Petition by Kenyan pastors to lift ban on church gatherings is imbecilic – COVID19

As of April 27th, 2020, more than 2.5 million people worldwide had tested positive for COVID-19, with over 210,000 confirmed deaths. Those numbers are continuing to grow at an alarming rate, with over 70,000 new cases and 5,000 new deaths per day.

Fortunately, we no longer live in an era where we have to rely on assumptions or superstitions to understand what’s occurring. We know what the novel coronavirus COVID-19 is. We know how it spreads through the human population. We know how to fight it, how to treat it, and how to minimize the death rate from it. This is not only time to listen to what science tells us about it, but to understand the ways a scientific world has enabled the best of humanity’s response to it.

The only way that we can flatten the Corona Virus infection curve is through basing our decision on science. Science relies on testing ideas with evidence gathered from the natural world. Various governments are already implementing measures in line with the science on COVID19. The government of Kenya, for instance, has banned church services and mosque prayers in additional measures to combat the spread of coronavirus. Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe banned public gatherings including church services, weddings and funerals. Through the National Emergency Response Committee (NERC), the government suspended of all church, mosques, and other religious gatherings.

Health CS, Mutahi Kagwe during a press briefing

Despite this, three petitioners have moved to court arguing that as the pandemic continues to affect more Kenyans, the urge to fellowship and seek God for comfort only increases. They argue that the church not only provides comfort, salvation and repentance but also peace of mind to the dying and the sick.

They further argue that the church is a source of refuge for the poor for those who the government initiatives do not reach.

The Science behind physical distancing

At this stage of the pandemic with cases jumping daily, physical distancing within the community assumes critical importance; hence the new, scaled-up restrictions with a tightening up on that key measure.

Physical distancing is required as Covid-19 spreads mainly from person-to-person, i.e, between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 2 metres).

Physical distancing is not a notional precaution, it’s a scientifically-justified action based on mathematics, understanding of social patterns and medical knowledge (epidemiology). It hinges around determining the r0 (pronounced ‘r-nought’) value of an infectious diseases.

Understanding the r0

The r0 for Covid-19 is estimated at 2.5. So a typical person who is infected will spread it to 2.5 – between two and three people – during the period they’re infectious. Without controls, a single case would lead to 1,000 cases after four weeks. The objective is to get that figure down to below one. At that point the disease stops spreading; the typical person who is infected isn’t passing on the virus to anyone else before they recover.

A complex factoring in to how long the virus remains infectious; cultural considerations (extent to which people have physical contact), transmission data and immunity/ susceptibility considerations are all part of the r0 computation.

Why physical distancing?

Physical distancing gives less opportunity to spread the virus to other people, by seeing less of them, and by reducing the chance during an interaction that the disease will pass to you – or from you to another person. These are critical community actions. That’s what forces the r0 down in this instance. So it’s back to the five-step strategy including physical distancing.

The government has been implementing contact tracing to determine who an infected person has been in contact with – when they were likely to be infectious – and ensuring all self isolate.

Test to reason

Surgical Mask worn during pandemic

Many religious people see the pandemic as a spiritual test. This pandemic is not a test of anyone’s faith, as many believers typically think. It is a test of their reason—whether they act rationally or irrationally, whether they help save lives or put them at grave risk.

At the heart of this test is a conflict between the rational requirements of health and the traditional requirements of religion. Rational health-conscious behavior, as advised by virtually all medical experts, requires social distancing—namely, that people stay away from each other, preferably at home. Most religious traditions, however, require social gathering—especially bringing the faithful to churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples.

So, which of these principles should come first?

The right answer should not be too difficult to find, as many religious leaders and communities have done since the emergence of the pandemic in late February. The Catholic Church, for example, responded to the deadly outbreak in Italy in early March by suspending all communal church services, “in coordination with the measures launched by the Italian authorities.” Soon after, Pope Francis prayed to a stunningly empty St. Peter’s Square, which is typically filled by huge crowds. He also called on the governments of the world to put “people first” and to take all the measures against a “viral genocide.”

Similarly, Saudi authorities, whose responses to disasters have at times been irrationally fatalistic, took the right step in early March by closing the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina, which are always swarmed by worshippers. Seeing the stunning photos of the empty Kaaba convinced many Muslims around the world that something really unprecedented was going on. In many Muslim-majority nations, one after another, communal prayers were called off. Even the call to prayer issued from mosque loudspeakers, which includes the line, “come to prayer, come to salvation,” was reworded in Kuwait to say, “pray in your homes.”

In Orthodox Jewish circles, many rabbis also did the right thing by calling off synagogue services and reminding their communities, the “Torah obligation to protect the sanctity of life transcends all other considerations,” as Britain’s chief rabbi reminded the country’s Jews. Many Hindu temples were closed down in India. In Thailand, one of the worst-hit countries in Southeast Asia, some Buddhist monks began producing face masks from recycled plastic.

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