In times of crisis, many people turn to their religious and political leaders for guidance and support. Many such leaders are doing extraordinary things to address the coronavirus pandemic including shopping and delivering medicine for the elderly and sick, and educating people on how to protect themselves from Covid-19.
At a meeting with President Cyril Ramaphosa in Pretoria on Thursday, the Zion Christian Church confirmed that it has cancelled its Moria pilgrimage, the Methodist Church has cancelled Easter services and the Muslim Judicial Council has called off Friday prayers.
While thanking them, Ramaphosa stressed that not even funerals were exempt from the restrictions on gatherings of over 100 people.
“We call upon you to engage with bereaved families in the preparatory stages to impress upon them to confine the burial congregation to only close family wherever possible,” said the president.
However, a few irresponsible outliers with large followers are posing as “saviours” who can protect their followers from infection, encouraging unsafe activities and risking lives.
In the US, a number of evangelical pastors with massive congregations have refused to close their churches despite warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that large gatherings enable the spread of the virus. Some are giving their followers a false sense of security by offering them supernatural “protection” against the coronavirus although there is no medicine or vaccine for it.
Unfortunately, they’re not alone. In Uganda, the Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga has touted a spray as a “cure” for coronavirus. In South Africa, Ekurhuleni mayor Mzwandile Masina says he will buy a Covid-19 vaccine from Cuba, and the influential Georgian Orthodox Church has told its followers that prayers and holy water will protect them from infection.
Some of the worst offenders in the US are vocal Trump supporters with close ties to his administration.
Trump’s spiritual adviser, Paula White-Cain, was billed as a headline speaker at an Arizona Passover conference that claimed that attendees would get “supernatural protection” from coronavirus. There was an attendance fee of $40.
The conference, organized by David Herzog Ministries, was put on hold on 15 March. But White-Cain has since appealed for money to support her ministry during this trying time via her Facebook page, evoking Psalm 91, which says that God will protect believers against plague and pestilence.
“Maybe you’d like to sow a $91 seed, and that’s just putting your faith with Psalm 91. Or maybe $9. Or whatever God tells you to do,” she said.
Herzog is part of Trump’s evangelical support group and was one of a small group of pastors invited to lead prayers at his inaugural prayer breakfast in January 2017.
Miami pastor Guillermo Maldonado urged his followers to attend church services despite US health warnings against meetings of more than 10 people. Maldonado, whose church pulls crowds of up to 20,000 a week, described the fear of coronavirus as a “demonic spirit”.
Maldonado is one of Trump’s most influential Hispanic supporters. In January, his King Jesus International Ministry hosted the US president at the launch of Evangelicals for Trump to support Trump’s re-election campaign.
Florida pastor Rodney Howard-Browne also encouraged his congregants to attend church and shake hands during last Sunday’s sermon, saying that “this church will never close. We are raising up revivalists not pansies.”
Howard-Browne, a former South African, was part of a small group of evangelical pastors invited by White to pray over Trump in the White House in July 2017.
Kenneth Copeland, the wealthiest televangelist in the US, who has also been hosted at the White House, claimed to have a “cure” for the coronavirus which he could transfer to followers.
A few days back, Copeland dipped his hand into an ointment then held it up to the television screen and told followers to put their hands on the screen and be freed of the virus.
Copeland also resorted to Facebook this week, declaring: “No sickness. No disease. NO VIRUS. No curse. Says Who? Isaiah 54:17! Whatever the weapon, you’re already protected! Believe it. Receive it. Speak it in Jesus’ Name!”
In South Korea, one of the most infamous sites of the early spread of the coronavirus was the Grace River Church in Seongnam, which initially refused to close. It finally shut its doors after 46 of its 135 congregants tested positive for the virus, which had spread when church officials inserted the same spray bottle into the mouths of worshippers to “disinfect” them.
This week, Ugandan Speaker Kadaga posted a video clip on her Twitter feed of President Yoweri Museveni hosting Sarfaraz Niazi, a US “inventor” and Matthias Magoola, a biochemist from Kadaga’s home district. She claimed that they had invented a spray that could cure the coronavirus and “all viruses”.
After being accused by the Uganda Medical Association of indulging a “quack scientist”, Kadaga initially defended Niazi but later informed parliament that the spray was an “anti-corona sanitiser”. Niazi also claims to have invented ventilation for a brimmed hat, illustrated as a hat with holes in its brim.
This week, Masina told the Ekurhuleni Council that he would use emergency municipal funds to procure a vaccine from Cuba, although no such vaccine exists.
Meanwhile, on 17 March in the heart of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, Orthodox priests sprinkled holy water on the streets from the back of pick-up trucks while saying prayers, claiming that this would offer protection against Covid-19.
So far, 38 Georgians have tested positive for the virus, more than 1,000 are quarantined and 81 are under hospital supervision. The government took swift action after the first person was diagnosed at the end of February, closing kindergartens, schools, and universities and restricting travel.
But the Georgian Orthodox Church, the most powerful institution after the government, has underplayed the pandemic.
Immediately after the first case was confirmed, the church’s leader, Patriarch Ilia II, told his congregation not to worry. The night before, he had had a vision: a young boy had come up to him, spat on the ground, mixed his spit with the soil, and drawn with the mud a cross on his forehead. This was a clear sign that the virus could be overcome, according to the patriarch.
In a statement by the church at the beginning of March, leaders argued against church closures – even though services involve congregants hugging, kissing icons and sharing bread and wine using a common spoon, all high-risk activities as the virus is spread via bodily fluids such as saliva and mucus.
Georgian Archpriest Nikoloz Pachuashvili said the wine didn’t pose any danger as it “turns into blood after it is poured into the chalice, is a natural antiseptic. A spoon cleansed in wine becomes free of bacteria. Dipping [the spoon] in wine is the same as dipping in alcohol.”
After the Georgian health ministry strongly advised the church to change its direction, the church allowed people to bring their own cups for wine. But it has not taken any other measures to curb the virus, aside from disinfecting its largest church, Sameba, on 14 March.
Across the world, churches and religious communities are mobilising to save people, delivering meals and medicines to the elderly and sick and educating communities about Covid-19.
The pope and many other high profile religious leaders have switched from large public meetings to addressing their followers online.
But the recklessness of some religious leaders during this pandemic – from the US to Uganda to Georgia – is endangering the very people they claim to be saving at the moment when the world can least afford it. DM
* Kerry Cullinan is openDemocracy’s health editor, Lydia Namubiru is openDemocracy’s Africa editor and Inge Snip is an openDemocracy health investigations fellow.