Not too long ago, someone was in extreme pain and couldn’t sleep a wink any time of day. Many hospital visits and countless Paracetamols later, she decided she would try spiritual healing at the Zion Christian Church in her home village. To her disappointment, she learnt that all branches in Botswana have been closed since Covid-19 struck.
It is interesting to observe that one person, Bishop Barnabas Lekganyane, has been able to see what members of the various parliaments of SADC countries where ZCC has physical presence can’t see: that it takes just two people to spread the virus. The latter means that statutory limits set at 50 people are themselves helping spread the virus. In the particular case of Botswana, the Emergency Powers (COVID-19) (Amendment) (No.4) Regulations 2020, caps the number of congregants at a worship service at 50.
Medical science says that the COVID-19 virus particles can float around in the air for up to four hours. Talking or singling in a loud voice (as happens in the church courtesy of the pastor and choir respectively) heighten the risk of spreading COVID-19. This is the risk that Lekganyane, who is based in Moria, South Africa, wanted to eliminate. Resultantly, he decreed that all ZCC churches in the SADC region should indefinitely suspend their services. With almost four million members, ZCC is the largest church in South Africa and one of Africa’s largest churches. During normal times, Moria hosts the largest number of pilgrims in Southern Africa during the Easter holidays. Botswana churches remain closed, meaning that potential super-spreader hotspots have been deactivated.
While experts have long warned that events involving crowds (like concerts, sporting events and gatherings for religious services) carry high risk for spread of the virus, there has been vigorous lobbying by clergy and MPs to allow church services, albeit on a limited scale. When the first special Covid-19 session of parliament met at Boipuso Hall (the chamber at the National Assembly can’t facilitate extreme social distancing health measures), speaker after speaker called on the government to relax travel and gathering restrictions with regard to churches. Serowe North MP, Baratiwa Mathoothe, said that rather than implement the 10-congregants-per-church requirement, churches should be individually assessed for how many members they can accommodate while complying with the COVID-19 regulations. He pointed out that some churches are spacious enough to accommodate as many as 400 congregants. Mahalapye East MP, Yandani Boko, proposed that church pastors be added to the list of essential-services cadre in order that they can “offer spiritual counselling at a time like this.” During a bilingual presentation, Tonota MP, Pono Moatlhodi, philosophised about the importance of religion in people’s lives.
However, an incident at a church in Frankfurt, Germany shows that churches are high-risk environments for spread of the virus. A single church service led to at least 107 reported cases of coronavirus even as the church worked to promote all the necessary public health guidelines like social distancing and hygiene. If nothing else, the Frankfurt incident amply demonstrates that even when there is strict compliance with health protocols, the risk of infection still looms large. The Botswana situation is dire because some churches willfully break the law. The spacious churches that Mathoothe referred to are mostly found in high-rent commercial space. These churches are sustained by tithes and plate collections from congregants – which motivates pastors to fill up churches and make more money.
It would be in the interest of pastors to protect congregants from COVID-19 but in the particular case of prosperity gospel churches, they stand to lose money. That explains why hunger for the word – and cash, have conspired to create an illicit commercial religion market that has potential to worsen the spread of COVID-19.
In terms of COVID-19 law, places of religious worship are allowed to conduct services twice a week, with a maximum of 50 people allowed to attend each service. However, some (mostly prosperity gospel) churches are circumventing this legal requirement by going holding end-to-end services for different congregant groups (three in some instances) that can go up to six hours. The law prescribes two-hour services but these pastors rotate groups in and out, allocating two hours to each, to give the appearance of a single worship service. This happens mostly on Sundays – which is traditionally dedicated to worship – and when most congregants would be available for worship service. There are also after-work mid-week services but these are typically attended by far fewer congregants on account of crowded workweek schedules.
More worrisome though is that the worship space is not fumigated between these end-to-end services. This is risky because medical science says that the COVID-19 virus particles can float around in the air for up to four hours. Talking or singling in a loud voice (as happens in the church courtesy of the pastor and choir respectively) heighten the risk of spreading COVID-19.
Prosperity gospel churches have always been a national security threat because they place the financial interest of their owners before the welfare of congregants. In that regard, it is hardly surprising that they have found devious ways to circumvent the law. However, many if not most mainstream churches are as compromised. Minus banning congregants – especially the elderly who are most susceptible to COVID-19, these churches should actively discourage them from attending worship services. The Frankfurt incident shows why. In the last interview that he did with Sunday Standard, former president Sir Ketumile Masire, said that the leaders should intervene when people can’t make the right decisions for themselves. This is one such time and Lekganyane is doing what Masire said leaders should do. Some elderly people, some of whom have mentally declined, can’t fathom the idea of missing church when their legs or a car can carry them to it. They know COVID-19 kills but think it is more important to go to church and praise God. They don’t factor into such calculus the need to protect life that God gave as itself elevation of God.
Genesis 2:7 makes clear the fact life is a gift from God: “Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” Willfully exposing oneself to danger that might take away a gift God gave cannot glorify that same God. Church worship service itself during pandemics is something that Isaiah 26:20 counsels against in very precise language: “Go my people, enter your rooms and shut the doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until His wrath has passed by.” That is what Ministry of Health and Wellness calls “social distancing.”