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How clerics made spread of deadly virus more vicious

By Jeckonia Otieno | April 5th 2020
Left: Fr Nicholas Maanzo and Fr Richard Oduor at a past church service. [Courtesy]

The world over, there has been an element of defiance or extremism by religious leaders, contributing to the exponential spread of Covid-19.

In Bungoma County, two Catholic priests were arrested last Saturday for presiding over mass in two different churches.

The two gatherings were in contravention of the order curtailing public gatherings, something that has not gone down well with some clerics.

When President Uhuru Kenyatta first announced a ban on physical, social meetings, the directive was largely ignored by a significant proportion of religious organisations, from churches to mosques. The following Sunday, church services in parts of the country went on as usual.

This defiance prompted Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe to come out guns blazing. “What sense would it make if at the end of all this you have only half of your congregation to go back to?” posed Kagwe.

And now the coming Easter holiday celebrations will be a low key affair. Being a time that people travel to visit families and friends, this year’s celebrations will be different in ways never seen before.

But drawing from other countries, religion has proved a weak link in the fight against the novel coronavirus. An example is Italy, which has been ravaged for the past one month, losing over 10,000 people to the disease. Church services went on unabated and the Catholic church paid a heavy price, with at least 60 priests succumbing to the virus.

By the end of February, the highest infections rate outside China was in South Korea; attributed to spread aided by religious gatherings. Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a secretive group, was found to have been instrumental in the spread of the virus after it defied the authorities and carried on with gatherings.

By March 2, about three in five of South Korea’s confirmed cases were members of the church.

To make amends for what was termed gross negligence, the leader of the church, Lee Man-hee, went down on his knees during a press conference and offered an apology, even as prosecutors were asked to investigate him. Part of this carnage was attributed to the church’s belief that sickness was never to stop any person from attending service.

Before the apology, the church’s leaders exposed members through the strict style of worship in which members are not allowed to wear anything on their faces during worship – meaning even masks were not allowed. Extremist figures in Muslim faith have also viewed coronavirus as a means being used to separate people from their religion. In Malaysia, 16,000 people gathered at a mosque and this became the biggest vector that led to increased numbers of positive Covid-19 cases.

In Iran where the death toll stood at 3,000 earlier this week, religion played a key role. From initial denial, the government, founded on Islamic law, had to come out and start taking measures when numbers kept soaring.

Closer home, some religious leaders have sought to mislead their followers over the requirement to self-isolate. It was no wonder when in Kakamega some clerics called their congregations to church. When the law caught up with them, they said they were just there to collect offerings not to hold a service.

Kenneth Ongaro, a sociologist, blames the state for failing to weed out crooks from the religious sector. He says this is now the opportune time to restore sanity in the sector.

“Lack of a clear policy from the government on how to start a church has led to the situation that we find ourselves in now; one can wake up and start a church due to high level of unemployment. To some people, it has become a source of income,” says Ongaro.

He says because of this attachment to the income from church, the leaders have no qualms keeping people hooked as long as they are gaining.

Rev Loice Okello, a psychologist, attributes what was witnessed the Sunday after the president’s announcement as a conflict between faith and reality.

Covid 19 Time Series


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