Covid-19: Life in limbo for NZ religions

While Kiwis slowly regain a sense of normality, some religious leaders are frustrated about the restrictions on their services. Sam Sachdeva reports on their concerns, and what the overseas evidence suggests.

As New Zealand has descended down the Covid-19 alert system, the trappings of a more normal life - or at least, a less unusual one - have begun to return.

At Level 3 there were takeaways; at Level 2, we regained the ability to visit hospitality venues, retail stores and other public facilities, with a maximum of 100 people in any facility.

But Kiwis of faith have been less able to get back to normal.

Religious services are counted among the types of social gatherings with a lower limit of no more than 10 people - a limit that has disappointed some religious leaders.

Bishop Patrick Dunn, the president of the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference, says parishes developed new skills during the “sufficiently novel” period of lockdown, with live streaming of liturgies and messages via Zoom and other platforms to their parishioners.

“We all understood the reasons and we knew that the Government was trying to keep us safe, and we were all trying to support the move to avoid the spread of this pretty deadly virus.”

But he is less understanding of the decision to keep numbers restricted to 10 or fewer at Level 2, even after a meeting between the leaders of faith-based institutions and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

“I do appreciate her thinking: she made the point that New Zealand is still at quite a vulnerable stage in seeing whether or not we have been able to get on top of the coronavirus.

“But I think I would challenge her presumption that ... people at religious gatherings, whether it’s mosques or temples or churches, would automatically be breaking that safe distance rule.” 

“When you have alcohol, you may not be sober, whereas when you're in the mosque ... or in a religious gathering, you are sober, so you're less likely to break the rules than in a situation like a pub or a restaurant.”

New Zealand Muslim Association president Ikhlaq Kashkari says the continued restrictions have been particularly painful for followers of Islam, with the holy month of Ramadan beginning on April 23 and ending this weekend.

“Normally ... you would have fast breaking, family get-togethers, the special prayers we have every evening, so mosques are the busiest they are in the month of Ramadan, basically.”

As with Dunn, Kashkari says New Zealand’s Muslim community was fully accepting of the lockdown, noting that “human life takes priority over us being able to pray in the mosque”.

But with Eid al-Fitr - the religious holiday that marks the end of fasting during Ramadan - taking place this weekend, Kashkari is disappointed Muslims will not be able to celebrate as normal, even as pubs and bars are allowed to reopen.

“When you have alcohol, you may not be sober, whereas when you're in the mosque ... or in a religious gathering, you are sober, so you're less likely to break the rules than in a situation like a pub or a restaurant.”

The association developed stringent hygiene and sanitation protocols for anyone entering a mosque at Level 2, with police apparently so impressed they viewed the document as a potential template for other religious organisations to follow.

The experience overseas

Religious gatherings are believed to have amplified the spread of the virus in some overseas cases.

According to the New York Times, Covid-19 spread up to eight times faster in Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities than the rest of the country, while in India a Sikh religious leader identified as a ‘super spreader’ led to at least 15,000 people going into quarantine.

In early March, the members of a religious sect in South Korea made up about 60 percent of the country’s 4000 confirmed cases, while a February gathering at a French evangelical church is believed to have spread the virus across continents.

There have also been some suggestions that singing - a common part of some religious services - could disperse an infected person’s viral particles farther than normal talking.

However, as The Guardian reports, the evidence is mixed at best, with several experts cautioning against drawing any definitive conclusions.

The major risk lies in social gatherings in general, rather than events of a religious nature specifically, as outbreaks linked to South Korean nightclubs and a German carnival have shown.

Asked about the seemingly different approaches to religious institutions and hospitality venues this week, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said there was likely to be more “mixing and mingling” between groups at a religious event than a restaurant, which led to an elevated risk of transmission.

“Just the cumulative risk was too high and one way we could manage that would be to start with a small number, not discriminating, but for all public and private [events] and then to increase that over subsequent weeks.”

Bloomfield said the 50-person exemption granted for funerals and tangihanga was a reflection of the special circumstances around such a time-sensitive and unique event.

'We need food for the soul'

Ardern herself has expressed sympathy for the position of various religions in New Zealand, while standing by the Government’s position.

"All of us also, I would hope, want to be in a position where religious services are able to take place again safely as soon as possible - I believe that should be our joint mission.”

Dunn and Kashkari agree that New Zealand’s gains should not be put at risk; their question is whether allowing religious services to resume, with suitable physical distancing and other public health measures, would actually do so.

“All we're saying is, if there is any weakness in our processes then let us know and we can fix them, but we would really like to see it [the maximum gathering size] applied uniformly across,” Kashkari says.

“Along with food for the body, we also need from our perspective food for the soul, which unfortunately a lot of people are being deprived of at the moment.”

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