A Hindu priest makes an offering to an idol of Bhagwan Sai Baba inside Sai Baba Temple decorated with medicines, face masks and other items commonly used to prevent Covid-19 during Guru Purnima celebrations in Bangalore, India, on July 24. (Photo: AFP)
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the relationship between religion and Covid-19 has been a tormented one.
During the first few months of the pandemic, various media reported that religious places were not enforcing social distancing and, therefore, were responsible for the spread of the virus. Others claimed that naive beliefs cultivated by religious leaders were interfering with health policies. Whether in Korea, India or the USA, religion was easily portrayed as a brake against containment strategies. For these observers, sanitizing states were our only saviors.
Months later, the role played by religion during the pandemic appears more nuanced. In a time of isolation and distress, a vast number of people have turned toward religious practices and networks. Their motivations might greatly vary, but they illustrate the relevance of religion during a pandemic.
Furthermore, religious people have shown their creative flexibility to respond to the challenges raised by the pandemic. While strict quarantine policies have isolated many to the point of putting some in danger, religious groups have found ways to remain connected. Their trust in a higher power helped them to overcome their fears and to care for the poor and sick. Overall, their moral values have played a positive role in mobilizing various forces against the pandemic.
The variety of these religious responses has been documented by the blog CoronAsur of the National University of Singapore. Scholars have published dozens of reports and analyses showing the rich, nuanced and moving relations between religion and Covid-19. The pandemic has had a wide range of effects on religious groups and traditions. But if it has disrupted many religious gatherings and rituals, it has also shed new light on what religion offers.
Relations between Covid-19 and religion are as diverse as they are numerous. Religion is not a distinct sphere of our broader response to Covid-19. Religious traditions transcend the ways we perceive, discuss and respond to the pandemic. For better or worse, they are constantly mobilized to navigate the difficulties that the pandemic exacerbates.
President Joe Biden is recycling an old American belief, creationism, to mobilize hate against China
Yet, after a year and a half of medical emergencies, economic and social tensions are swelling dangerously. New variants appear and international tensions are at their highest level. In this global context, religion is at risk of being used as a political weapon.
For example, in the war that the US is leading against China, President Joe Biden is recycling an old American belief, creationism, to mobilize hate against China. American authorities recently called for an investigation into the Chinese origin of the virus. Surely, scientific investigation is required — and science should be neutral and accurate.
But to what extent is knowing the origin of the virus the most urgent and effective way to tackle its deadly impacts? What about all the social and political reasons explaining its spread? And while the US is talking about third doses of vaccines, what about securing access for first doses to poorer countries?
Holding a degree in microbiology, I do understand the urgent need to elucidate the way the virus evolves and circulates. In particular, we need to understand the emergence of new variants. Yet I am suspicious when politicians take the lead in some kind of creationist crusade with anti-Chinese characteristics. Surely, creationism is reassuring. It looks like science and simplifies everything. Everything is forced into a single lane of causality. And in the context of a pandemic coupled with global competition, it can satisfy angry crowds and serve political interests.
But does anything have a unique origin? What about the many lateral responsibilities which co-shape it? Creationism is not only simplistic. It is dangerous.
As we have learned in Asia, Europe and North America, anything our political leaders say about Covid-19 is not about the virus only. It also seeks to win leadership and power. Reducing suffering is rarely the absolute priority. The virus is often an excuse to reassert domination.
A recent study shows that American Christians and other believers are not fooled. They almost universally reject conspiracy theories that Covid-19 is a hoax or a bioweapon developed by China.
In the midst of so much darkness and uncertainty, we lack light and hope
Again, distorting religion to claim scientific neutrality while continuing the political fight is not up to the challenges raised by the pandemic. The common good should be the priority. I wish that President Biden and other world leaders would go back to what Pope Francis has repeatedly said.
“The coronavirus has provoked much death and suffering, affecting the lives of many, especially the most vulnerable. I beg you not to forget the most vulnerable. In the midst of so much darkness and uncertainty, we lack light and hope. [We need] a spirit of justice that mobilizes us to ensure true universal access to the vaccine, and a temporary suspension of intellectual property rights,” the pope said on May 2.
Michel Chambon is a French Catholic theologian and anthropologist. Twitter: @MichelChambon. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.