenty of research to suggest that social distancing, avoiding crowds and meeting people only outdoors are mitigation factors when it comes to the spread of the virus – all things that are harder to do in the confines of a church.
  • As coronavirus cases spike, a national group that represents thousands of evangelical Christian doctors and other healthcare providers is asking churches to stop holding services in person.
    In a statement provided to NPR, titled, "A Plea to Our Churches," leaders of the Christian Medical & Dental Associations say that Christians who persist in holding large gatherings at this time could "appear to care only about our individual freedoms and don't care that we may be contributing to others getting this illness because of our selfishness."
  • ...Holy water is not a hand sanitizer and prayer is not a vaccine. Political decisions aimed to guarantee public safety should be based solely on scientific evidence...At a deeper level, religion, for worshipers, is the ultimate source of meaning. The most profound claim of every religion is to make sense of the whole of existence, including, and perhaps especially, circumstances marked by suffering and tribulation. Take such claims seriously enough, and even physical health, when it is devoid of greater purpose, starts to look like a hollow value....Today the threat comes from a virus that makes no distinction between believers and atheists, but the fundamental tension between religion and secular authorities is still there....In Italy,...churches are being treated as providers of nonessential services, like movie theaters and concert halls. That has sparked intense reactions among some Catholics, who see the celebrations as particularly essential at a time when an invisible and pervasive menace strikes not just bodies but also souls, spreading panic and eroding social trust. What's the difference between a handful of people gathering in a church, keeping safely at distance from one another, and groups meeting at restaurants, bars or riding the subway? The question is a practical one but hints at an underlying tension around religious freedom that the medical emergency is revamping...The tension between physical health and spiritual comfort is in some ways an irreconcilable one —... Nonetheless, there's something sad about how this time around, the tension has barely been treated as something real, to be genuinely grappled with....
  • As the distinguished permanent representatives have said, we were originally meant to gather on 7 May, the date of this year’s Vesak Day, which marks the birth, enlightenment and passing of Lord Buddha. The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to postpone that gathering.
    So, today, I thank the Governments of Sri Lanka and Thailand for bringing us together, and I extend a warm welcome to all who are joining this virtual event.
    In any year, this observance is sacred to millions of Buddhists around the world. This year, the Buddha’s teachings can also help remind us all of the unity we need to meet the COVID-19 challenge.
    As one notable sutra states and I quote: “Because all living beings are subject to illness, I am ill, as well.” End of quote. This timeless message of solidarity and service to others is more important than ever. It is only by combining our energies and expertise that we can address the tremendous fragilities in our world today.
    Only through international cooperation will we ease the economic and social consequences of the crisis, which are pervasive, but place particular burden on the world’s most vulnerable people and countries. And it is only by strengthening bonds across society that we will recover better and build a healthier, more inclusive, sustainable, resilient and equitable world.
    This sense of shared fate and collective compassion is both the spirit of the Buddha and the animating force of the Charter of the United Nations, which just marked its own seventy-fifth birthday. As we recognize this enduring wisdom, let us act in that spirit in answering the colossal test that people and planet face today.
  • “Our churches have followed protocols — masks, go in one door and out the other, social distancing,” said Cynthia Fierro Harvey, a bishop with the United Methodist Church in Louisiana, where three churches closed again over the last week. “And still people have tested positive.”
  • "There is certainly a legitimate religious liberty principle that religious gatherings cannot be treated worse under the law than similar gatherings," says Holly Hollman, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. "This is more complicated, because of the changing nature of the threat that the government is trying to protect against."
    The coronavirus is highly contagious, and people gathered in church may engage in behavior, including singing, that is especially conducive to the spread of the virus. In several instances, outbreaks have been traced to a single religious gathering.
  • The Satan is using this opportunity as it has always done to lead us astray from our religious duties in the name of precautions, treatment and protection. Whenever a calamity strikes, Satan makes the victims of calamity commit such acts which destroy their rewards and add to their woes. This is the time to populate the mosques and to invite the ummah towards repentance. As I have already said, this is the time to make our supplications effective. This is not the time to pay heed to false remedial measures….
  • ...We will not accept the targeting of women on the pretext of such ludicrous accusations. We in Pakistan have fought hard for claiming our rights as enshrined in the Constitution of Pakistan...Simply absurd for anyone under any guise to even suggest the Covid-19 pandemic is a result of women wearing short sleeves or because of private schools/universities misleading the youth. This simply reflects either ignorance about pandemics or a misogynist mindset. Absolutely unacceptable....
  • ...The spread of a pandemic must never and under no circumstances be correlated or linked to a woman's piety or morality. It is danger to make this correlation as violent crimes against women/girls continue to take place with impunity...
  • Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry announced it will temporarily suspend the entry of foreigners for pilgrimage and tourism purposes, preventing travel to the country’s holiest sites over fears of the fast-spreading coronavirus.
    In a statement published Thursday, Riyadh’s government said it was temporarily “suspending entry to the kingdom for the purpose of umrah and visiting the Prophet’s Mosque.”
    The decision was taken “to support the efforts of countries and international organizations, especially the World Health Organization, to stop the spread of the virus, control it and eliminate it,” the ministry added.
  • “There’s a very fine line between protecting the health and safety of people, and protecting the right to worship,” said George Murdock, a county commissioner in northeastern Oregon, where the largest outbreak in the state has been traced to a Pentecostal church in a neighboring county. “It’s one we’ve been walking very nervously all along.”
  • ...The coronavirus is yet another piece of evidence that humans are all 'atheists'. People do not believe what they say they believe. People are on their own, their own hope, but they do not seem to know....Saudi Arabia is a deeply religious country. Most of the people in the Persian Gulf nation pray five times a day, 35 times a week, 140 times a month and 1,680 times a year. We don't even do that with food and sex—which sets the stage for us to begin life.....There are mosques everywhere in Saudi Arabia. Muezzins bellow the call to prayer so forcefully only people who are hard of hearing can miss it. The Saudis will drop everything to go pray once they hear the call to prayer....But they had to ban pilgrimages because they know perfectly well that if the coronavirus enters their country, Allah is not going to help them. No country is seeking Allah's help over the coronavirus. He will do and say nothing. That has been the case since time immemorial. Experience shows that leaving everything in God's hands—and that is assuming he does exist—means you are taking great risks.
    ...Qatar, like Saudi Arabia, is a deeply religious country. During the holy month of Ramadan, Qatari police arrest people who are seen eating in public. No one is supposed to eat in public until the fast is broken in the evening.
    Qatar would lead you to think that Allah is in control of everything and that it relies on him to protect its people. In theory, Qatar relies on Allah for many things. But in practice it does not. For example, every single foreigner seeking work in Qatar must go for a medical test at a government health facility, and the main reason is for the authorities to throw out people with infectious diseases such as HIV/Aids and tuberculosis. People with HIV are summarily deported.
    There is any number of examples one can cite to show that religious people and religious countries act remarkably like non-believers when they have real challenges to deal with. It is not hard to see why. I have challenged people I chat with (especially on social media) to name just one thing God has ever done for people that people themselves cannot do, and I have never had a proper answer.
  • Dealing with religious congregations (RC) in times of epidemics could be challenging. Most world religions prescribe congregations of its adherents at local, national, and international levels as part of their faith. This mobilization and gathering could serve as a potential focal point for dispersal of novel pathogens, especially those transmitted through the respiratory route. The events related to the COVID-19 spread among religious assemblies seemingly corroborate this. Ideally, to circumvent this possibility, assemblies of people need to be suspended during such times. It is also imperative that all possible preventive measures be exercised during ordinary times to reduce the chances of cross infections during religious ceremonies. The RC needs to be looked at from this perspective. It has a direct bearing on the extent of epidemic diseases and their global spread. COVID-19 should serve as a game-changer in the manner in which we deal with infectious disease outbreaks from the perspective of RC and their suspension.
  • The extent of COVID-19 infection had a noticeable pattern with regards to RC. An evident association between early suspension of communal gatherings and lower occurrence of COVID-19 infections in countries that took such measures promptly, can be easily discerned. There are lessons to be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic for governments as well as national and international health organizations. The implications of RC during pandemics cannot be ignored. Prompt responses such as suspension of communal gatherings must be promulgated to ensure social distancing. Reconciliation between the practice of RC and preventive measures has to be introduced during times of heath calamities. Religious, social, and political leaders have to exhibit sagacity and adopt a pragmatic approach. The clergy has to be co-opted in the suspension of congregations. Countries should prepare an exigency plan such as a Standard Operation Procedure (SOP), with regards to RC during times of infectious disease epidemics.
  • “It’s an ideal setting for transmission,” said Carlos del Rio, an infectious-disease expert at Emory University, referring to church gatherings. “You have a lot of people in a closed space. And they’re speaking loudly, they’re singing. All those things are exactly what you don’t want.”
  • People want to make meaning in a time of fear, uncertainty and suffering, and that's totally understandable and natural...and Passover is coming up, so people are making those comparisons. But no, I do not think God is smiting us. My theology does not involve a man in the sky with a pair of dice saying, 'It's smite-the-people o'clock.' That's not how I understand what God is.....I don't think God caused the coronavirus, but I see God's work everywhere, every single person who makes the decision to love their neighbor as themselves, in every person who's staying home even though it's not convenient, in every doctor and nurse and health care worker who are putting themselves at risk, in every grocery store worker....The proof of the holy is a lot of places.
  • “It is unprecedented, at least in recent times, but given the worldwide spread of the virus and the global nature of the Umrah, it makes sense from a public health and safety point of view,” said Kristian Ulrichsen, a research fellow at the James A Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.
    “Especially since the Iranian example illustrates how a religious crossroads can so quickly amplify the spread and reach of the virus.”
  • Within eight days of the first reported death in Iran, COVID-19 had spread to twenty-four of the country’s thirty-one provinces. The number of cases has roughly doubled daily since Tuesday. Instead of closing down public sites, a measure that public-health experts have taken in other countries, the head of the shrine in Qom called on pilgrims to keep coming. “We consider this holy shrine to be a place of healing. That means people should come here to heal from spiritual and physical diseases,” Mohammad Saeedi, who is also the representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader in Qom, said in a video. Cases traced back to Iran have been reported in Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Canada, Georgia, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates. Many of these cases have been linked specifically to visits to Qom.
  • The Southern Baptist Convention said Friday it was "pleased" with Trump's decision.
    But the Interfaith Alliance and the Council of American-Islamic Relations said Friday that they oppose the call to open places of worship amid the pandemic.
    CAIR said that American Muslim scholars and community leaders have already determined that public religious activities will be restricted due to the pandemic and that is unlikely to change despite the new guidance.
    Representatives of two of Judaism's major branches, Reform and Conservative, said Trump's declaration does not change their stance and that their members are not expected to hold religious services soon. CNN has also reached out to a representative of the Orthodox branch for comment.
  • “They’re downplaying the role that religion plays in the lives of Americans and suggesting it’s more important to go to the gym than to go to church,” said Kristen K. Waggoner, general counsel of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative religious liberty group that brought the Nevada lawsuit and has challenged other state restrictions on religious gatherings. She said a vast majority of churches meet or exceed federal health guidelines for reopening.
    But as new cases and clusters have emerged in recent weeks from Florida to Kansas to Hawaii, public health experts have emphasized that, even with social distancing, the virus can easily spread through the air when hymns are sung and sermons preached inside closed spaces. One of the world’s first mass coronavirus outbreaks occurred in a secretive South Korean church.

“Covid-19: US Catholics split after bishops’ conference recommends against Johnson and Johnson vaccine” (3/9/2021)


“Covid-19: US Catholics split after bishops’ conference recommends against Johnson and Johnson vaccine”, BMJ, 2021; 372 (Published 09 March 2021)

  • While no covid-19 vaccine contains human tissue of any kind, the Johnson and Johnson vaccine’s manufacturing process used cell lines derived from elective abortions performed decades ago. Other vaccines being used in the US, such as those from Pfizer and Moderna, used these cell lines in testing their vaccines but not in production.
    This distinction led the archdiocese of New Orleans to call the Johnson and Johnson vaccine “morally compromised.” The vaccine “should not be accepted by Catholics if other choices are available,” agreed Pennsylvania bishop Alfred Schlert.
    “There is no justification for any Catholic” to use the vaccine when “two morally acceptable vaccines are available and may be used,” wrote the diocese of Bismarck, North Dakota, in a statement, calling the vaccine “unacceptable for any Catholic physician or healthcare worker to dispense and for any Catholic to re-ceive because of its direct connection to the intrinsically evil act of abortion.”
  • San Diego bishop Robert McElroy wrote that “in the current pandemic moment, with limited vaccine options available to achieve healing for our nation and our world, it is entirely morally legitimate to receive any of these four vaccines, and to recognise, as Pope Francis has noted, that in receiving them we are truly showing love for our neighbour and our God.”
    The archdiocese of Boston wrote, “There is an urgent race against time, in the growing presence of these variants, to get as many people vaccinated as possible.” The previous use of aborted tissue was “significantly distant and remote from where we find ourselves today, in the battle to save the lives of billions of people around the globe,” it added.
  • Around the world, religious leaders have often railed against social distancing measures imposed on religious services, but most have been careful to avoid taking anti-vaccine positions. By far the most serious cases of religious obstruction of healthcare have occurred in the Great Lakes region of East Africa, where the devout political leaders of Tanzania and Burundi have repeatedly claimed that their peoples are too Christian to be infected by coronavirus.
    Burundi’s president Pierre Nkurunziza became the first head of state to die of covid-19 last June, shortly after claiming that “God has cleared the virus from Burundi’s skies.”
    Tanzania’s president John Magufuli disparaged vaccines and urged citizens to pack churches, arguing that “corona is satanic and cannot survive in the body of Christ.” The country has refused to join the Covax vaccine scheme and has not updated its case numbers in 11 months, claiming that prayer had eliminated the disease.
    But a recent outbreak among the political class appears to have shifted attitudes, as Tanzania acknowledged new cases and urged citizens to take basic health precautions. US ambassador Donald Wright, himself a doctor, welcomed the change of heart, urging Tanzania to “convene its health experts and review the evidence on vaccines.”

“White Evangelical Resistance Is Obstacle in Vaccination Effort” (4/5/2021)


Elizabeth Dias and Ruth Graham; “White Evangelical Resistance Is Obstacle in Vaccination Effort”, New York Times, (Published April 5, 2021 updated April 12, 2021)

  • The deeply held spiritual convictions or counterfactual arguments may vary. But across white evangelical America, reasons not to get vaccinated have spread as quickly as the virus that public health officials are hoping to overcome through herd immunity.
    The opposition is rooted in a mix of religious faith and a longstanding wariness of mainstream science, and it is fueled by broader cultural distrust of institutions and gravitation to online conspiracy theories. The sheer size of the community poses a major problem for the country’s ability to recover from a pandemic that has resulted in the deaths of half a million Americans. And evangelical ideas and instincts have a way of spreading, even internationally.
    There are about 41 million white evangelical adults in the U.S. About 45 percent said in late February that they would not get vaccinated against Covid-19, making them among the least likely demographic groups to do so, according to the Pew Research Center.
    “If we can’t get a significant number of white evangelicals to come around on this, the pandemic is going to last much longer than it needs to,” said Jamie Aten, founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, an evangelical institution in Illinois.
  • White pastors have largely remained quiet. That’s in part because the wariness among white conservative Christians is not just medical, but also political. If white pastors encourage vaccination directly, said Dr. Aten, “there are people in the pews where you’ve just attacked their political party, and maybe their whole worldview.”
    Dr. Morita, of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said the method to reach white evangelicals is similar to building vaccine confidence in other groups: Listen to their concerns and questions, and then provide information that they can understand from people they trust.
  • Among evangelicals, Pentecostal and charismatic Christians may be particularly wary of the vaccine, in part because their tradition historically emphasizes divine health and miraculous healing in ways that can rival traditional medicine, said Erica Ramirez, a scholar of Pentecostalism and director of applied research at Auburn Seminary. Charismatic churches also attract significant shares of Black and Hispanic Christians.
    Dr. Ramirez compares modern Pentecostalism to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, with the brand’s emphasis on “wellness” and “energy” that infuriates some scientists: “It’s extra-medical,” she said. “It’s not anti-medical, but it decenters medicine.”
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Dr. Anthony Fauci are not going to be able to persuade evangelicals, according to Curtis Chang, a consulting professor at Duke Divinity School who is leading an outreach project to educate evangelicals about the vaccine.

Charlotte Hannah Gaughan, Daniel Ayoubkhani, Vahe Nafilyan, Peter Goldblatt Chris White, Karen TIngay, and Neil Bannister; “Religious affiliation and COVID-19-related mortality: a retrospective cohort study of prelockdown and postlockdown risks in England and Wales”, J Epidemiol Community Health. 2021 Jan.

  • The probability of becoming infected and subsequently die from COVID-19 has been shown to vary depending on a variety of factors including socioeconomic determinants and behavioural factors. Despite concerns expressed by the WHO that religious practices can contribute to the spread of COVID-19, little is known about the differing risk of mortality to religious groups. For example, extended transmission during communal religious prayers and large attendance at religious gatherings and festivals may be factors in community transmission. Cultural factors, such as contact with large extended families and strong community links, are also considered likely factors in the spread among religious communities. Furthermore, several studies have traced outbreaks to centres of worship and religious ceremonies.
  • We make two contributions to the literature on disparities in COVID-19 outcomes. First, while evidence suggests that religious services may spread infection, to the best of our knowledge, no study has specifically examined the mortality risk of different religious groups, and specifically after adjusting for sociodemographic, occupational and geographical determinants. Second, this study examines the association between state-mandated prohibition of religious services and COVID-19 mortality risk across different religious groups.
  • We analysed COVID-19 deaths between 2 March and 15 May 2020 linked to Census data to understand the risks to religious groups. The age-adjusted rates show an elevated risk of COVID-19 mortality for Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and Buddhists compared with the Christian population. Those affiliating with no religion were at a lower risk than their Christian counterparts. Compared with the age-adjusted results, the estimated HRs for religious groups were reduced when covariates were included in the models, indicating that geographical and sociodemographic factors to some extent mediate the relationship between religion and COVID-19 mortality. The HRs for individuals of no religion remained relatively constant as covariates were added to the models.
    Including the prelockdown and postlockdown risk models gives us an indication of the risk to non-Christian religious groups of the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19, and how the risk to religious groups changed as the result of government measures. While the risk both before and after lockdown is highest for Muslims, Jews and Hindus, the variation in the risk between religious groups is reduced. It is notable the risk to Jewish men and women was particularly high in the prelockdown period.
  • Our results confirm that COVID-19 mortality risk for each non-Christian group is in general higher for males than females, and where heterogeneity in risk is observed between religious groups, the elevation in risk compared with the Christian group is generally greater for males than females. We observe a large and unexplained increased risk for Jewish males; after controlling for geographic factors which reduced the relative risk, the risk then increased slightly as additional factors were included in the model. Jews had a raised risk despite being relatively advantaged in terms of the risk factors that contributed to higher mortality in predominantly non-white religious groups.
  • Our findings suggest that behavioural changes as a result of the lockdown and intervention measures operated to reduce the risk for religious groups, which may be a consequence of restrictions on congregating in places of worship. However, it is not possible from this analysis to confirm whether the reduction in risk to religious groups comes as a result of preventing other activities (eg, prohibiting households from mixing, ordering pubs to close, and so on) as opposed to specifically the banning of religious gatherings. It could also be the case that religious leaders and communities used social capital to communicate and mitigate against risks of COVID-19 mortality, as has been noted in previous epidemics. This is a potential explanation as to the reduction in risk in the postlockdown period; that is, as increased mortality among certain religious communities became apparent, religious groups could have disseminated public health messaging overcoming linguistic and cultural barriers and using trust and common identity.
    While behaviours relating to religious practices could be responsible for higher infection rates leading to higher mortality rates, it is not clear that all the residual risk from religion is a consequence of behaviour. For example, the impact of racial prejudice and self-reported racism has been shown to increase the risk of stress in ethnic and religious communities resulting in higher prevalence of illness including the impacts of anticipatory stress. In light of the extant levels of religious prejudice in the UK society, it is highly possible this is experienced by certain religious communities, and therefore it is possible that part of the increased risk seen in both the age-adjusted and fully adjusted models is a result of stress-induced conditions resulting from religious prejudices.

“Worried About Coronavirus, India Tries to Head Off a Mass Hindu Pilgrimage” (3/19/2020)


Vindu Goel, Hari Kumar; “Worried About Coronavirus, India Tries to Head Off a Mass Hindu Pilgrimage”, New York Times, (03/19/2020)

  • On Thursday evening, in a prime-time speech to the nation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged his 1.3 billion citizens to “avoid crowds and stay at home.”
    “Today, what is known as ‘social distanc-ing’ is very necessary,” Mr. Modi said.
    Earlier in the day, authorities also announced a weeklong ban on incoming international flights, beginning Sunday.
    The prime minister’s appeal came just in time in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where the authorities face an urgent challenge: dissuading hundreds of thousands of Hindus from traveling there next week for a nine-day celebration of Ram, one of the religion’s most important gods.
  • Public health experts say that large crowds, in which people are unable to keep at least six feet apart, pose a high risk for transmission of the virus.
    Religious festivals, Dr. Singh noted, come and go, but public health is paramount. “If life is not there, then there are no celebrations,” he said.
    The conflict between religion and health has put the government of Uttar Pradesh — India’s largest state, with 230 million people — in a difficult bind. For several days, officials have been trying to dissuade people from gathering in Ayodhya without actually taking the politically volatile step of forbidding them to do so.
  • John Ioannidis, a professor of medicine and biomedical data science at Stanford University, said that if the Ayodhya festival is allowed to proceed, the government could consider asking people to voluntarily be tracked and tested for the virus a few weeks later.
    “We know very little about what’s happening with the virus,” he said. “We need data. I’m sure that among one million people, there would be volunteers who would be willing to be tested.”
    Mr. Modi’s national call for Indians to stay home, however, may well reduce the flow of pilgrims to a trickle. “I appeal to all of you: For the next few weeks, step out of your homes only when absolutely necessary,” the prime minister said.

“How novel coronavirus spread through the Shincheonji religious group in South Korea” (2/27/2020)


Paula Hancocks and Yoonjung Seo; “How novel coronavirus spread through the Shincheonji religious group in South Korea”, CNN, (Updated 7:55 PM ET, Thu February 27, 2020)

  • Illness was never accepted as a valid reason to miss services at the Shincheonji religious group, says former member Duhyen Kim.
    This is an organization that took roll call, he says, and everyone had to physically swipe in and out of services with a special card. Any absence was noted and followed up on.
    "The culture was, even though you're sick you come in on Sunday. If you're so sick you can't come Sunday, you have to come on Monday or Tuesday -- you have to make up for the time," Kim says. He describes how, when he was a member, followers would sit on the floor during hours-long services "packed together like sardines."
    The religious group -- an offshoot of Christianity -- is now at the heart of South Korea's novel coronavirus outbreak, particularly in the city of Daegu.
  • The religious group says it is cooperating with local authorities, and has shut down all church services and gatherings.
    "We are sanitizing every church and annex buildings all across the nation, including Daegu branch. We will actively participate in disease prevention activity, following the government's measure," reads a statement from the group.
    The religious group also lashed out at its critics.
    "The media had been reporting that we are the main culprit in the spread of virus, referring to our 'unusual service style' -- a reality where we had to hold service on the floor to maximize the number of occupants in our small space," the statement adds.
    But Kim, who still has friends within the group, and other former members have told CNN that attendees are not allowed to wear anything on their faces -- even glasses -- during prayer time.
    "They were forced recently not to wear masks even though the whole corona (virus) outbreak was going on. They said, no, it's disrespectful to God to have masks on," Kim says.
  • In South Korea, officials have ordered all of the group's facilities to close. Shincheonji says it has close to 1,100 buildings and is disinfecting them to try to stem the spread of the virus.
    On February 24, South Korea's Gyeonggi provincial governor, Lee Jae-myung, said in a radio interview with Korean station TBS, that the Shincheonji group had not initially cooperated with officials as promised. The group has 239 locations in Gyeonggi province, but only 100 of the addresses listed proved to be correct.
    On February 26, Chairman Lee Man-hee posted a statement on the official Shincheonji website saying that the group has been "actively cooperating with the South Korean government to prevent the virus from spreading further" and they decided to hand over the list of the whole congrega-tion and check on with everyone including the trainees on the condition that the government safeguard the private information.
    On the same day, Gyeonggi Provincial government said 210 Shincheonji members had agreed to call 33,000 fellow members to ask about symptoms, as Shincheonji members often don't answer calls from nonmembers.
    Daegu police deployed 600 officers to find hundreds of members, knocking on doors, tracking phones and scouring security camera footage to find them, and asking them to self-isolate.
    It comes as more than half a million people this week reportedly signed an online petition filed to the president's office calling for Shincheonji to be dissolved. Any peti-tion with over 200,000 signatures is guaranteed an official government response, putting the group un-der a spotlight it has tried for so many years to avoid.

“Ultra-Orthodox Jews hit disproportionately hard by Israel’s coronavirus outbreak” (April 7, 2020)


Noga Tarnopolsky, “Ultra-Orthodox Jews hit disproportionately hard by Israel’s coronavirus outbreak”, Los Angeles Times, (Published April 7, 2020 Updated April 8, 2020)

  • A Hungarian-born Jew who survived Auschwitz, Zalman Cohen died April 2 of the coronavirus, at a moment of growing peril for his small, vulnerable community. He was the country’s 36th victim, a toll that has since nearly doubled, hitting the ultra-Orthodox particularly hard and further raising suspicions of a way of life many secular Jews find alien.
    Among the haredim, cultural factors such as big families, crowded living conditions and a bone-deep devotion to communal religious rituals and gatherings have set the stage for the swift spread of the virus, fueled by the community rabbis’ traditional resistance to outside authority.
    Zalman Cohen’s death added to the grim toll in Bnei Brak, a haredi-dominated township east of Tel Aviv that has become a locus of Israel’s COVID-19 infections. The same day he died, the Israeli Cabinet declared Bnei Brak a restricted zone, instituting a military closure on one of the world’s most densely populated communities.
    Israeli medical authorities fear that close to 40% of Bnei Brak’s 200,000 residents, who live in a 2.7-square-mile warren of tightly packed apartments, schools and stores, may be infected. As the closure took effect, police helicopters buzzed overhead, paramilitary police patrolled residential streets, and soldiers controlled all entry points at roadblocks.
  • Spurred by deaths like that of Zalman Cohen, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a plan to evacuate all Bnei Brak residents 80 and older— 4,500 of them in all — and relocate them to requisitioned hotels, even by force. For many of that generation, the notion of such a roundup carried chilling historical overtones, and in some cases personal ones as well.
    Amid an outcry, the plan was dropped. As the Sabbath was about to begin last week, only about 100 infected elderly residents agreed voluntarily to be moved.
  • Overall, Israel has aggressively fought the outbreak of the conronavirus since January. But for weeks, Netanyahu resisted pressure to take action in Bnei Brak.
    That changed, however, for a number of reasons, notably the power Litzman holds as a representative of United Torah Judaism, a small ultra-Orthodox party that plays an outsized role in Israeli coalition politics.
    For weeks, Litzman opposed measures affecting his community’s customs and rites, such as crowded Sabbath prayers and regular visits to ritual baths. Israeli media reported that the minister defied his own ministry’s guidelines, praying in a synagogue days after communal worship was banned.
  • The coronavirus crisis could add to long-standing strains between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up about 12% of the country’s population of 9 million. Unlike other Israeli Jews, they are exempt from army service, subsidized by a state whose authority they question. Their communities are all but an autonomous state within the state, said Shahar Ilan, the author of a book on the sector and its political entanglements.
    He said the virus’ heavy toll among the ultra-Orthodox was the result of years of government capitulation to the demands of haredi political leaders, who in turn deny their followers access to mass media and tools like basic scientific literacy, hewing to traditional teachings and Torah study.
  • Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld pointed to the responsibility of local and religious leaders to convey vital guidelines to a community whose members “are not online, don’t have telephones, don’t have radios, don’t have televisions and do not know what is going on in the real world.”
    Cohen, though, said the government botched its efforts to communicate the dire nature of the situation to his community. He faulted Netanyahu for not dispatching doctors and scientists to win over key rabbis in the outbreak’s earliest days.
    “They didn’t speak the language of haredim,” he said.

“In Israel, the Jewish High Holidays clash with a new coronavirus lockdown” (9/25/2020)


Noga Tarnopolsky, “In Israel, the Jewish High Holidays clash with a new coronavirus lockdown”, Los Angeles Times, (Sep. 25, 2020)

  • Naftali Herstik still remembers the first time he “stood beside the pillar,” meaning that he led Rosh Hashanah services from the central synagogue lectern at which a cantor chants the liturgy.
    It was 69 years ago, and he was 4½ years old. The heir of a long dynasty of cantors and rabbis, Herstik was already a famed child prodigy and had accompanied his father at previous celebrations.
    He has observed Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, from the well of a temple ever since — until last week. Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue, where Herstik served as chief cantor from its founding in 1981 to 2009, has been closed for the first time in its history because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The government has been paralyzed for months as public health officials warned of a looming disaster while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners threatened to walk out on their power-sharing deal if synagogues were not allowed to remain open.
    On Friday, Israeli lawmakers continued tussling over the details of a bill that would shutter all nonessential businesses and ban employees from going to their workplaces but that could allow synagogues to host up to 20 worshipers praying indoors.
    Dr. Hagai Levine, chairman of the Israeli Assn. of Public Health Physicians, a professor of epidemiology at Hebrew University and an advisor to the government, criticized the proposed policy as “the opposite of what we should do.”
    “Keeping synagogues open on Yom Kippur sends the wrong message,” Levine said. Permitting gatherings in closed spaces — “the main way people get infected,” he said — will make an already-grim situation “much worse.”
  • The tug-of-war over the right thing to do has even pitted brother against brother.
    This week saw a public disagreement between Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and his younger brother, David Yosef, who is chief rabbi of Har Nof, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem.
    Yitzhak Yosef issued guidelines instructing his flock to keep synagogues open while reducing the number of worshipers and dividing them into pods. Women, he said, should pray at home if these measures leave insufficient space for them in the synagogue, as men take precedence.
    On the other side, David Yosef posted an impassioned video beseeching the ultra-Orthodox community — which has been the hardest hit by the coronavirus — to immediately close all synagogues. Even on Yom Kippur, he said, prayer should take place only outdoors or inside private homes.
    “This has happened in previous generations,” he said. “When there were plagues, the sages of Israel did this, too. Save your own lives!”
  • “Every effort must be made to pray on Yom Kippur,” he said, citing the example of Jewish POWs during World War II who went to great lengths to observe the holiday. “But anyone who doesn’t keep to the restrictions is a social criminal.”
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