By Ikechukwu Amaechi
JUSTIFYING his decision to extend the restriction of movement in Lagos and Ogun states as well as the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, for another 14 days, President Muhammadu Buhari on Monday admitted that the coronavirus pandemic is no child’s play. “This is not a joke,” he intoned. But what he said next was even more instructive.
“It is a matter of life and death. Mosques in Mecca and Medina have been closed. The Pope celebrated Mass on an empty St. Peter’s Square. The famous Notre Dame cathedral in Paris held Easter Mass with less than 10 people. India, Italy and France are in complete lockdown. Other countries are in the process of following suit. We cannot be lax,” the president admonished.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what we are; our legendary laxity is beyond comprehension and our slipshod, laidback response to this ravaging pandemic is true to character. When the religiosity of our political elite is thrown into the mix, the result is predictable. That scares me.
If the coronavirus pandemic is real as, indeed, it is, why are Nigerian politicians, particularly governors, playing politics with the issue of social distancing, the only measure acclaimed worldwide to mitigate the spread? Why are governors allowing vulnerable citizens to pack into overcrowded churches and mosques all in the name of worshipping God at a time a large proportion of new infections are now occurring in the communities, rural and urban, through person-to-person contacts?
Before Easter, four governors relaxed the restriction order on religious gatherings in their states. Rivers governor, Nyesom Wike, led the pack. On Thursday, April 9, he urged Muslims in the state to observe Jumaat prayers on Friday and Christians to have church services with their full congregation on Easter Sunday, April 12, while insisting that other restrictions, including the closure of parks, markets, nightclubs, cinemas, banning of public burials, weddings, as well as the closure of air, land, and sea routes into the state, remained in force until further notice.
“In the spirit of Easter and after a careful review of the state of COVID-19 situation in our state, we have decided to temporarily relax the restriction on large religious gathering, as follows: Friday, April 10, 2020 – all Moslem faithful should observe Juma’at prayers in their mosques or prayer grounds throughout the state and pray for the peace, forgiveness and the blessings of Allah upon the state.
“Sunday, April 12, 2020 – all Christians should have Easter church services with their full congregation and pray to God to forgive us our sins, continue to intervene in our affairs and protect the state and our people from the coronavirus,” the governor said. In Akwa Ibom, Governor Emmanuel Udom relaxed the 14-day restriction order, according to him, to enable Christians celebrate Easter.
In President Buhari’s home state of Katsina, Governor Aminu Masari ordered a lifting of the lockdown on religious activities, particularly Friday Juma’at prayers and Sunday services. Similarly, Ondo governor, Rotimi Akeredolu, on Wednesday, April 8, approved a request of the Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, in the state to observe the Easter Sunday worship in various churches across the state, an approval he later rescinded after public umbrage.
A day after Wike’s Greek gift, the Catholic Church subtly rebuked him through a letter which Bishop Camillus Etokudoh of the Port-Harcourt Diocese addressed to all priests asking the Catholic faithful in the state to stay safe and observe Easter Sunday at home till further notice. So, what cheap political goal did Wike intend to score by that religious stunt? Is he claiming to be more Catholic than the Pontiff? If the Pope could shut down the Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican (Saint Peter’s Basilica), one of the most iconic Christian worship centres in the world, because of the pandemic, what point was Wike trying to make? Will the virus stop spreading on Easter Sunday and resume its onslaught afterwards? What will happen if Christians don’t congregate in their worship centres to celebrate Easter? Will God no longer accept their prayers?
Can Masari claim to be a better Moslem than the custodians of the holy shrines of Islam in Mecca and Medina? Religious tourism is perhaps the second highest revenue earner after oil for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, yet the authorities shut their doors against this year’s lesser Hajj (Umrah) due to coronavirus. Won’t Allah hear the prayers of the Nigerian Muslim faithful if they don’t pray in the mosques?
On Saturday, Gerald O. Glenn, a U.S. bishop in Virginia, who defied his state’s social distancing recommendations and boasted about his church’s packed pews amid the coronavirus pandemic, died of complications from the virus. His wife, Marcietia Glenn, also tested positive for COVID-19, forcing their daughter, Mar-Gerie Crawley, to urge the public to “understand the severity and the seriousness” of the virus.
On March 22, Glenn boasted at a church service with dozens of people about being “controversial” and “in violation” of state’s social distancing recommendations. “I firmly believe that God is larger than this dreaded virus. You can quote me on that,” Glenn told the congregation. That is true. The virus cannot be greater than God. But God didn’t ask humanity to commit suicide which is what ignoring social distancing recommendations in the absence of a vaccine is tantamount to.
Even when the Virginia Governor Ralph Northam issued an order calling for the closure of all nonessential services and the prohibition of gatherings of more than 10 people, Glenn demurred, telling his parishioners that he would keep church doors open. “I am essential,” he said. “I am a preacher – I talk to God.” Does his death detract from God’s omnipotence? No! It only confirms the folly in man’s intransigence in the face of reality.
And that is exactly what those governors who are playing religious politics with this pandemic are doing. It would have been a different matter if the governors are lifting the restrictions on commercial activities to enable millions of Nigerians who live from hand to mouth eke out a living than throwing open the doors of churches and mosques when God can easily and sincerely be worshipped from the comforts of people’s homes.
Recently, Boss Mustapha, Secretary to the Government of the Federation and chairman of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, reiterated what every discerning Nigerian already knew when he warned that the country’s health sector will not be able to contain a spike in COVID-19 cases because the country lacks what is required to handle the situation. “If developed countries of the world are stretched despite their good capacity, then Nigeria needs to improve its own,” he told the leadership of the National Assembly on Thursday, April 9.
This is the task that faces the country: how to face this challenge squarely. Except perhaps in Lagos as I wrote last week, there is no evidence to show that the rest of the country is prepared to confront this monster. As it is always the case, the elite are relatively safe now, ensconced in their mansions, socially distancing themselves from one another.
But sooner than later, they will come in contact with their drivers, office assistants, domestic staff, etc. That is when bubble will bust because while the governors are busy pandering to their asinine religious whims, community transmission is growing apace in the city suburbs and rural communities, abodes of the hoi-polloi, where social distancing is observed in the breach.
With the level of social interaction in the country right now, anyone who believes that there are only 373 cases of coronavirus as at today must be living in a fool’s paradise. Ours is a time-bomb waiting to explode. This is no time for infantile religious politics.