Religion at a time of crisis has been historically significant in providing comfort and reassurance to the most desperate. Its cohesive nature promotes finding common ground during adversity. The difference during a pandemic however, is that religious practice is inadvertently forbidden given the ongoing lockdown and isolation.

Denied peace of mind

This particular pandemic has led to unlimited effects across the board, many of which have trickled down into religious and spiritual matters.

In most cultures, there is a deeply engrained process surrounding death. Whether this is tied to religion or not, there is a spiritual element to the process which is arguably essential in beginning the grieving period. A funeral is the first step in creating acceptance and closure for those closest to the deceased. Covid-19 has made this impossible though. For the sake of containing the virus, ordinary events such as grieving have taken on a brusque tone.

As well as making it more difficult for families to find peace, it is saddening for those who have spent a lifetime practicing their religion to have to forfeit the final stage of their spiritual journey. In a devoutly Catholic country such as Italy, receival of the last rites is the final sacrament and is seminal in acceptance of death for both the sick and their family. Yet infection control —– together with a shortage of PPE (personal protective equipment) has made securing this final sacrament from a priest increasingly difficult. Priests are having to decide whether to visit the infectious or not. In Italy alone (as of the second week of April), it is thought that some 90 priests have sadly lost their lives to Covid-19.

Denied practising symbolic meaning

This crisis has touched other cultural and religious practices too. The Hajj pilgrimage due to take place this July may well be cancelled. One heartbreaking example in Sri Lanka showed two Muslim victims of the disease being cremated against the wishes of the family. In a period of confusion, the Sri Lankan authorities ordered the cremation of these bodies despite the World Health Organisation publishing guidelines stating that burials would be acceptable. Islam forbids cremation. Traditional practice requires burial of the body as soon as death has occurred. The religious implications extend to healthcare workers too. Dr Bindy Sahota from the Head and Neck Surgery at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle was asked to cut his hair and shave his beard in order to help infection control and for ease around protective masks. As a Sikh, Dr Sahota has not shaved his beard in twenty years.

This pandemic has gone to the depths of many people’s identity, necessitating compromises of their fundamental beliefs. This is partly a panic-inducing factor for many who may feel that the crisis has touched the very core of their value system and challenged their way of life. For some, this will be a time when religion becomes another obstacle to surmount.

Other communities

Other, lesser thought of communities are also having to power through. The travelling community, (refugees/migrants/nomads) are struggling to adapt. This is especially true of those living on sites that have limited access to a water supply and where there are overcrowding issues. Poor living conditions are fertile ground for contagion, resulting from a lack of access to hand-washing facilities and unavoidably close contact with others. For communities whose lifestyle is characterised by nomadism, a period of stagnation and self-isolation will be an especially difficult one to adapt to or indeed, survive.

To somewhat remedy this issue, the visibility of religious and cultural leaders is greatly needed. Much like the need for politicians to provide practical direction, leading figures in all religions need to unite and voice direction for followers of faith. This has been demonstrated by Leo Varadkar, Taoiseach of Ireland, who hosted a virtual conference with religious leaders from around the world to discuss funeral and burial guidelines.

Human ingenuity has come to the fore in many ways during this unsettling time. There are cases of the rites being performed over FaceTime for instance, and the longer this continues the more ways we will find, I suspect, to express our grief and practice our faith.

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