One of the most peculiar characteristics of the coronavirus pandemic and its effect on all of us is the massive campaign of social distancing that has led to the closures of churches or “skeleton crew” Christian religious services currently being practiced all across the world. At first when churches began closing in Washington State, they were mainline Protestant congregations and their closure drew a lot of fierce criticism from other people, often from other confessions of Christianity, with the general message that this group was “liberal”, “weak”, “not placing Christ first” and so on.
But then it started taking place in Roman Catholic Churches. Well, there is Francis for ya. That guy is a weird bird for the Romans and he is a socialist liberal. He is willing to overturn Church doctrine on gays too, so here is more proof that this man is an antiChristian in disguise.
But then it began happening in Orthodox communities across America. Even some people who are not Orthodox but who know Orthodox Christians, know that this ancient church is extremely traditional, and not likely to bend for anything. Yet a few weeks ago, synods of the Orthodox Church in America, the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America and the Ecumenical Patriarchate Greek Orthodox Church in the US all announced closures or “skeleton crew” services, which still had a priest serving with a minimum support team and no parishioners. Since all these jurisdictions were pretty strongly American, many of us thought the ethnic churches, especially Russia, would not fold. So, we watched. And, we were disappointed. The Moscow Patriarchate and its sister Church, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia went to skeleton crews. The Georgian patriarch fiercely proclaimed in Georgia that they would not close because of the virus. But now the Georgian parishes in the US are indeed closed.
Finally, this week, the Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill I, preached in a sermon asking for his flock to not go to the churches for this week, until April 5th. Now, with the coronavirus hitting Russia harder and harder each day, the civil authorities extended the one week “paid holiday” all the way to April 30th. The Church authorities in Russia have not spoken clearly yet about what is to come (Pascha, a.k.a. “Easter” in the West, falls in Russia and the Orthodox world on April 19th this year). But Patriarch Kirill did say this in an address to the people:
In this difficult time, in the conditions when the government authorities are taking all possible measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus infection, I urge bishops, clergy, religious and lay people to strengthen their prayers to the Lord to protect people from harmful harassment, and archpastors and pastors to continue to zealously worship and especially the Divine Eucharist – the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, even in the absence of the flock due to the relevant recommendations of the authorities. Truly – “nothing should be preferred to the work of God” (Statute of the Monk Benedict of Nursia, chapter 43).
Today, many of us are forced to assume the feat of being in our homes. To such I say: let the place of your solitude become for you a desert of personal and family prayer work, according to the gospel word: But when you pray, enter your room and, having closed your door, pray to your Father, who is secret; and your Father, who sees the secret, will reward you clearly (Matthew 6: 6). May the image of St. Mary of Egypt, who spent many years in solitary prayer in the desert, inspire us with this feat.
These days, we lose the opportunity to be together at our beloved Lenten services. But we know that even the gates of hell cannot prevail over the Church of Christ (cf. Matt. 16:18)…
All over the world, it seems, Church worship has been radically reduced, and this at a time when it would logically seem that we ought to be praying much more, and together. Now some countries, like Greece are actually arresting people for going to Church.
So, what is going on here? Why is it this way?
We need to answer a few questions to start:
- Is this happening only to Christians, or to adherents of all religious groups?
- Is there any clear reason this is being done beyond the general “to keep everybody safe”?
- Why is it that Christians are obeying the secular authorities’ directives to close or restrict services?
Knowing these may redefine the cloud of other questions we hear lately, but for now we must start with these as basic and hopefully strictly rational guideposts.
1. Is this happening only to Christians, or to adherents of all religious groups?
The short answer is that it is indeed happening to all religious groups. Wikipedia actually seems to be the best source for seeing this, so we have linked to their page on this subject here. But to give some idea: Yes, everyone is affected.
Saudi Arabia closed Mecca’s Great Mosque and banned touching the Kaaba. Touching the Black Stone is the ultimate feat for every Muslim, and now this cannot be done.
Friday congregational prayers have largely been canceled worldwide, though on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem prayers continue at this time.
Purim celebrations were canceled in many places. The Western Wall did see a gathering of thousands of Jewish people to pray for the end of the pandemic, led by Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu.
Although some religious observances were in force in the beginning of March, by the 18th, shutdowns began. After the Hindu festival of Holi was cautiously celebrated, India began locking down society there as elsewhere, and now all festivals are to be celebrated at home due to the strict lockdown in India and elsewhere.
This remaining of the world’s “big four” religious groups has also taken on shutdowns. Notably the Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism suspended its program that allows visitors to experience monastic life in a great many temples.
So, it isn’t just Christianity, folks. The virus is wreaking havoc in other religious communities as well.
2. Is there any clear reason this is being done beyond the general “to keep everybody safe”?
To understand that, we have to ask a different question: Why is COVID spreading so rapidly? For this we take excerpts from a piece which appears in full in Medical News Today:
One of the main questions on scientists’ and public health advisors’ minds at this time is: Why is the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, spreading so quickly in countries around the globe?
And why is this happening despite the ever-increasing volume of travel bans and restrictions?
More and more researchers are getting behind the hypothesis that this is likely due to the movement of people who are unaware of the fact that they have contracted the virus — either because they had mild symptoms or because they had no symptoms at all.
In a new preliminary study, Prof. Chaolong Wang and colleagues — from Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, China — argue that during the aggressive outbreak in their city, over 50% of cases were non-confirmed, and that these may have included people with no or limited symptoms who had the potential to remain socially active.
The study has not yet appeared in a peer reviewed journal, but it is currently available online.
In the new study, the researchers developed a method capable of predicting virus transmission patterns. It took into account population movement, non-confirmed cases, and those in quarantine.
The estimates also took into account 25,961 confirmed COVID-19 cases that Chinese officials had recorded through February 18, 2020 in the Hubei province.
However, the researchers calculate that the real number of COVID-19 cases by that date was actually closer to 36,798.
This could explain the virus’s aggressive spread in the region. Many people, the researchers suggest, must have contracted the virus but remained unaware of it. They therefore continued to maintain social contact.
“By our most conservative estimate, at least 59% of the infected individuals were out and about, without being tested and potentially infecting others,” says lead study author Prof. Wu Tangchun.
“This may explain why the virus spread so quickly in Hubei and is now circulating around the world,” he adds.
The researchers also suggest that upward of 90% of infections were prevented in the time period after officials brought in social distancing interventions.
Other studies seem to point in a similar direction. For example, a statistical modeling analysis that appeared in the journal Eurosurveillance indicates that a significant number of people who contracted the virus aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship remained asymptomatic.
In February, several passengers aboard the cruise ship tested positive for COVID-19, which led to an outbreak of coronavirus infections on the vessel.
Almost immediately, the relevant authorities declared that the ship would be entering a state of quarantine for 14 days.
The authors of the Eurosurveillance analysis suggest that the high proportion of COVID-19 cases on the cruise ship may have had something to do with what they estimate was a significant number of asymptomatic cases. In fact, they say that as many as 17.9% of the cases may have produced no symptoms.
Although it remains unclear to what extent people with no or very mild symptoms really contribute to the spread of the virus, emerging evidence suggests that they are at least able to pass it on.
We break in for a moment to note that this newspiece appears to be dated March 24th. A lot of new information has been made available, most notably that the virus is very contagious.
One preliminary study from Germany suggests that people had high viral loads in swabs taken from their noses and throats during their first week of symptoms after contracting the virus.
This means that although they may initially experience few to no symptoms, people who have contracted SARS-CoV-2 may still be able to pass it on without realizing.
Another study, this time in the journal JAMA, showed that one person who had no symptoms of infection actually passed the virus on to five other people.
For these reasons, researchers maintain that social distancing is the most effective measure of containing the spread of the new coronavirus: Every person who limits their social contact can become a broken link in the chain of contagion.
This then, is the logical strategy. It still does not have assured success, because we do not really know everything about the communicability of the virus. Just consider how much the narrative has changed since December and January until now. We went from “not communicable human to human” for weeks to “highly contagious”, as an example. We now hear that the virus can go 27 feet. This measurement is difficult to accept considering that the Brownian motion of even very calm air has molecules moving at something like 1500 feet per second. A windy day logically ought to be able to propel a virus far beyond nine meters. There isn’t enough solid data on this.
However, there is logic behind the notion of “if you keep everyone at some distance from one another AND keep them in controlled environments (like the air space inside a home), then many of the usual components that make something communicable are removed, and it might actually slow down the spread of the virus.”
This may be starting to work. Italy’s growth curve is showing signs of flattening over the last six or seven days.
Austria is also experiencing a flattening trend, but South Korea has slow growth that is linear, and not exponential:
However, most other nations are showing exponential or near-exponential growth in cases. The US and Russia have curves that are identical; but the US simply has more cases than the Russian Federation does.
The United States has the highest number of reported confirmed cases in of any nation in the world at this time.
What is not clear from these charts is how much of the trend reflects the actual spread of the disease and how much reflects the increased penetration of testing for the virus. Later reports will attempt to evaluate this mix to see how better to understand these charts.
All of this leads us to a likely answer to the third of our questions:
3. Why is it that Christians are obeying the secular authorities’ directives to close or restrict services?
This is the most peculiar question, and the one that has all sorts of hysteria raging around it. Historically, Christians have been known to be on the front lines, doing services as normal despite any plague. Christians set the standard for caring for the sick, regardless of the faith of the sick person, and many Christian believers cared for plague victims, even if they wound up with the plague themselves (and many did, and many succumbed to it).
Foreign Policy (FP) has an excellent piece on this history, and the author makes a very clear case that what is going on now is wrong, in that closing churches and restricting attendance at services for the sake of some disease is absolutely counter to Christian tradition. The writer, Lyman Stone, compellingly states:
For Christians, it is better that we should die serving our neighbor than surrounded in a pile of masks we never got a chance to use.
And if we care for each other, if we share masks and hand soap and canned foods, if we “are our brother’s keeper,” we might actually reduce the death toll, too.
So, again, the question is “Why this? Why now?” And then come all the conspiracy theories and intrigue, everything from “a Jewish plot to make a sacrifice on the Temple Mount” to “this is when the Illuminati move to seize control over all of us” to “These Christians have lost their faith in God.”
This obviously begs further investigation, and in Part II, we will try to accomplish this to some useful effect.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.