Full Professor, Political Studies
Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ottawa
As soon as governments became aware of the severity of COVID-19, most have promoted social distancing measures. This included cancelling or limiting attendance at sporting events, concerts, and other collective meetings where large groups converge. The rationale for these decisions has been to prevent what epidemiologists call ‘superspreading events (SSEs)’, or large infection clusters. A preliminary study of SSEs has linked them to four types of events: mass attendance festivals, religious services or missionary work, funerals, and business meetings. If imposing limits on religious services and funerals, which may overlap, represent for many a necessary measure to protect lives, for others it may appear as an overbearing state intervention. Regardless of where one stands on this issue, there is little question that religious services, pilgrimages, and processions bring together enormous numbers of people. As such, they present considerable challenges for authorities to address, as their legitimacy depends on their ability to ensure public safety.
Many of the largest gatherings in human history happen to be religious pilgrimages. The most important of these is probably the maha Khumbh Mela, which brought together over 10 million pilgrims in Haridwar, India, on April 13, 2010. The smooth and orderly operation of these kinds of events require important logistical support, including the deployment of nurses and medical staff ready to respond to incidents such as fainting, heat stroke, or injuries due to entrapment. In this most elemental sense, religious gatherings may seem like the ultimate SSE, as alarmed voices are reporting in the Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh communities. However, intolerant political leaders, such as those of the incumbent BJP in New Delhi, have wasted no time using such unfortunate occurrences to raise dangerous conspiracy theories, claiming that entire communities have knowingly spread the disease, thereby inflaming communal relations and turning a public health issue into a political conflict.
Even in post-industrialized societies where religion seems to have vanished from the public sphere, authorities have yet to find the right balance between respecting freedom of conscience and protecting the public interest. In the USA, President Trump made an outlandish claim about injecting disinfectant to cure COVID: a fringe religious movement in that country, Genesis II, had actually promoted this most bizarre prescription, oblivious to its dangerous consequences. In Japan, the new religious movement Happy Science, whose leader claims an ability to ‘channel’ Buddha, Jesus, and Freddie Mercury, claims the virus has extraterrestrial origins and promotes a ritual prayer as a cure to COVID-19. In South Korea, the media singled out a church for encouraging crowding, and therefore exacerbating the risk of an SSE. These movements, marginal as they seem, nonetheless represent a headache for authorities that want to promote public health measures while upholding freedom of religion.
However, religious institutions and public authorities can also cooperate to promote public health. Indeed, religious leaders repeating public health recommendations can help to legitimize those orders. Another example from East Asia is instructive in that regard: The government of Taiwan, in February of 2020, convinced leaders of the island temples’ associations to postpone the annual Matsu procession, a major ritual that usually draws up to 400,000 worshippers across the country in over a week, to ward off the spread of the contagion. At the time of writing, the level of infections in Taiwan stands out as one of the lowest in the world.
There is an even more complex dimension to this problem: religious authorities may denounce traditions as ‘superstitions’ because they fear a competitor. Governments may join in denouncing these customs, or celebrate them as ‘folklore’ or ‘tradition’ worthy of support. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) stands out as an example of this ambiguity. Medical authorities followed the Chinese Communist Party’s instructions for years, rejecting TCM as a ‘feudal tradition’, but changed course in the 1990s and began promoting it as an affordable alternative to modern ‘Western’ medicine, and in particular the practice of Qigong. The government abruptly withdrew its support for such practices after realizing that the popularity of some of its promoters, who posed as spiritual masters, risked overshadowing that of political leaders. However, Xi Jinping recently revived this strategy and promoted TCM to the World Health Organization as a palliative and preventive approach to deal with COVID, even as the medical profession cautions against some of its practices.
Adjudicating the rights of communities to promote their values and beliefs while ensuring the safety of the public on a global level is bound to become an ever more salient issue in our tightly interconnected world. Managing the movement of people prescribed by religious calendars can represent extraordinary challenges at the best of times. During public health crises, they can turn into a catastrophe. As a matter of sound public policy, it is important for governments to engage with community leaders, including religious leaders. Very often, when citizens lose confidence in their political leaders, they can turn to these alternative authorities. State leaders confident in their own legitimacy will not hesitate to request the help of religious institutions in implementing policy decisions and reinforce the message.