Faced with the task of devising the most effective strategy to curtail the coronavirus outbreak, some state governors are choosing pious platitudes over straightforward scientific choices. All over the country, governors are competing to outdo one another in declaring churches and mosques open for congregational worship. With COVID-19 yet to peak in Nigeria, this is impulsive. The country lacks adequate facilities and equipment for testing, contact-tracing and isolating infected individuals. In addition, the World Health Organisation says that countries still need to minimise transmission in potential hotspots, such as care homes and large gatherings.
It is of deep concern that these states prioritise religious gatherings above the economy and personal safety. Using the religious economy as an excuse for lifting the ban on religious gathering, a governor ignorantly ignores the reality that religion only speaks to an individual’s beliefs; the economy determines his survival. The World Bank projects that the Nigerian economy will contract by -3.4 per cent growth rate this year because of the pandemic, which should have elicited a better response from the governors.
The virus has infected more than 5.5 million people worldwide and killed over 347,000. The International Labour Organisation estimates that stay-at-home orders have imperilled the lives and livelihoods of at least 1.6 billion people. The majority are workers who have no income or health protections and whose work cannot be done from home. No work means no food, and no money to pay rent.
The need to get countries back to work to ameliorate the economic impact of the pandemic is, of course, urgent. The welfare of the people and their economic survival should take precedence over religion in serious countries. The World Food Programme is warning that 265 million people will experience acute hunger by the end of 2020 — twice the number that was facing food crises before COVID-19. These numbers are so grim.
Therefore, the trend in countries with responsible and responsive governments is to reopen the critical areas of life first, especially the economy and elementary schooling. Germany, Spain, Australia and some of the Scandinavian countries are reopening economic activities in phases before any consideration for religion. The European Union says it is supporting member-nations to reopen international borders to re-energise tourism with a caveat that a country should have “a strong health system.” In this, the European Union education ministers heard at their recent virtual meeting that there was no significant spike in COVID-19 cases after elementary schools reopened in 22 EU states.
In spite of this, these countries are staying alert, signifying they can re-impose lockdowns at any time because, with coronavirus, it is still stop and start. “We will be driven not by mere hope or economic necessity,” British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said. “We’re going to be driven by science, the data, and public health.”
Besides, the resolve of some governors coincides with a delicate period in Nigeria’s fight against the virus. This suggests that these governors, being politicians, are appealing to populism. This unscientific decision to relax the ban on religious gatherings will aggravate the virus spread. And the entire country will be the worse for it.
The implication of their choice might not be evident immediately, but in the weeks ahead, the whole country might live to regret pandering to religious sentiments. That is perhaps why the Benue Governor, Samuel Ortom, reversed himself after initially directing that religious gatherings should go ahead.
As images from the weekend show, the rush to lift the ban on religious gatherings appears rash. Additionally, COVID-19 has yet to peak in Nigeria because the authorities are far behind in testing. The NCDC says it has conducted less than 50,000 tests nationwide. This is scratching the surface, as it is around 0.03 per cent of the population. Ghana, for instance, has tested 183,362 (pop., 30.9 million), Germany 3,147,771 (pop., 83.7 million) and Australia 1,111,567 (pop., 25.4 million).
Again, before the pandemic, Nigeria was struggling with a decrepit healthcare delivery system. Instead of owning up to this, the governors ignore it. In some of the states that lifted the ban on religious gatherings, the incidence of the virus is rising sharply. Seventy per cent of the new infections are in the North, according to the NCDC. For the past three weeks, Kano, Yobe and Bauchi have been battling with “mysterious deaths”. This does not warrant the reopening of religious gatherings.
Really, religion and the virus are a fatal mix. In South Korea, the contagion got out of hand within the space of two weeks in mid-February after Patient 31 or the “super spreader” attended a church service. The Seoul Metropolitan Government later filed a formal complaint of murder against the church. Two-thirds of Malaysia’s initial cases in early March were traced to a four-day event at Sri Petaling mosque, the country’s Minister of Health, Adham Baba, said.
Consequently, Saudi Arabia banned religious gatherings and was able to keep its COVID-19 infections under control. Along this line, the Netherlands and Germany have banned social gatherings until September at the earliest. This is a pragmatic decision because religion is not the lifeblood of a country. In contrast, the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 tracker says Brazil is now the second most afflicted country in the world after the United States because President Jair Bolsonaro is recklessly treating the virus as “a little flu” that should not disturb church services.
This serves as a lesson for the governors playing the religious card. Nature, the authoritative research journal, warns that if restrictions are lifted prematurely, the impacts of the virus risk being prolonged. At all times, they should accord precedence to the health and economic well-being of the citizens rather than the sentimental attachment to religion. As the pandemic has not yet run its course, infections and deaths will continue to rise. The governors should join the Federal Government in embracing a non-partisan, rational and scientific approach towards curtaining the deadly virus.