Why religion needs to be addressed in times of infectious disease outbreaks?

In times of outbreaks, religion can play a significant role in determining the course of tide. There have been many reports about religious congregations being hotspots for the spread of the coronavirus. As unfortunate that is, the governments and its public health systems must not forget that religious leaders are important stakeholders in crisis like these. While implementing any preventive measures such as quarantine or isolation, it is necessary for the public health officials to engage with the representatives of religions to elicit their support.

Religious congregations at the time of a pandemic are a problem:

Many studies have shown that some religious practices can have a positive impact on the mental health and thereby on physical health as well. Religious communities provide social support and its events act as a platform for people to come together. However, many of the religious practices rely on people coming together and praying, which is not exactly in the best interests of public health, in times of an infectious disease outbreak.  The spread of COVID-19 is catalysed by the presence of large numbers of people in one place. There have been reports from across the world, about religious gatherings being the reason behind the spread of virus among large numbers of people. After the outbreak of COVID-19 in China and its risk of becoming a pandemic became known to the rest of the world, advisories were given against holding public gatherings. In spite of that, many religious gatherings continued to be held and festivals continued to be celebrated.

Liberty of faith versus public health: Where should the line be drawn?

In times of pandemic, there is often a conflict between freedom of observing religious practices and protecting the health of populations. There have been incidents of people protesting the closure of religious sites, as they believe their right to worship cannot be contested under any circumstances. In Florida, the church services have been allowed to go on, as a part of ‘essential services’, with the advice of maintaining a distance of six feet and not to the throng the churches. A pandemic raises the question: how can public health requirements be balanced with the individual need to practice faith? There are those who believe their faith will protect them from disease, but we are increasingly seeing evidence that congregations can facilitate the rapid spread of the disease. This choice can become extremely painful for the families of coronavirus victims, who may not even get the solace of a proper mourning ceremony.

Ebola case study: A way for science and religion to work together in harmony

During an outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, in 2014-15, the religious practices and beliefs of the local communities created obstacles for the authorities involved in its containment. Unlike coronavirus, Ebola spreads from human to human, through contact with blood or body fluids. In this instance, their funeral practices such as cleaning and washing the dead body, became the source of further spread. Moreover, the people attending the funeral had to wash their hands in a common bowl, after touching the diseased. The WHO, in collaboration with the respective governments, came up with a protocol for safe burial of the dead body. However, there was no consideration for the communities’ religious beliefs. It was after involving the representatives of the communities, that they came up with the Safe and Dignified Burial protocol. This protocol helped in bringing down the infections significantly. Thus, it is possible for containment agencies to work with religious leaders, to devise a solution that can allow people to follow their faith, while adopting scientifically safe practices.

How to address the issue of religion, in times of outbreak?

It is natural that people look to community events such as praying or worshipping, as a solace to deal with stressful times. From the public health point of view, it is necessary for the Governments and health authorities to understand the religious practices and beliefs. Only then will they be able to implement the preventive measures effectively. It is important to recognise religion as a social determinant of health. Collective religious practices can pose a risk to the management of infectious diseases. This calls for preparedness and preparedness does not come without engagement with all stakeholders.

As explained by Cristina Bicchieri in her work ‘Measuring Social Norms’, the behaviour of people belonging to religious groups, who engage in a collective pattern (e.g. – praying in large groups), is dependent on their social expectations. These expectations are defined by the behaviour and beliefs of the other people in their group. If the behaviour of these people is to be changed, it has to be done by someone who is a part of the group and  has a certain authority over it. When the representatives of the religion are involved in the management of the outbreak, it is more likely that people belonging to the particular religion will accept measures such as quarantine and worshipping from home, and cooperate with the authorities. We are already seeing many communities resorting to online services, which is an encouraging practice. But this is an important time to engage with these stakeholders – because we may see heavy congregations at important religious sites, once the lockdown is lifted. People management is not an issue limited to the lockdown, but will remain pertinent over the coming few months.