Staying safe during season of religious and cultural events, amid the COVID-19 outbreak

April 16, 2020 7:00 AM

 

For millions of people across the Western Pacific Region, this season of religious events and cultural festivities will be dramatically different, as governments discourage or ban large gatherings and urge people to stay home to slow or stop the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

This past week, millions of Catholics in the Philippines commemorated Easter at home, when they would normally attend mass, processions and other events. The Government extended community quarantine orders to prevent people from travelling or gathering during Holy Week. Instead, nationwide interfaith prayer services were held online and on television.

Mid-April is also the time for traditional New Year’s celebrations, when Lao mark Pi Mai and Cambodians mark Choul Chnam Thmey with three days of festivities that include family reunions and visits to pagodas. This year, disease control measures—including a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people—were put in place in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic until after the New Year. And in Cambodia, authorities have cancelled public Khmer New Year celebrations. Instead, people are encouraged to observe New Years’ traditions at home.

To prevent disease spread and ensure worshippers practise physical distancing, Malaysian authorities have asked Muslims to conduct daily prayers at home instead of at mosques. And as the month-long observance of Ramadan approaches, most states in Malaysia have cancelled the popular food bazaars where Muslims commonly gather to break their day-long fast.  Brunei Darussalam has also cancelled their bazaars as a precautionary measure.

“We know that many people across the Region look forward to celebrating these events in a communal way, with family and friends, and it must be very difficult not to do so this year,” says Dr Takeshi Kasai, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific. “But this is a time when the best way to care for our families and communities is to stick to physical distancing and other prevention measures.”

WHO has been working with countries and areas in the Region on strategies to mitigate and communicate about the risks of COVID-19 transmission. This includes supporting governments to expand public health measures ahead of the holiday season.

The Organization has issued guidance on mass gatherings, with tools that help countries assess risks and determine if events should be cancelled or modified. Last week, WHO published guidance specifically for religious leaders and faith-based groups in the context of COVID-19. The new guidance aims to help them better protect their communities throughout the pandemic.

“Religious and spiritual leaders are a key source of support, comfort and advice for the communities they serve, and can play a life-saving role in guiding healthy practices and countering dangerous misinformation,” says Dr Kasai. “We applaud the creative efforts by so many faith leaders in recent months to stream sermons, post prayers online, expand religious radio programmes and do everything they can to keep their congregations and communities safe.”

In addition to advice on cleaning and hygiene in places of worship, the WHO guidance includes information on safely holding gatherings where they are permitted, using technology to maintain community and continue worship, performing safe burials, safely paying respects to sacred or devotional objects, and supporting vulnerable community members.

 

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