Keeping Faith in Times of Pestilence Often Meant Inventing New Enemies

The pandemic has been used cynically to demonise Muslims and scapegoat them for the calamity, just as Blacks in South Africa were blamed for the Spanish Flu and the Jews in medieval Europe for the plague.

On March 11, the director general of the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that COVID-19, spread by the novel coronavirus, was now a pandemic. In four months, this disease has spread to over 200 countries, infected over 1.6 million people, and caused the deaths of more than 101,000 patients.

Thus, COVID-19 has joined the register of major illnesses humankind has endured for over two thousand years – illnesses whose speed, geographical range of their spread, lethal impact and pervasive ignorance of cause, cure or antidote, have devastated empires, economies and societies, and over time enforced a re-ordering of political, economic and social lives.

As humankind has floundered in combatting the scourge, pandemics have planted fear, even dread, among vast populations, compelling millions of diverse denominations to turn to the god of their faith – seeing their catastrophe as the expression of His or Her wrath for their sinfulness – and seeking from Him/Her solace, succour and salvation.

Pandemics in history

History helps to place the ongoing pandemic in perspective: we have first-hand accounts of earlier pandemics from across 2500 years which reveal recurring patterns in human engagement with the affliction and with the divine presence. Thus, during the plague of Athens two and a half millennia ago, which killed nearly 100,000 persons, the historian Thucydides writes that the principal reaction of the people was fear and despair, so that most of the afflicted died in isolation, alone and uncared for. The calamity also witnessed a decline in moral values, with citizens, fearing imminent death, focusing on immediate pleasure and profit.

The Athens Plague, or Plague in an Ancient City By Michiel Sweerts. Photo: Wikimedia

The Antoine smallpox pandemic, that affected the Roman empire about two thousand years ago, lasted for over twenty years and killed about 10 million people. The medicine pioneer Galen has noted the peoples’ anxiety and frustration in the face of the disease. The emperor Marcus Aurelius blamed the empire’s Christian community for the calamity for refusing to join the rituals to propitiate the Roman gods.

But the epidemic had a curious unintended consequence – non-Christians were impressed that Christians worked among the ill without fear for their own lives, believing they were assured an idyllic eternal life in heaven after death. This boosted converts to Christianity.

This pattern continued in the later plague of Cyprian (250-66 CE), so called due to the records left behind by St Cyprian. The saint, in his work, On Mortality, urged Christians to see the plague as an opportunity to live the tenets of their faith. He asked his congregation “to stand erect amidst the ruins of the human race … and to rejoice rather and embrace the gift of the occasion.”

The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome; engraving by Levasseur after Jules-Elie Delaunay. Photo: wellcomeimages.org

The saint’s exhortations and the selfless service of his co-religionists brought more converts to the Christian fold since the traditional gods of the Romans had clearly failed to protect their people. The pandemic further weakened the Roman empire, while strengthening Christianity.

The plague of Justinian in the sixth century, a bubonic plague that took 50 million lives, occurred during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian, and was in fact viewed by his people as God’s punishment for his unjust rule. It originated in China and travelled westwards along the Silk Road, devastating Iran before reaching Constantinople.

Historians record that the malady had a contradictory affect on peoples’ lives – most became more moral and devoted to God, but, after the disease had passed on, many of them “reverted once more to the baseness of hearts …altogether surpassing themselves in villainy and lawlessness of every sort.”  This plague was combatted by the voluntary quarantine of the afflicted. This plague too weakened the Byzantine empire and strengthened Christian faith.

The “Black Death” plague of the 14th century (1346-60) devastated much of Europe and the Levant, causing the deaths of 130 million worldwide (about 50 million in Europe alone). In The Reformation, the sixth volume of The Story of Civilization, Will Durant says pestilence was “a normal incident in medieval history; it harried Europe during 32 years of the 14th century, 41 years of the 15th, 30 years of the 16th century.” The Black Death, he says, was “the worst of these visitations, and probably the most terrible physical calamity in historic times.”

Historical lessons for today

The plague left several precedents for us to reflect on. Joshua Marks tells us, drawing on Boccaccio’s Decameron, that its deadly character forced people to shun each other’s company, with small groups even separating themselves and living apart from others. Others faced the prospect of horrendous death, Boccaccio says, through merry-making, “drinking excessively, enjoying life … satisfying in every way the appetites as best one could.”

Marks also quotes the historian Barbara Tuchman noting that, as certain areas were afflicted, neighbouring states planned invasions to take advantage of their weakened state. But, she goes on to say, “before they could move, the savage mortality fell upon them too, scattering some in death and the rest in panic to [further] spread the infection.”

This has had an eerie echo in recent times when US media reports said in mid-March that American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the National Security Adviser strongly urged an attack on Iran even as it battled the coronavirus; the plan was abandoned due to opposition from the defence secretary and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. Ironically, since then the US has itself been overwhelmed by the pandemic, now having the largest number among those infected globally.

Scapegoating the Jews and science

The Black Death also created a crisis of faith in Europe that was manifested in diverse ways. Many turned to superstition and blamed Satan for their calamity, while others took out their rage and fear on the Jews: already marginalised and demonised for the previous thirteen hundred years as being complicit in the murder of the saviour, Jesus Christ, and for denying his status as messiah, the massacre of Jews had already commenced with the first crusade three hundred years  earlier.

The Black Death, with all its unexplained menace, readily nurtured what Norman Cohn in his book, The Pursuit of the Millennium, has described as a “collective flight into the world of demonological phantasies … [that gave rise to] a mass delusion of the most explosive kind.” As the plague continued, Cohn says, “the people grew more and more bewildered and desperate” so that suspicion “came finally to rest on the Jews, who thereupon were almost entirely exterminated.”

A contemporary drawing of the 2000 Jews of Strasbourg being burned to death over a pit on Feb. 14, 1349 in the Strasbourg Massacre during the Black Death persecutions. The Jews were accused of causing the Black Death by poisoning the wells. Babies thrown out to be saved were thrown back into the fire. The monument to this massacre erected in the early 20th century was removed by the Nazis. Photo and caption: Wikipedia

Accusations were spread that Jews had caused the disease by deliberately poisoning wells, adding to other well-entrenched calumnies such as their devouring Christian children. In 1349, massacres and persecution spread across Europe in which several hundred Jewish communities were destroyed and several thousand Jews were killed.

The most recent global pandemic, the “Spanish Flu” (1918-19), was an unusually deadly influenza pandemic. Though the work of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch had familiarised the international community with the “germ theory” of disease, the reason for this pandemic was that it originated and proliferated through a virus, not a bacteria and could not be “cured” on the basis of scientific knowledge available then. Over a year, it infected 500 million people – about a quarter of the world’s population at the time. The death toll is estimated to have been anywhere from 17 million to 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in human history. 

Due to the absence of a vaccine or cure, Howard Phillips writes that even in the early 20th century, traditional Christian clergymen viewed this calamity as a “divine visitation”, though the “sin” that humankind was guilty of varied with the preacher. Besides the usual references to immorality, alcoholism and poor church attendance, another reason proffered was “worshipping science.” A pastor even pointed out that the pandemic was a manifestation of God’s power to kill many more persons than what humankind, with all its scientific advancement, had been able to achieve during the First World War!

At the same time, several enlightened clergymen spoke of the need to focus on health and hygiene rather than divine retribution. An issue that divided the clergy then (as now) was the closure of churches. While more modern clerics backed closure on health grounds, others felt this prevented a “communal approach” to God just when “people are suffering His trials and punishments.”

Pandemic in contemporary times

Religion has two aspects: one, it spiritually links the believer with the divine and establishes a direct personal communication between them through personal prayer; usually, this interaction is a source of comfort for the faithful.

Two, organised religion has a communal and congregational manifestation when believers join together in places of worship to offer prayer and participate in shared rituals. For many believers, this sense of community engendered by congregational engagement with the Almighty provides a special experience of contentment and exultation, even rapture in some instances. The place of worship is also a place of sanctuary for many believers. Again, feasts and festivals associated with different faiths foster closeness and camaraderie between family members and fellow-believers.

As in the past, religious congregations have played a role in spreading the coronavirus infection. In South Korea, Isabella Steger writes that the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, with 240,000 followers, spread the disease through its robust congregational and proselytising activity. It is a messianic cult that also preaches that illness is a sin and encourages its followers to attend services even when they are unwell. It also has an active proselytising agenda which brings believers close to the community at large.

A woman walks past a branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony where a woman known as “Patient 31” attended a service in Daegu, South Korea, February 19, 2020. Photo: Yonhap via REUTERS

The first case from a follower of this church was discovered in mid-February, forcing the government to track down all its members.  The disease has spread largely because followers share close spaces, refuse to be quarantined and do not disclose their membership of this community.

Francis Jae-ryong Song, a professor in sociology at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, has described South Korea’s Christians (30 percent of the population of 50 million) as having an “evangelical mindset.” A populist cleric has defied the ban on large gatherings, telling his followers that god would cure them if they caught the disease and it would be “patriotic” to die from it.

However, congregations of the Tablighi Jamaat have contributed most to spreading COVID-19 in South and Southeast Asia. This hundred-year old movement originated in India to spread the teachings of Islam and the correct fulfilment of religious rituals. It does this through itinerant teachers who are known for their personal austerity and commitment. The movement eschews both proselytising and politics. While most of its outreach is at local levels, the Jamaat has annual assemblages in different countries that bring all its members together in one conclave.

This year these conclaves took place just as the pandemic was spreading. In Malaysia, in early March, a 16,000-strong gathering over four days created what New York Times’ writer Hannah Beech has called “the largest known viral vector in Southeast Asia.” By 20th March, over 600 participants had tested positive in Malaysia, while 73 cases were discovered in Brunei and 10 in Thailand.

A man stands at the closed entrance of the Makki Masjid Tablighi centre in Karachi after the government ordered those inside to quarantine. Photo: Reuters

The largest gathering of the Jamaat was at Raiwind in Pakistan, which 250,000 persons from 90 countries attended; it continued for a few days before being called off. By end-March, cases of infected persons proliferated in Pakistan, with a number of foreign participants taking the infection back to their countries. A Pakistani writer, Naila Inayat, has reported that there has been resistance to government advisories against religious gatherings and close contact after prayers; the query the opponents pose is: “what else are you willing to give up just to save your life?”

In Delhi, a conclave of the Jamaat took place on 13-15 March; after the conclave, about 2000 persons were found staying together at the Jamaat headquarters, in violation of Delhi government orders prohibiting large gatherings. There were reports in early April that hundreds of the over 6000 confirmed infections in India are linked to the Jamaat conclave. The government has sealed the headquarters of the Jamaat; hundreds of participants in the congregation have been traced and are being quarantined.

Responses to the pandemic

COVID-19, with attendant self-isolation, social distancing and lockdowns, has severely restricted the communal and congregational aspects of all faiths. Most churches, mosques, temples and gurudwaras across the world have closed their doors, signifying the ascendancy of health and safety over collective interaction with the Almighty. In a unique development, Saudi Arabia has banned the arrival of foreign pilgrims for umrah and has also restricted prayers at the holy mosques of Mecca and Madinah. To prevent people from touching the sacred stone at the Mecca mosque, a barrier has been erected around the Kaaba.

There are indications from Saudi authorities that the forthcoming Hajj could be suspended this year. Iran banned Friday congregational prayers on 4th March, after which, in most countries, congregational Friday prayers have been suspended, with worshippers encouraged to pray at home; Friday sermons are being offered online.

To prevent large gatherings, the pope has ended his personal messages on Sundays and is now live-streaming them. In churches where services are still taking place, there have been important changes in ritual. During the Catholic mass, priests are placing the wafer in the people’s hands rather than on their tongues and are no longer giving wine in the shared chalice. Priests are recording their sermons on video; the message from them is: “Because I am not physically close to you, it doesn’t mean I can’t be emotionally close to you.” Or, as another priest has said: “let social distancing not become social isolation.”

Most Hindu temples and Sikh gurudwaras in India have either shut down or restricted access to devotees. The cooking and distribution of prasad has also been stopped in most places.

Services in Jewish synagogues have gone online, while people have been advised not to kiss the Torah.  There has been a debate in Israel relating to use of social media in connection with the Passover, an eight-day holiday marking the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt to the “Promised Land” of Israel. It commences with the Seder, a large gathering of family members around a table, sharing song, prayer and a meal.

Rabbi Michael Moskowitz answers questions during the final portion of a virtual Friday night Shabbat service where viewers can ask the rabbis questions about anything relating to Judaism inside Temple Shir Shalom, a Reform synagogue in West Bloomfield Township, Michigan, U.S. on March 27, 2020 amid a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak across the country. Photo: REUTERS/Emily Elconin

With the lockdown and ban on gatherings, digital Seders have been approved by one set of the clergy, particularly since they would give the lonely and the elderly a sense of companionship. However, Orthodox clergy see video-conferencing as “desecrating the holiday”, insisting on upholding religious law over the prevailing social situation.

There has been criticism in the Israeli media that ultra-orthodox Jews have flouted the rules relating to self-isolation so that the spread of the virus among them is far greater than in the rest of the country. One of their leaders has claimed that “cancelling Torah study is more dangerous than corona.”

Spiritual guidance

Clerics of different faiths have attempted to make up for the absence of congregations through a focus on the premier aspect of faith – a spiritual link of the individual with the divine. As one American newspaper headlined: “It’s still religion even if you’re not congregating in person.”

Many clerics have directly addressed the age-old assertion that the pandemic is an expression of the wrath of God; among some Muslims the sins being punished include consumerism, personal excesses and damage to the environment. Muslim clerics have clarified that, while the origin of the disease might not have been under human control, its spread certainly is; they quote the Prophet’s saying exhorting a man to protect his  possession first, then trust in God: “tie your camel first and then trust in Allah.”

Again, in response to the fatalist view relating to disease and death as part of God’s plan, another of the Prophet’s sayings is quoted: “God has not made a disease without appointing a remedy for it, with the exception of one disease – old age.” The Prophet had also backed quarantine and social distancing; he said: “If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; if the plague breaks out in a place where you are, do not leave the place.”

Christian writers have also addressed the unprecedented dangers, restrictions and fears that their co-religionists are confronting today, highlighting the need to protect human life, respect human rights, protect the poor and vulnerable, and display solidarity and subsidiarity, ie, shoulder responsibility at appropriate levels. Others have looked at the implications of social distancing on the social fabric and advocated emotional and spiritual support for the isolated.

In established biblical tradition, some parishioners have asked their clerics if the pandemic heralds the “end times” and the “second coming.” The internet has even thrown up the prediction of a religious scholar in 2008 that “in around 2020, a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe … resisting all known treatments.”

The general conclusion is that, while there are no “end signs” just yet, the pandemic is a reminder to humankind to pursue a life-changing path that would take us closer to the “throne of grace” and the gift of eternal life.

In a unique display of trans-denominational solidarity, Mohammed bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa, the head of the Jeddah-based body, the Muslim World League, met Pope Francis at the Vatican at the end of March. In public remarks, he highlighted the need for “interfaith partnership” and affirming intellectual and spiritual proximity during this critical period.

Voices of dissent and extremist politics

Not all clerics have welcomed the restrictions on congregations and public worship. Contrary to changes adopted by the Catholic clergy, the Greek Orthodox Church has refused to give up its practices relating to wafer and wine and uses the same spoon for worshippers. Its ruling body had declared in early March: “For the members attending the Holy Eucharist … [it] certainly cannot be a cause of disease transmission.”

With high levels of religiosity in the US and large memberships of non-mainstream churches, the response in the country to the virus-related restrictions has been quite diverse, with strong expressions of dissent coming from conservative Christians. A writer in an influential journal, First Things, said that the mass shutdown of society “creates a perverse, even demonic atmosphere”. He clarified: “There are many more things more precious than life. … The Eucharist itself is now subordinated to the false god of ‘saving lives’.”

On 5 April, Reuters carried several news reports saying that several fringe churches in the US would deliberately defy government orders and remain open to large congregations on Palm Sunday, the commencement of Holy Week which will culminate on Easter Sunday. A pastor was quoted as saying: “We’re defying the rules because the commandment of God is to spread the gospel.”

Another said that the church “is the last force resisting the Antichrist.” Another blamed Satan for the proposed restrictions: “Satan’s trying to keep us apart, he’s trying to keep us from worshipping together.  But we’re not going to let him.” A pastor in Florida insisted that worshippers at his church would be greeted with handshakes; he explained: “[We] are open because we are raising revivalists not pansies.”

On March 30, the governor of Texas, Greg Abbot finally issued the stay-at-home order but included “religious services” among the “essential” services exempted from the order.

COVID-19 has mobilised Christian evangelists in the US, referred to collectively as “Christian nationalists” by many commentators, to question the restrictions imposed due to the pandemic. They constitute the core support-base of President Donald Trump; several of their leaders are personally close to the president, are a major influence on him, and help shape many of his political and social positions.

Some of them have blamed the gay community for the pandemic. A rightwing pastor and broadcaster accredited to the White House said in January that the coronavirus was a plague from God “to purge sin off this planet” and described the gay community as “vile” and “disgusting.”

American commentators have also noted a strong element of racism in the discourse of the Christian nationalists, particularly in viewing non-white immigrants as sources of contamination. Amidst the spreading pandemic, Trump retweeted a post he had received from a supporter: “Now, more than ever, we need the wall… the US stands a chance if we get control of our borders.” Trump then responded: “Going up fast. We need the wall more than ever.”

Pro-Trump pastors have been vociferous in his defence during the ongoing crisis. Some close to him have claimed a cure for the pandemic through miracle and prayer. Another said the president’s critics had “opened the door” to the pandemic with their displays of hate, but the pandemic would soon be over due to the collective prayer of Christians which had “overwhelmed” the scourge.

US President Donald Trump in a prayer before speaking at the Evangelicals for Trump kick-off rally in Miami in January 2020. Photo: Tom Brenner/Reuters

A close associate of Trump, Guillermo Maldonado, who heads “Evangelicals for Trump”, declared on March 17 that he had ordered the virus to “dissolve, disintegrate, die in Jesus’ mighty name”. He also said his church would remain open as God would save the worshippers from contagion.

In India, rightwing political leaders are having a field day in extolling the virtues of their faith. In mid-February, Swami Chakrapani, the head of the Hindu Mahasabha, a fringe Hindu nationalist movement, declared that the coronavirus was an “avatar” to punish non-vegetarians and that “God-worshipping and Gau Rakhsha believer Indians” are immune to the virus. A month later, this worthy hosted a cow urine drinking party, believing that this would ward off the coronavirus.

Not to be outdone, the head of the BJP in West Bengal, Dilip Ghosh said that with “the blessings of Hindu gods and goddesses”, the people need not fear the virus. In mid March, addressing a large religious congregation worshipping Goddess Manasa (Goddess of snakes), Ghosh pointed out: “Thousands of people are praying here. They are drinking water, taking prasad. They are not even washing their hands. … Nothing will happen to us as the Gods’ blessings are with us.”

Lessons of history

The widespread devastation caused by pandemics has impacted history in profound ways. Empires weakened by the scourge have fallen, gods and rulers have been discredited and new ones have been installed in their place. Christianity succeeded against Rome’s gods due to the faith in eternal life of the early believers and their commitment to charity and brotherliness on earth. Later tribulations in Byzantium further strengthened their faith, even when they rejected their worthless Christian ruler.

It was the Black Death, a thousand years later, that consolidated the Jew as the Antichrist and the acceptable target of Christian venom, abuse and annihilation that culminated in the holocaust of the 20th century.

But Black Death had another effect – it planted the first doubts relating to unquestioning faith in God. The historian Joshua Mark says: “People saw priests, physicians and caregivers … dying daily and lost faith in a God who would take those he had seemingly chosen to help the most in the crisis. This turning from faith would eventually focus people on the human experience rather than divine plan and would find expression in the Renaissance.”

Policemen in Seattle wearing masks made by the Red Cross, during the influenza epidemic. December 1918. Photo: archives.gov

Nearer our own time, the Spanish Flu had significant implications as well. It encouraged research in virology and the setting up of a global health agency under the League of Nations (that later became the World Health Organisation in 1946). But the historian Laura Spinney tells us that in South Africa this pandemic finally led to the institutionalising of the Apartheid system; she says: “… the epidemic gave a big spur to that legislation because white people blamed very explicitly black people for bringing in the disease without any evidence whatsoever.” This carried forward the traditional scapegoating of the demonised “Other” during periods of societal stress that continues to our time.

What does COVID-19 portend for us? Will the technology-driven human person of our century go back to business-as-usual or will s/he, alarmed by the faceless ogre that kills at will and aimlessly, re-ignite the need for the divine who alone can give us the capacity and the weaponry to confront the modern pestilence? Or, will the modern person conclude, as did her ancestor after the Spanish Flu, that the pandemic is merely a fresh challenge that can in time be tamed by scientific exploration and investigation rather than recourse to anonymous divinity?

The imposed and self-imposed isolation and social restrictions have given unexpected opportunities for contemplation – of our purpose, priority, affinity and commitment and, above all else, uncertainty, even fear. Very likely, the lesson drawn from these forced reflections will be a need for both science and the spirit, for reason alone cannot by itself fathom the mysteries of creation, life-patterns and the hereafter.

What then of India? Narendra Modi is the agent of extraordinary change – no less than a re-working of the national ethos -–driven by his personal vision, his commitment, his stamina. This endeavour rests on a revival of the greatness of the Hindu being, but it does not end there – it seeks to place the Hindu at the vanguard of global achievement – political, economic, cultural, technological. Every national department is to be re-structured, re-defined, to realise this vision, and every development needs to be addressed on the basis that it either promotes the vision or threatens it; if the latter, then it must be re-shaped or, if necessary, annihilated.

Much has been achieved so far, but the path forward is long, uncertain, even treacherous. And there are huge obstacles – the ‘Hindu’ refuses to become monolithic and monochromatic, the Muslim refuses to lose her identity and melt away. More seriously, several Hindus and Muslims seem to enjoy the composite culture that binds them rather than the exclusivist allure of Hindu resurrection.

What then is the outlook? The pandemic has been used cynically to again demonise the ‘Muslim’ and scapegoat him for the calamity, just as the Black person had been stigmatised in South Africa and before him the Jew in Europe. Several other congregations were organised in March, but only the assembly of the Tablighi Jamaat is being highlighted in the media.

This narrative of blame may appease the believer, but there are alternative stories as well. Arundhati Roy describes the response to the modern plague thus: “India revealed herself in all her shame – her brutal, structural, social and economic inequality, her callous indifference to suffering.”

But she is perhaps a hostile witness; we will know soon whether Modi, who has personalised the national combat against the virus emerges as the triumphant hero and messiah or is doomed by the sheer incompetence that surrounds his administration and is viewed as a palpable failure in delivering the vision he so convincingly held before us. If the latter, will we then move beyond the communal binary and the Indian people meld as one against division and hate?

As we contemplate the larger schema for humankind, the Bible reassures us: “there will no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. … Behold I make all things new.” And the poet adds his voice in Eliot’s words:

We die with the dying:
See they go and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.

History, Eliot assures us, is a pattern of timeless moments.

(The author, a former diplomat, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, and is Consulting Editor, The Wire.)