Wrong priorities: On keeping religious places open during a pandemic

By opening up religious places for worship now, India risks high community transmission

Updated - June 10, 2020 10:17 am IST

Published - June 10, 2020 12:02 am IST

Some things are better kept for later during a pandemic. And, public worship is certainly one of them. When epidemiologists were recently polled in the U.S. on when they would think of attending religious service, 43% of about 200 respondents said they would consider that in three months to a year, and an equal number said not for one year. Their caution on mass religious gatherings, which do not lend themselves to physical distancing and have a history of amplifying the COVID-19 pandemic in more than one country, should sober down governments that are keen to open religious places early in the unlock phase. Even with online registration, e-passes, distance marking and use of personal protective equipment by staff, gatherings in confined spaces go against the grain of infection prevention principles. It is heartening that some temple boards, churches and Islamic religious bodies have wisely decided to remain closed. As among the top five virus-affected nations , India cannot afford to create conditions that lead to mass transmission. The priority today is to refloat a crippled economy safely, while postponing all optional activities to a time when there is better disease control, and prevention and treatment courses are available. The compulsion to unlock when infections have not peaked has already placed the onus of remaining safe on people, a significant section of whom have health vulnerabilities such as diabetes. Going by ICMR-linked studies, the disease burden for diabetes alone has grown 80% since 1990, highlighting the enormous risk of virus exposure. Millions of such citizens now face aggravated community transmission.

After pursuing a lockdown strategy that had low impact on the infection curve, but many negative outcomes, India needs to draw up its unlock priorities carefully. It must show the political will to enforce norms on public behaviour such as mask wearing and physical distancing. Yet, the scenes from many cities coming out of lockdown, including hard-hit ones such as Mumbai, show anxious crowding in many situations, including on public transport. Night curfews are weakly enforced. This is worrying, considering the limited medical capacity that exists to care for a large number who might suffer the worst effects of COVID-19. Getting unlocking wrong could mean an explosion of cases, which, WHO has warned, remains a possibility in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. National policy should not put the cart before the horse, by prioritising activities such as worship at public places. All available resources must be devoted towards productive and essential work. The Centre has to also explain what it is doing to assess the prevalence of infection at the community-level at a suitable scale, which is crucial to identify focus areas and decide the course of further unlock phases.


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