Religion as superspreader and epidemiological risk factor?
Picture by Breawycker under CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license
For some years now, even die-hard proponents of the secularisation theory should have realised that religion is still (or even more than ever) a multifaceted powerful factor in global modernity. The global dynamics that are set in motion by the less domesticated forms of religion in particular can no longer be ignored. Especially the worldwide spread of Salafist or evangelical ideas is sometimes metaphorically described as an epidemic. A few weeks ago we learned that religions can also be epidemically effective in a non-metaphorical way. Religious communities are now generally acknowledged “superspreaders” of the corona epidemic.
In the German media there is surprisingly little coverage of this. Even those of us whose enthusiasm for football is rather limited are aware of the presumably fateful Champions League round of sixteen between Atalanta Bergamo and FC Valencia on 19 February. This match was blamed early on for the rapid spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in northern Italy and Spain. In Germany, a carnival event in the small town of Heinsberg was identified as a source of infection, as were après-ski huts in Ischgl, Austria.
In contrast, religious events as "superspreaders" are less present in public awareness. However, it became known early on that the outbreak of the epidemic in South Korea is closely related to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. Already at the beginning of March, the city government of the capital Seoul asked the public prosecutor's office to indict Lee Man-hee, the founder of the Shincheonji Church, and eleven other people.1 Soon it became known that the church also has a branch in Wuhan. Until the first cases of illness became known in the Korean community of Daegu, they celebrated services together with that of Wuhan.2
Shincheonji Daegu Church*
At the end of February, fears were expressed that eighteen Korean Christians who had tested positive for the virus after returning from a pilgrimage to the holy places of their religion might have brought the pandemic to Israel.3 Two hundred Israelis who had had contact with the pilgrims were quarantined.4 Nevertheless, the virus spread at great speed, especially in Jerusalem, especially in the residential districts of ultra-Orthodox Jews, who were initially unwilling to comply with the measures decreed by the government to contain the epidemic by restricting social contact. As a result, the infection rate in Mea Shearim was eight times higher than in the rest of the country.5
But we do not have to look to the Middle or Far East to identify religious events as superspreaders. On 31 March, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported on “the five days in a Protestant superchurch that set a time bomb in Europe”. It referred to an event of the Christian Open Door Church, which was inaugurated on 18 February 2020 in Mulhouse, France. The prayer meeting is said to have been the prelude to the largest concentration of Corona cases in France to date. Approximately 2,500 confirmed cases are connected to this. Believers had unknowingly brought the virus to Burkina Faso, Corsica, Guyana and Switzerland. The church cluster is said to have been a key factor in closing the border between Germany and France.6
The fact that religious events are risky from an epidemiological point of view has in principle also been recognised in Germany. A ban on religious services was issued, which meant a massive and historically unique restriction of positive religious freedom in the Federal Republic of Germany. In public perception, however, only the general risk of infection in places where many people meet was discussed. In epidemiological terms a church service is no different from a concert or lecture. The large churches have accepted the ban for the most part without complaint, as have most Muslim and Jewish communities. Mockers remarked that most churches should have little problem keeping the required minimum distance between parishioners, but on the other hand the vast majority of those who are attending services belong to the risk group because of their age.
It is noticeable – though not surprising – that conservative representatives of religious institutions in particular did not so readily accept the ban. This does not only apply to German Christians like the Catholic "Freundeskreis St. Philipp Neri" in Berlin, who had unsuccessfully appealed to the administrative court against the ban on church services because of Corona.7 Meanwhile, the ban on religious events has been lifted in Germany. It took only a few days before it became known that more than a hundred people were infected with Covid-19 during a service in a Baptist congregation in Frankfurt.8
The reactions of many Eastern European churches to the pandemic were particularly noteworthy. While the press service of the Patriarchate of the Romanian Orthodox Church at least allowed the faithful to abstain from kissing the icons in the church for the time being, Patriarch Daniel pointed out in a pastoral letter that the Holy Eucharist can never be a source of illness and death. Therefore, the rule of distributing Holy Communion to the clergy and the faithful from the same chalice should be observed unchanged. Priest Maksim Koslov of the Russian Orthodox Church also stressed that no virus can be transmitted during communion. Metropolitan Neofit of Sofia, Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, agreed. He announced that despite the concern about the spread of the coronavirus, worship services in the country would continue because the holy sacraments could not possibly transmit a disease. Archpriest Mattias Palli of the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church at least announced that the much-kissed surfaces in the church should now be disinfected more frequently.9
This already shows the particular epidemiological risk factors of certain, particularly conservative or radical forms of religion.
There are several factors that make religions potential superspreaders. First, despite all talk of privatisation and individualisation, religions are a matter of community and collective practice. Religions do not solely depend on the interaction between community members and God, but above all on the interaction between the worshippers (and between them and things, if one thinks of the very physical worship of icons). This does not yet distinguish them from orchestral music or university teaching. There is, however, a serious difference between musicians, students and lecturers on the one hand and religious actors with very strong convictions on the other: while the former predominantly trust scientific knowledge, strict believers of all religions claim to have other, in doubt higher sources of knowledge at their disposal. Especially with radical Evangelicals, but also with Orthodox Christians we observe a striking pattern of behaviour in the Corona crisis: they often deny the danger of infection during religious events, as shown above.
In this context we should also remember the disturbing pictures from Brazil and the USA, where Evangelical pastors continued to hold their services with physical contact being part of the programme, when the virus already raged. The belief in the immunity of true believers against Covid-19, which has been impressively refuted by the above-mentioned cases, is not just the consequence of mere naivety, but of a certain view of causality regarding the epidemic. For many evangelical Christians - as well as for quite a few Muslims10 and Jews11 - the virus is simply a divine punishment for sins committed by members of a given society such as homosexuality, unbelief, etc.12 The Kenyan online newspaper Standard Digital even assumes that the vast majority of people agree that the pandemic is a punishment from God.13
While some assume that God will punish mankind regardless of individual guilt – Standard Digital claims "God's anger equalises humanity"14 – most assume that the virus will affect sinners and unbelievers, but not the devout and godly. On March 15, Guillermo Maldonado, a self-declared "apostle" who hosted a campaign rally for Donald Trump at his megachurch in Miami earlier this year, urged his congressmen to attend the services in person. He asked the rhetorical question: "Do you believe that God would bring his people into his home to make them infected with the virus? Of course not".15
However, among Christians it is generally accepted that no man is without sin. But in some communities, there is a belief that the residual risk of infection due to sin can be more effectively combated through prayer and repentance than through social distancing or a vaccine.
For example, the American television preacher Kenneth Copeland claimed a few weeks ago that the pandemic would be over much sooner than virologists had assumed because Christian people all over the country had overwhelmed it with their prayers. In a sermon he called upon the "wind of God" to destroy the novel corona virus. He executed the sentence on Covid-19, which he declared "ended" and "over", the USA as "healed and restored to health". His Texas-based mega-church also claimed that viewers of his show could be cured of the virus by touching the screen.16
Very similar patterns of thought and behaviour can be observed in the booming and far-right evangelical churches of Brazil. The Brazilian pastor Edir Macedo – a multimillionaire, owner of a large television station and founder of the powerful Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (IURD), a worldwide network of evangelical churches – called the virus Satan's strategy and claimed that it is powerless against those who are not afraid of it.17
It is important to stress that the persons and their churches mentioned are not bizarre minority communities without any significant impact. As far as the Orthodox churches which are close to the state and the people are concerned, this is obvious. But the influence of the Evangelical Right in North and Latin America is also immense and reaches far into the highest levels of politics - Brazil's corona deniers are actually "in positions of power".18 On 4 April, Reuters reported that Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro met with evangelical pastors outside his office in view of the rising death toll in the country and criticism of his handling of the health crisis. He agreed to the request of Evangelical Christians and called for a national day of fasting and prayer to "rid Brazil of this evil" coronavirus epidemic.19 US President Donald Trump, whose power depends largely on the votes of white Evangelicals, who make up around 25% of the US population, had already proclaimed a National Day of Prayer on 14 March to worship against the virus.20
Radical or ultra-conservative religious communities can thus become an epidemiological danger in several respects, namely by setting in motion concrete chains of infection at their events, by making their numerous members believe that they are immune and do not need to comply with the standard precautionary measures, and by enticing politicians to pray instead of taking effective action.
- https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-51695649; cf. https://nyti.ms/2IvU2DQ; https://edition.cnn.com/2020/02/26/asia/shincheonji-south-korea-hnk-intl/index.html.
- https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/punishment-muted-nowruz-afghanistan-coronavirus-200320143643578.html. In Saudi Arabia, however, four people were arrested for claiming that the virus was a punishment from God. https://english.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2020/3/28/riyadh-arrests-four-over-claims-coronavirus-is-gods-punishment
- See for example the argumentation of the "life protectors" of LifeSite: https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/yes-coronavirus-is-a-punishment-from-god-just-ask-a-repentant-sinner. Sometimes also the Jews are blamed for the outbreak of the pandemic, because they rejected Jesus as Messiah. https://www.timesofisrael.com/conservative-pastor-says-coronavirus-spread-in-synagogues-is-punishment-from-god/
- https://taz.de/Brasiliens-Evangelikale-und-Corona/!5675865/; see also https://blickpunkt-lateinamerika.de/artikel/bolsonaro-laesst-kirchen-trotz-corona-pandemie-weiter-offen/.
- https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-brazil-bolsonaro/brazils-bolsonaro-turns-to-prayer-in-coronavirus-crisis-idUSKBN21L3DL ; see also https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/coronavirus-jair-bolsonaro-brazil-prayer-fasting-day-evil-covid19-a9447406.html
* Picture by Namoroka under CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license