Health experts, clerics differ on re-opening of churches

Monday, June 8th, 2020 00:00 | By
Amref Africa chief executive Dr Githinji Gitahi. Photo/PD/FILE

The committee imploring the possibility of reopening places of worship is caught in between two diametrically opposed groups—the clerics who are pushing for lifting of the embargo with medics warning that it will be a ‘foolhardy and suicidal’ move as a new high of 167 Covid-19 new infections were confirmed yesterday.  

Close to 90 days since the first case was reported in the country on March 13, the total infections have now reached 2,767 with deaths rising to 84 after one more patient succumbed to the deadly respiratory flu yesterday.

The committee comprising top government officials, inter-faith and religious organisations is under pressure from health experts, who say re-opening of the churches, mosques and other places of worship would not only see a surge in infections but also in fatalities.

They cite Italy, Spain, Brazil and other parts of South America where the numbers surged after reopening of churches.

Highly-placed sources intimated to People Daily the government is facing stiff opposition from health experts following the rising number of new coronavirus cases.

Health experts, among them Amref Africa chief executive Githinji Gitahi, have warned that it is at such gatherings in churches, mosques and other worship places where many people in close quarters contracted the virus that led to the deaths of hundreds of people in other countries.

Many deaths

“Many deaths in Italy, Spain, Brazil and other several parts of South America can be attributed to gatherings in churches. It would be suicidal for the government to give in to pressure from religious leaders to re-open places of worship. Time is not ripe,” Dr Gitahi warned.

Like Gitahi, Dr Willis Akhwale, a World Health Organisation (WHO) consultant, has warned the government against re-opening the churches, particularly with the present sharp rise of new confirmed cases of coronavirus.

 “It is foolhardy to make such a move at such a time when the country is on the verge of experiencing its peak share of the virus. More so, our hospitals are not prepared to handle many cases of patients with the virus,” he warned.

Akhwale further says with Kenya boasting more than 10,000 different church denominations, each attracting almost 1,000 worshippers at any given time, the situation could get out of hand.

The government began working with faith leaders last month to develop a plan to enable the phased and safe reopening of places of worship amid stiff opposition from some health experts.

On Saturday, President Uhuru Kenyatta in his address to the nation, directed the Health and Interior ministries to form a committee comprising all stakeholders in the religious sector to draw up a roadmap to reopening places of worship that have remained closed since March 27, 2020.

Already, a joint meeting between government representatives and religious leaders last week, came up with some of the proposals that should be used as prerequisite for any place of worship to be reopened.

 “Though in the meeting, all the government representatives ruled out the possibilities of reopening places of worship any time soon, some of the religious leaders in attendance presented a raft of proposals that we think should be adhered to enable us operate,” disclosed Bishop Samuel Ngacha Njiriri, the general secretary of Federation of Evangelicals and Indigenous Christian Churches of Kenya (FEICCK) and the presiding bishop of Stewards Revival Pentecostal Church of Kenya.

Njiriri said some of the proposals are so drastic that they would change the form of worship in many religious groupings.

Like  Njiriri, ACK archbishop Jackson ole Sapit says the proposals have instilled some optimism amongst religious leaders who have been openly lobbying the administration to allow them to re-open with proper safeguards and social distancing.

The proposals by the men of the cloth, while optimistic, would present significant challenges to some religious institutions and force them to pick and choose those who will be able to enter the worship places and those who won’t.

If adopted, churches and other worship centres could be restricted to only admitting about 25 per cent of the faithful for any service to adhere to social distancing.

In this regard, the government is proposing that bigger churches and mosques such as All Saints Cathedral, Holy Family Basilica and Jamie Mosque should not have more than 500 worshipers at any given time.

Medical condition

More so, each religious service should not last more than one hour, according to the recommendations. Other proposals include the centres of worship having infrared thermometers, hand washing water containers, sanitizers use of face masks, no holy communion, no adoration or veneration of statues, no laying of hands during prayers, no hands  greetings as signs of peace and no use of holy water.

“But above all, it has been agreed that should the churches reopen, all children below the ages of 10 years and individuals above 60 years will not attend services because of their vulnerability. Individuals having any existing medical condition will also not be allowed to attend,” said Bishop Njiriri.

 “Public worship was stopped because of the threat that churches could become epi-centres of infection. Opening must depend on the controls and level of risk of infection,” said Nyeri Catholic archbishop Anthony Muheria.

 He  warned that going by the fact that many Kenyans are not abiding by the guidelines enforced by the government, it would be very risky reopening the churches now.

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