David Emmanuel Singh

We are ordinarily disposed to look for evidence of the positive role religions play in society. Religion, as Durkheim posited, is a “force” that activates a sense of obligation in the faithful to reach beyond self. This impulse usually results in positive action and behavior. This essay, however, brings together exceptional cases that cut across religions where the ordinary functionalist positivity gives way to negative behavior. Here, irrationality, inwardness, and selfishness trump wisdom and altruism. This essay attempts to offer a glimpse into this reality with the worldwide spread of the novel coronavirus named COVID-19 in view. The evidence highlighted here shows that the faithful suspend reason in behaving with a sense or motive inspired by their faith even when it is clear there might be serious personal and social costs involved.

COVID-19 was first identified in Wuhan, China, and, by the date of the first “situation report” of the World Health Organization (January 21, 2020), it had spread to Japan, South Korea, and Thailand (WHO Situation Report 1).The fourth such report (January 24, 2020) showed the United States as part of the map, with Australia, Malaysia, Nepal, and France (WHO report on January 25), followed by Sri Lanka, Germany, and Canada on January 28. India, the UAE, and Finland were added to this list by the time of the report published on January 30 (Report 10). By February 28, there were 87,000 cases globally, and WHO’s risk assessment showed it to be “very high” (Report 41). By March 30 it was nearly everywhere, and the number affected had risen to about 700,000 (Report 70) and about 1,000,000 by April 3 (Report 74). This was a steep rise, from 282 reported by WHO on January 21, and it was unsurprisingly declared a “pandemic” by March 11. As of April 22, the global cases were approximately 2,400,000, with at least 169,000 deaths. The European region was the most affected, followed closely by the Americas, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Western Pacific region. WHO continues to estimate the risk level to be “very high” (WHO Situation Report 93). The situation is unfolding and will require further updating.

Sadly, many people have died. Italy led the chart (and was soon outstripped by the United States), with a fatality rate of 10%, which is far ahead of the global average of 3.4% (WHO). The median age of those affected was 47.3 years in Italy compared to the U.S.A.’s 38.3 Journal of Ecumenical Studies (University of Pennsylvania Press) years, so age has been a factor. Having an underlying medical condition was given as another reason. The population density in a given area and the number of those affected that has led to the over-burdening of the health system is another factor. In South Korea, where the number of cases tested was much higher (nearly 300,000 by March 18), the death rate was around 1%, whereas in Italy only the severe cases were tested, and testing was not expanded among the community at large, so that milder cases of persons who got well were not found,thus explaining the higher death rates. This situation is, of course, constantly evolving.

It is not yet entirely comparable to other pandemics, such as the bubonic plague that killed 200,000,000 in the fourteenth century or the smallpox that killed about 56,000,000 over a long period until 1980 or the Spanish flu in 1918 that wiped out 50,000,000 in a year. It has, though, the potential to do much more long-term harm than the number of deaths at this writing suggests. This is why it must be a matter of concern for all.

There will soon appear papers on this pandemic from diverse perspectives. My interest is in religions. Religiously inspired people are capable of much that is beautiful and affirmative, and I already have anecdotes of sacrificial service inspired by religious beliefs or experience. As a Christian, I am also interested in understanding if there is any evidence of the contribution of religions to the spread of COVID-19. What follows offers a review and preliminary analysis of some evidence available on the role of religion in the spread of the virus. It does this in two parts: The first identifies religious gatherings as a significant factor, and the second highlights the deeply held views and justifications from across religions and geographical contexts. The hope is to see deeper investigations of this by researchers in the days to come.

Singh, David Emmanuel. “Role of Religions in the Spread of COVID-19.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, vol. 55 no. 2, 2020, p. 289-310. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/ecu.2020.0019.