The world has been hit hard by COVID-19, a disease caused by a new type of coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) that emerged in December 2019 in China and that has since its rapid proliferation been declared by The World Health Organization (WHO) as a pandemic.
COVID-19 has changed the world in many ways and it has come to have significant relevance to religion, and this leads us to inquire as to how religion has responded and adapted under the circumstances: How have religions and religious persons attempted to make sense of the virus? How have religions responded to the virus? And does religion facilitate or hinder the adherence to public health measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19? These are but a few of many important questions scholars are asking and that this essay will offer answers to.
Religion Implicated in Spreading COVID-19
To begin, we can note that religion and the religious have been guilty of spreading COVID-19, especially where religious leaders and members have disobeyed regulations seeking to prevent the spread of the virus.
In South Korea in March 2020, almost two-thirds of infections (roughly 5000 cases) were traced back to the so-called “Patient 31,” a person who worshipped at Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu (1). This church defied regulations and protocols seeking to curb the spread of the virus through insisting on in-person meetings, banning health masks, praying while touching others, and refusing to turn over its membership list to health officials.
In Trinidad in the West Indies, pastors continued to hold in-person services. The belief shared by the religious there is that failing to attend worship in person is evidence of a lack of faith, which, one might suggest, could have resulted in religious leaders coercing church members to show up against their better judgment.
In the United States, many churches held large services despite regulations. Pastor Tony Spell and the Life Tabernacle Church is an apt example of religion being implicated in defying regulations and contributing to the spreading of the virus (2). Religion also occasionally becomes the basis for conspiracy theories. Spell alleged that the virus “is politically motivated” and that “We hold our religious rights dear and we are going to assemble no matter what someone says.” Over a thousand attended the church and Spell handed out anointed handkerchiefs, preached against fear, and told congregants that current circumstances are an extreme test of faithfulness brought on by the spirit of the antichrist. Spell is currently facing legal charges, which include one of assault for nearly backing into a man with a school bus as he was protesting outside the church.
In South Africa, there are known cases of the spreading of the virus during church prayer services (3). These services problematic because congregants sit close to each other and often touch surfaces that may be contaminated. Concerns have also been raised regarding funerals since attendees tend to disregard social distancing and share food and water.
There have been documented cases of the virus spreading in Muslim and Christian gatherings in Malaysia (4). A sudden upsurge in the virus and its spread in the country was linked to an international Islamic event in March 2020 in Kuala Lumpur. It was attended by 16 000 people, including 1500 foreigners from thirty countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, India, South Korea, Brunei, China, Japan, Thailand, etc (5). Many of the attendees congregated during prayers and sermons and shared a sleeping area within a mosque hall. The spread of COVID-19 in Brunei, Thailand, and Cambodia was also linked to this religious gathering (6).
The spreading of viruses during religious gatherings and ceremonies is not a new phenomenon, as if it only became an issue during this recent COVID-19 pandemic. There is evidence of outbreaks of respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases during religious mass gatherings, such as during Hajj and Kumbh Mela (7). In 2012, there was an outbreak of salmonellosis at a church festival attended by 200 Christians in Rwanda (8). An outbreak of Ebola in West Africa in 2014 was linked to traditional burial practices involving the touching and washing of the deceased. Unfortunately, preventive measures banning burial practices were ineffective because they went against traditional cultural and religious beliefs (9).
Religion Implicated in Preventing Health Measures
One of the problems often cited is that religion can prevent people from following medical advice.
Religious belief can, for instance, result in the sick refusing medical treatment and care. Some religious people may even choose faith over medicine. As Johanneke Kroesbergen-Kamps, a scholar and fieldwork researcher, discovered, some pastors tend to spiritualize the virus and shun all human help and trust (10). Here the belief is that one should not put his or her faith in fellow humans, which only leaves God as an option. God is seen as the source of help and the lack of trust tends to be directed at doctors, scientists, pastors, and politicians. As Zambian pastor Madalitso taught, “Doctors may fail, but Jesus will never fail. Professors may fail, but Jesus will never fail. Pastors, bishops, prophets may fail, but Jesus will never fail.” The message is that believers should put their trust in God and not in the works of people.
Kroesbergen-Kamps highlights how this fits in an African worldview in which diseases and other setbacks are often related to a disturbance in the spirit world. As such, some churches interpret the coronavirus as being caused by a disturbance in one’s relationship with God. There is also the belief that before God helps people, people have to do something for God. They have to, for instance, stand firm in their faith. The help that comes from above is dependent on how firm the faith of the believer is.
Sometimes religious belief can motivate one to think he is immune. He feels that because he has divine support, he is invincible to COVID-19 (11). In Malaysia, when urged by the government to attend COVID-19 testing, many of the religious refused to be tested, claiming that they rely on God to protect them (12). In South Korea, members of the Shincheonji Church believed that their spirit and bodies are immortal, which may have led them to refuse testing even when they had symptoms (13).
The spiritualizing of COVID-19 can be particularly significant in Africa where sickness and death are commonly associated with the spiritual realm and demons, spirits, punishment from God, witchcraft, and more. This has led many to consult herbalists and diviners for healing, rather than medical practitioners. Seeking the cause and solution to the pandemic in the spiritual realm can come at the expense of biomedical or social preventative measures. Because pastors and congregants (and politicians) spiritualize the virus, they do not invest enough in practical, physical responses to it.
But it would be unfair to suggest that religion has not tried to play its part in fighting the virus. As becomes clear, religion has proven remarkably adaptable to the circumstances. For example, religious communities all over the world have taken to conducting online services where sermons and prayers are streamed live. Religions have also taken to canceling important events and ceremonies to help prevent the spread. Malaysian Muslim evening markets, called Ramadan Bazaars, during the fasting month have been canceled and important Ramadan prayers are performed at home instead of at the mosque (14). Saudi Arabia has canceled Hajj for all international pilgrims, except for a limited number of citizens in the country (15). Pope Francis’s Holy Week and Easter services at St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, were held in April 2020 without the public attending and were broadcasted live (16). The Hindu new year prayers on 14 April 2020 were live-streamed (17).
Religion as Essential in Overcoming the Virus
Religions have also played an important ROLE in combatting the spread of COVID-19. Many religious communities have taken to disseminating practical health information to members and offering financial help to those struggling in light of the degrading economic conditions. Religions have been more helpful than harmful in dealing with the virus although the media might give the opposite impression since it disproportionately focuses on problematic religious responses (18).
Religion also has an important role to play in helping people to live with and overcome circumstances of adversity, which has come to be supported by much research. Regular religious participation is associated with better emotional health outcomes (19) and a significant amount of research shows that religious beliefs and practices are associated with many health benefits, such as the ability to cope with disease, recovery after hospitalization, and a positive attitude in a difficult situation (20). This has led some scholars to highlight the importance of spirituality in clinical practice (21).
COVID-19, moreover, has enhanced religious faith, especially as people tend to be much more open to faith and prayer. A 2020 study showed that during the current COVID-19 outbreak, there was a 50% increase in Google searches for prayer in 95 countries around the world, including the most secular countries such as Denmark (21). There are various reasons why this might be the case. Possibly it could be because an engagement with religious practice gives one a sense of control over a frightening situation and helps to make the situation understandable. Religion also provides people with hope, especially in the presence of a sudden devastating event that has made many aware of the fragility of human life. Regardless of the explanation, people experiencing fear, suffering or illness often experience a “spiritual renewal” (22).
It is because religion is helpful in times of adversity that researchers recommend integrating religion and spirituality into healthcare. There is a growing awareness of this fact. For example, in the United States in 1994, only seventeen accredited medical schools offered courses on religious and spiritual issues as applied to medicine. This number grew to over 100 by 2012 (23). In the United Kingdom, 59% of medical schools provide some form of teaching on spirituality (24).
The Support and Role of Religious Leaders and Organizations
Religious leaders can be of much help in fighting the virus. It is noted how religious leaders are skillful public speakers and communicators who have a strong influence over their congregants. It would certainly help to train religious leaders in disseminating correct public health information. Religious leaders can show their followers that there is no conflict between preventive measures for communicable diseases and religious beliefs.
Religious leaders could play a part in dispelling COVID-19 misinformation. Kroesbergen-Kamps has highlighted how many Zambian pastors have attempted to combat misconceptions about the coronavirus in society (25). They mention various conspiracy theories, such as the rolling out of the 5G network being somehow related to the coronavirus, or that the Chinese produced COVID-19 for their world-political reasons, and that the virus does not affect black people or only affects rich people. But because many believe that religions teach honesty, this belief could be used as a resource to encourage truthful sharing of information.
Religious leaders can also provide spiritual and mental support, as well as encourage congregants to attend COVID-19 testing or seek medical help when there are symptoms. Pastors want to inform congregants how to live in the current crisis with its many difficulties. They realize the need to offer hope and encouragement to those who are struggling and afraid for their health and future. Zambian pastors recount how some congregants lose all hope, even to the point of committing suicide. They also see people who lose their faith and start doubting whether God exists.
Religious organizations have also been noted to help. Because these organizations are settings where people from various backgrounds regularly gather, they present ideal channels for promoting health and medicine, especially in rural communities where there is a lack of medical access and resources. Religious organizations also assist in disease monitoring as many of them are registered with the government and keep records of membership. Smaller groups within these organizations can facilitate community engagement and mobilization. Organizations can provide support in many ways during a quarantine, such as delivering food items and essentials, providing social support, especially for the elderly, keeping in contact with members through phone calls, online streaming, and Zoom meetings, offering informational support to keep community members stay informed about COVID-19, and through maintaining religious classes and online prayer.
It should be clear that the relationship between religion and COVID-19 is a complex one with several responses to and ways of making sense of the virus.
It has been recommended that religion/spirituality should be employed alongside science to combat the virus. Evidence shows that both religion and science are legitimate in this effort and neither should be neglected. Religion helps people to cope in the presence of challenging circumstances, provides hope in times of adversity, and has various other benefits in helping persons overcome illness. Science provides the essential medical assistance and treatment that is necessary.
Religion can also get in the way of efforts to curb the spread of the virus. Many religious leaders, communities, and groups have failed to adhere to regulations and protocols to curb the virus and have thus contributed to its spread. Many of the religious have spiritualized the virus by putting their trust in solely non-empirical forces which comes to the neglect of seeking out medical treatment.
But religions have also played a huge role in fighting the virus. Religious leaders, communities, and organizations look out for their members, disseminate important information to members, and offer assistance in a variety of ways. Religions have also proven adaptable to the circumstances and many have learned how to conduct their operations in ways that do not contribute to the spread of the virus.
1. Wildman, Wesley J., Bulbulia, Joseph., Sosis, Richard., and Schjoedt, Uffe. 2020. “Religion and the COVID-19 pandemic.” Religion, Brain & Behavior 10(2):115-117.
2. RdDad, Youssef. 2021. Prosecutors offer deal to Pastor Tony Spell, who’s accused of bucking coronavirus order. Available.
3. Jaja, Ishmael Festus., Anyanwu, Madubuike Umunna., and Jaja, Chinwe-Juliana Iwu. 2020. “Social distancing: how religion, culture and burial ceremony undermine the effort to curb COVID-19 in South Africa.” Emerging Microbes & Infections 9(1):1077-1079.
4. Tan, Min Min., Musa, Ahmad Farouk., Su, Tin Tin. 2021. “The role of religion in mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic: the Malaysian multi-faith perspectives.” Health Promotion International. Available.
5. Mat, Nor Fazila Che., Edinur, Hisham Atan., Khairul, Mohammad., Razab, Azhar Abdul., and Safuan, Sabreena. 2020. “A single mass gathering resulted in massive transmission of COVID-19 infections in Malaysia with further international spread.” Journal of Travel Medicine 27(3).
6. Beech, Hannah. 2020. ‘None of Us Have a Fear of Corona’: The Faithful at an Outbreak’s Center. Available.
7. Abubakar, Ibrahim., Gautret, Philippe., Brunette, Gary., Blumberg, Lucille., Johnson, David., Poumerol, Gilles., Memish, Ziad., Barbeschi, Maurizio., and Khan, Ali. 2012. “Global perspectives for prevention of infectious diseases associated with mass gatherings.” The Lancet Infectious Diseases 12(1):66-74; Memish, Ziad. et al. 2014. “Hajj: infectious disease surveillance and control.” The Lancet 383(9934):2073-2082; Memish, Ziad. et al. 2019. “Mass gatherings medicine: public health issues arising from mass gathering religious and sporting events.” The Lancet 393(10185):2073-2084.
8. Umubyeyi, Aline., Mpunga, Tharcisse., Karenzi, A., and Nzabahimana, I. 2014. “Food borne outbreak of salmonellosis at a church gathering, Rwanda, 2012.” International Journal of Infectious Diseases 21(1):105-106.
9. reliefweb. 2015. Keeping the Faith: The Role of Faith Leaders in the Ebola Response. Available.
10. Kroesbergen-Kamps, Johanneke. 2019. “Horizontal and Vertical Dimensions in Zambian Sermons about the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Journal of Religion in Africa 49(1):73-99.
11. DeFranza, David., Lindow, Mike., Harrison, Kevin., Mishra, Himanshu., Himanshu Arul. 2020. “Religion and reactance to COVID-19 mitigation guidelines.” American Psychologist.
12. Reuters. 2020. How Sri Petaling tabligh became Southeast Asia’s Covid-19 hotspot. Available.
13. Kim, Hyung-Ju., Hwang, Hyun-Seong., Choi, Yong-Hyuk., Song, Hye-Yeon., Park, Ji-Seong., Yun, Chae-Young., and Ryu, Sukhyun. 2020. “The Delay in Confirming COVID-19 Cases Linked to a Religious Group in Korea.” Journal of Preventive Medicine and Public Health 53(3):164-167.
14. Dzulkifly, Danial. 2020. No Ramadan bazaars nationwide throughout MCO period, announces Putrajaya. Available.
15. BBC. 2020. Coronavirus: Saudi Arabia bars international pilgrims for Hajj. Available.
16. The Strait Times. 2020. Coronavirus: Vatican cancels public participation at Pope’s Easter events. Available.
17. Alagesh, TN. 2020. Tamil New Year marked nationwide amid MCO. Available.
18. Wildman, Wesley J. et al. 2020. Ibid.
19. Kowalczyk, Oliwia., Roszkowski, Krzysztof., Montane, Xavier., Pawliszak, Wojciech., Tylkowski, Bartosz., and Bajek, Anna. 2020. “Religion and Faith Perception in a Pandemic of COVID-19.” Journal of Religion and Health 59(6):671-2677.
20. Puchalski, Christina., Ferrell, Betty., Virani, Rose., Otis-Green, Shirley., Baird, Pamela., Bull, Janet., Chochinov, Harvey., Handzo, George., Nelson-Becker, Holly., Prince-Paul, Maryjo., Pugliese, Karen., and Sulmasy, Daniel. 2009. “Improving the quality of spiritual care as a dimension of palliative care: The report of the consensus conference.” Journal of Palliative Medicine 12(10):885-904; Phelps, Andrea., Maciejewski, Paul., Nilsson, Matthew., Balboni, Tracy., Wright, Alexi., Paulk, M. Elizabeth., Trice, Elizabeth., Schrag, Deborah., Peteet, John., Block, Susan., and Prigerson, Holly. 2009. “Religious coping and use of intensive life-prolonging care near death in patients with advanced cancer.” JAMA 301(11):1140-1147; Albers, Gwenda., Echteld, Michael., de Vet, Henrica C. W., Onwuteaka-Philipsen, Bregje., van der Linden, Mecheline H. M., and Deliens, Luc. 2010. “Content and spiritual items of quality of life instruments appropriate for use in palliative care: A review.” Journal of Pain and Symptom Management 40(2):290-300.
21. Best, Megan., Butow, Phyllis., and Olver, Ian. 2015. “Do patients want doctors to talk about spirituality? A systemic literature review.” Patient Education and Counselling 98(11):1320-1328.
22. Kowalczyk, Oliwia., et al. Ibid.
23. Lucchetti. Giancarlo., Lamas Granero Lucchetti, Alessandra., and Puchalski, Christina. 2011. “Spirituality in Medical Education: Global Reality?” Journal of Religion and Health 51(1):3-19.
24. Neely, David., and Minford, Eunice. 2008. “Current status of teaching on spirituality in UK medical schools.” Medical Education 42(2):176-82.
25. Kroesbergen-Kamps, Johanneke. 2019. Ibid.