The manner in which religious leaders and Christians in Kenya have handled issues around coronavirus has left me impressed. To begin with, there has been little or no confrontation between the religious community and the state. This has brought into focus the level of understanding of the complementary roles that these two institutions play in serving the public.
The pandemic has presented religious communities with myriad challenges due to the containment measures put in place by the government. Key among these is the ban on mass gatherings including in places of worship.
While the measures have helped to safeguard public health, they have adversely affected normal modes of worship. But in spite of this, religious leaders in Kenya have purposefully and in a structured, consultative manner engaged the government on ways of going about activities such as prayers, worship and church services. Indeed, it was encouraging to see them holding a joint press conference with state officials on the outcome of their joint deliberations.
While all this is commendable and has significantly borne fruit as far as the war against the pandemic is concerned, the religious community should go a notch higher in promoting public awareness on the modes of spread, effects and prevention of the disease.
Perhaps St Paul’s advice to Timothy, his spiritual son and protégé in ministry, comes in handy at this point. He said: “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and frequent ailments (1 Timothy 5:23).”
While this is a Bible verse that many people use to defend their drinking habits, the truth is that the use of wine in this context was meant to act as medicine for Timothy’s frequent illnesses.
Taking a cue from Paul and working in conjunction with relevant government departments, the clergy should find innovative ways to educate the public on the pandemic as a way of moving towards the “new normal”.
This proposal is informed mainly by the experience I have had with rural folk. Recently, I was among a few mourners at the funeral of a child who attended our local church and who died in hospital from malaria-related complications. As the ceremony progressed, I was shocked to see villagers come to the homestead in their numbers, with the majority not wearing masks, washing their hands or observing social distance rules. In fact, they interacted and feasted like the virus was non-existent.
The only sign that the villagers had even remotely heard of the pandemic was the avoidance of shaking hands in greeting, and the smaller than usual number of mourners.
Later, when I visited a friend who was unwell, I learnt that masks were worn only when villagers visited the neighbouring town centres where law enforcement officers are on the lookout for those who fail to comply with the containment measures. It was at this point that I felt religious leaders had a role to play in supplementing government efforts to curb the spread of the virus.
Regardless of the fact that they are not in physical contact with their congregants right now, they still command a lot of respect in their communities. Indeed, several studies indicate that many Christians usually turn to their pastors as their first option for help during times of distress.
The caution given by Bishop Margaret Wanjiru of Jesus Is Alive Ministries when she was discharged from Aga Khan University Hospital in Nairobi following a positive test for coronavirus should be a wake-up call for all of us. She said: “My message is very short; for those who have not taken it seriously, Covid-19 is real and it should be taken seriously. It should be taken seriously not only when you are at work or when you are in public. It should be taken seriously even when you are at home.”
Such a message coming from a renowned gospel minister and public figure should re-awaken the conscience of the clergy to rise above the crowd and enlighten their congregants on the need to stay safe from the virus even as we all continue to trust in God.
The writer is a strategy, research and public policy advisor. He is also a student of Development and Policy Studies at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology.