Holy, and safe
The arrest in Cagayan de Oro of a pastor who held a worship service last Sunday with almost 500 participants is a reminder that the government is intent on enforcing social distancing to prevent COVID-19. That includes religious activities that may violate social distancing rules.
Religion is a reflection of how human beings have evolved to want to be close to other people. The very word comes from the Latin ligare, to bind together. We refer to coreligionists as congregations, people who get together.
The need to get together becomes even stronger during times of crisis, including epidemics, with people hoping that their group supplications to the heavens will protect them from harm.
Yet, worldwide, some of the largest disease clusters (groups of people documented to have been infected from a common source) have been linked to mass religious activities.
The earliest to be documented for COVID-19 involved a cult, the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in South Korea, while members of the River of Grace Community Church received saltwater sprays and were told it would protect them from infection. The same bottle was used, without disinfecting the nozzle, for the members during two of their services, resulting in 46 infections.
In Singapore, clusters of infection were identified with religious services held by the Grace Assembly of God church and the Life Church and Missions Singapore.
Activities organized by the international Muslim group Tablighi Jamaat have been linked to the largest clusters yet for COVID-19. From Feb. 27 to March 1, some 16,000 people attended one of the group’s events in Kuala Lumpur. Articles in the New Straits Times report 77 infections from among Malaysian participants, as well as among participants from Brunei (50), Singapore (5), Cambodia (13), and Thailand (2). From our own Department of Health records, we have one Filipino’s death in Marawi from COVID-19 acquired at that event in Malaysia.
Another event also organized by Tablighi Jamaat, in Lahore, Pakistan, from March 10 to 12, had some 100,000 people attending, resulting in 154 people testing positive, and two deaths. Unlike Malaysia, contact tracing has been weak in Pakistan, with resistance to testing among the participants.
One cluster in Mt. Vernon, Washington, in the United States, has caught the attention of infectious diseases specialists because it involved church choir practice. The Skagit Valley Chorale met last March 10, with precautions that included the choir members using their own individual sheet music and sanitizers. Choir members also refrained from hugs and handshakes. Yet, among the 60 who joined the practice, 45 are COVID-19 confirmed or ill with symptoms, and two have died.
Jamie Lloyd-Smith, a University of California Los Angeles infectious diseases specialist, told the LA Times that one possible explanation is that the infection occurred from the singing itself.
I’ve wondered if this relates to a research finding shared in a recent NHK (Japanese) television broadcast by Kazuhiro Tateda, about “micro droplet” transmission. Most infections, he explained, occur through droplets from infected persons’ coughs or sneezing, but these droplets are usually large and fall quickly to the ground within two minutes. Conversations (and, I wonder, singing?) involve much smaller micro droplets that can linger and drift in the air much longer, especially in enclosed rooms with poor air circulation (including air-conditioned rooms), and which can also cause infection.
This Holy Week then in the Philippines will be different, with Catholics and Protestants going online for religious activities, including the Visita Iglesia (visits to churches).
We’re bound to see other changes in Holy Week and Easter observances around the world. This year’s famous Oberammergau Passion Play in Germany, performed only every 10 years, has been canceled, according to its website, given the large number of performers and audiences.
Lent is a time for penitence, so what to do for people who need to confess? Fr. Scott Holmer listens to confessions daily in his church’s parking lot in Bowie, Maryland. The Atlantic has a photo showing him giving absolution to someone confessing from the car… six feet away from the priest. He wears one of those sleeping masks so he won’t see who’s confessing. (To see the photograph, search on “Atlantic” and “drive-through confession.”)
Given the other disturbing evidence about ways of transmitting COVID-19, we need to be extra careful this year with our Holy Week observances. Stick to online services. Use quiet reflection. No group activities, not even small ones, and, please, no Pabasa (the traditional singing of the account of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection)!
In these difficult times, the spirit of Easter should still be with us, one of light and hope, holy and safe.
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