Inarguably, the emergence of the dreaded coronavirus has turned the whole world upside down. Even if the pandemic disappeared today, the world will no longer be the same. No more handshakes, no more hugging, no more gathering of the crowd of any form – be it social, political, or religious. Wearing face masks has become part of dressing. No doubt, it is one pandemic too many. Many have gone to early graves as a result of COVID-19, and everyone is praying hard for the end of the pandemic.
COVID-19 has no respect for the government, the governed, the business community, the rich, the poor, the mighty, the lowly, and the church is not spared. At first, the pandemic was regarded as a problem of the western world until it entered Africa through Egypt, and gradually, it spread across the continent. In the beginning, churches in Nigeria continued with their normal worship, praying for an immediate end to the pandemic in Europe and the United States. But like a thief in the night, it entered the country, and the government declared a lockdown order that forbade social and religious gatherings. The government agency, Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) coupled with the Presidential Task Force, is at the forefront of the public health response to the COVID-19 outbreak in Nigeria.
Then the crisis snowballed into lockdown, churches were shut down, and church leaders began to look for alternative ways to worship the living God. Big churches with private television stations have little or no problem as their leaders preached directly to their members in their homes, and they also joined others in making use of online services thanks to social media. Members were asked to buy data and watch online services, and offerings and tithes were collected through e-banking. But as a result of the level of illiteracy, many Christians were disfranchised from worship due to unreliable power supply and ignorance of information technology. Others could not afford the cost of weekly data.
The government at all levels is struggling to live up to expectations. The recently held #ENDSARS protest was a direct reaction of the masses to the hoarding of the foodstuffs meant for the masses. The Christian body has been consistently asking churches to provide food items, money, clothing, beverages, and drinks to Christians and non-Christians. The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) itself has donated the same to the federal government with a view to assisting the poor. Both the big and the small denominations have been assisting the people, either to complement the government or to assist where the government has been failing. For example, the Nigerian Baptist Convention has donated various foodstuffs, beverages, and drinks to state governments and sent goods to impacted members in other affected states.
Churches such as Dunamis International Gospel Centre in Abuja reportedly donated medical equipment worth millions in Nigeria’s Naira to the Federal Capital Territory Administration to support the effort of the government to stop the spread of coronavirus. The church also donated food items, toiletries, clothing, and other items to orphanages and the less privileged. Among the items donated were bags of rice, clothing items, noodles, vegetable oil, beans, fish, yams, and many other items.
Others churches whose donations are worth mentioning are Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) led by Pastor Enoch Adeboye and Living Faith Worldwide popularly known as the Winners Chapel. The former donated medical supplies to the Lagos State Government to support its efforts in equipping medical staff with the necessary protective gear needed to contain the coronavirus pandemic. The items include 8,000 hand sanitizers, 8,000 surgical face masks, and 200,000 hand gloves. Similarly, the Living Faith Church Worldwide donated ambulances, test kits, and personal protective devices (PPE) to the Lagos and Ogun State governments to assist in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria. The Catholic Church in the country also donated palliatives and went further to release some of its hospital outlets to the government, but regrettably they were not used.
To reduce the risk of infection in places of worship, Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) gave the following guidance:
- There should be no entry without facemasks. All attendees and religious leaders must wear a face mask.
- People who are sick should not go to places of worship. There should be temperature screening on entry.
- Handwashing facilities and hand sanitizers should be provided at points of entry and strategic points.
- Attendance at religious settings should not exceed 1/3 of seating capacity.
- Religious centers should be clearly marked so that people sit and maintain two meters distance from each other.
- There should be no form of direct contact. Practices such as handshakes as peace signs are discouraged.
- Practices that require sharing of materials should be limited. For example, ablution should be performed at home.
- Religious centers should be disinfected routinely, before and after worship.
No sooner had the churches reopened when some churches returned to their previous ways of worship, violating the protocols of the pandemic. The government threatened to shut down worship places again, and the leadership of Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) had to quickly preempt that by issuing a directive to its members to follow COVID-19 protocols or risk sanctions. This was contained in a press statement dated January 18, 2021.
In the statement released by the Association’s General Secretary Joseph Daramola, CAN warned that COVID-19 is real and deadly, saying all its members must follow all necessary safety protocols, including “no entry without facemasks.” Other guidelines included in the statement were:
- No entry without facemasks. CAN said all worshippers, including the worship leaders, must wear face masks. There should be no exceptional cases.
- There should be temperature screening at every entry point to the church.
- Ensure adequate ventilation in halls of worship, open windows, and doors for air to circulate.
- Handwashing facilities and hand sanitizers should be provided on church premises.
- Practices that require sharing of materials should be limited.
- Every church should make use of medical personnel to assist.
- Church auditorium should be clearly marked so that people sit and maintain two meters distance from each other.
There was a storm in late December 2020, and some state governments vowed not to allow the popular Crossover Night. Many churches said they would not obey the order, regarding it as hostile and ungodly. Again, the CAN leadership intervened and urged the government to relax the order and urged its members to ensure the COVID-19 protocols were strictly followed.
Worship places cannot remain the same, even after the pandemic is over. However, among the gains of the pandemic is the emergence of online services among many churches and the virtual offering of programs and meetings. For example, the annual gathering of the Nigerian Baptist Convention was held virtually last year, and the annual Workers Retreat was virtual again this year. The Redeemed Christian Church of God has also been consistently holding most of its programs virtually until recently when it combined physical attendance with virtual. Its monthly gathering that attracted millions of people has been suspended until further notice. It is the wish and dream of Christians throughout the country that the pandemic becomes history to enable them to return to their former way of worship.
For Reflection and Discussion
- What role should the Church play in collaborating with local governments to meet practical needs within the community?
- What protocols and processes have you implemented in order to make in-person gatherings more safe?