The plight of a 33-year-old mother was shared on the television news subsequent to the COVID-19 pandemic reaching the shores of Jamaica. She was laid off from her job as a domestic helper as the pandemic took its toll. Consequently, she was unable to provide for her eight children as a single mother. The deplorable and unsafe condition in which they lived was not left unnoticed, and many later witnessed the outpouring of compassion and love in response to her situation. She received more than she bargained for in gifts and goodies from kindhearted people at home and abroad. Most importantly, she is the beneficiary of much-improved living accommodation for herself and her children. What was most admirable in the news story about this mother is the quality of home schooling she offered her children who are performing ahead of their peers.
This happens to be one of several ways people have been cared for in the midst of the economic challenges and anxieties caused by COVID-19. Many organizations gave support through care initiatives during the early stages, allowing people to better handle the sudden impact and the uncertainties ahead. These acts of compassion and care were as follows:
- The Private Sector Organization (PSOJ) contributed $150 million toward the purchase of ventilators. Ventilators are critical to pneumonia patients, which aid in restoring their oxygen levels, thus preventing them from dying.
- The Montego Bay-based Carlisle Inn owned by the Sandals Group was offered as accommodation for patients recovering from COVID-19.
- Sandals Resorts had also decided against laying off its permanent workers, opting to pay 40 percent of their basic salary fortnightly and retain benefits such as health insurance and paid vacation leave despite the temporary closure of all its resorts in the Caribbean.
- The National Water Commission offered a $500 million debt write-off for customers struggling to pay their bills.
- Scotiabank and JN Bank suspended repossession and resale assets for customers falling in arrears.
- The Student Loans Bureau waived application and processing fees.
- JPS Foundation donated COVID-19 test kits in addition to offering support to the elderly and disabled persons.
- The government provided compassionate grants and care packages for the needy, and street people were provided with two meals daily.
The pandemic presented an opportunity for being there for each other, bearing one another’s burden, and being our brother’s keeper (Galatians 6:2).
Given the attending challenges of COVID-19, it presents a stark reminder of our vulnerability when it comes to diseases, demonstrating that while things such as wealth and education may make us seem better than others, this pandemic has taught us otherwise. The coronavirus has extinguished any classism and division within our society, transcending all class, race, and stages in life, barring none for its purpose. Moving on, this reflection will help us to understand how the demonstration of compassion and justice in our society is significant to our survival and wellbeing in various aspects of our lives.
Compassion is defined as “a feeling of distress and pity for the suffering or misfortune of another, often including the desire to alleviate it,” according to the Collins English Dictionary.It is derived from the ecclesiastical Latin word “compati,” which means to “suffer with.” Scripture teaches how God demonstrates compassion through mercy, love, and forgiveness. This is made evident in various ways:
- First, compassion is forgiveness that offers tolerance and understanding for our mistakes to free us from the guilt of poor decisions and wasting of resources that would be available to us in times of crisis. As the pandemic hit, some persons, such as our popular entertainers whom would have seen the good times prior, felt the economic brunt. Many in the society blamed them for being ill-prepared, citing that they should not benefit from the government’s care programmes. However, as a society with shortcomings and vulnerabilities, we are called to show mercy and love as the story of the Prodigal Son reminds us (Luke 15:11-32).
- Second, compassion is intervening in the human condition of hunger and lack of the basic needs for survival. Radio Jamaica’s Hotline host, Emily Shields, initiated the Hotline for the Elderly Programme from which many have benefitted through care packages and assistance with varying social needs. The elderly are one of the most susceptible groups in relation to the coronavirus, so with this in mind, she reached out to this group in a special way. The Word is, “Do this for them, and you do it also for Me.” (Matthew 25:40).
- Third, we need compassion in our distress of physical and emotional pain. There was the case of a “Good Samaritan” highlighted on the television news: a man saw the plight of another man on the roadside within the vicinity of the Kingston Public Hospital. He was obviously outraged and demanded that the hospital provide the attention and care for this ailing man who was subsequently admitted for medical care. We may not be able to eliminate certain pain and affliction, but through words of encouragement, prayer, and seeking professional intervention on behalf of others, this can make a difference. God works through us to be close to the brokenhearted and save the crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18).
While showing compassion is good, it does not stop there. There is the need to take it further by advocating on behalf of those who lack the necessary resources and defending the oppressed and victimized. In other words, assist in pursuing justice to end the cycle of dependency and reprisals.
Justice is defined as just behavior or treatment; the quality of being fair and reasonable; and the administration of the law or authority in maintaining this, according to the Oxford Dictionary. Therefore, one will agree that part of justice is showing compassion, such as in social justice, a call for the respect of human basic rights, and showing care and concern for the needs of others who are faced with injustice. Justice may be represented as follows:
- First, in a well-ordered society justice is seen to be done. One will be judged for an offence committed against the law with the relevant penalty applied. The Disaster Risk Management Act exists to contain the spread of the coronavirus. For example, those who hold illegal parties against the COVID-19 guidelines are brought to book. Justice is handed down for the protection of the society and to preserve lives (Isaiah 56:1).
- Second, society must speak out, and not remain silent in cases of injustice, breaches of the law, and mistreatment. In such cases, it is working with the enforcers of the law by reporting the crimes you observe, such as the illegal parties and those endangering the health of others by not wearing a mask. Do your part, preserve the law, do what is right (Psalm 106:3).
- Third, lobby on behalf of the less fortunate to ensure they have the rights and benefit of basic needs, decent accommodation, and a livable wage. It is about advocacy. Given the challenges of the pandemic, there are many people who cannot afford masks and hand sanitizers, let alone to change a mask every day or more frequently as required. Organizations such as the Church advocate within their membership to contribute these items toward care packages as part of their community outreach initiatives. It is speaking up for the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31: 8-9).
 Private sector pledges $150 million to COVID-19 fight, (Jamaica Gleaner, 2020), http://jamaicagleaner.com/article/news/20200322/private-sector-pledges-150-million-covid-19-fight
 HarperCollins Publishers, (Collins, 2021), https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/compassion
 Lexico (powered by Oxford 2021), https://www.lexico.com/definition/justice
Our Father and Protector, you have brought us thus far. We pray for your sustaining grace and strength to carry us through this crisis as we remember those who are affected – whether from contracting the virus, by caring for an infected loved one, or lost a loved one as a result. Lord, let our total trust be in you as we do our part in combating the virus and protecting the most vulnerable among us. In Christ Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
For Reflection and Discussion:
- What will it take for this momentum of kindness to continue?
- What have you learned from this crisis? How can this guide you to handle future crises?
- Do you think stronger measures are necessary to protect the population in crises of this proportion?
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a number of acute global challenges. One challenge that faith communities have faced is restrictions on physical gatherings. Countless Sunday services, prayer meetings, weddings, baptisms, funerals, youth retreats, conferences, and many other aspects of church life have been restricted over the past year in order to protect against the spread of COVID-19. Even as many faith communities have sought creative solutions in community care, poverty, and disaster relief as well as through alternative online fellowship, the possibility for faith communities to physically gather for worship and fellowship has been dearly missed by many.
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a series of overwhelming social and political challenges, including questions of equity of access to healthcare as well as intensifying issues of global poverty and inequality. It has also led to restrictions to freedom of movement. As a response to these challenges, many have raised the question: “Have the social distancing restrictions gone too far?” Many have questioned whether COVID-19 restrictions constitute a violation of fundamental rights or the right to freedom of religion or belief (FORB).
Global Baptists have been monitoring this issue since the early days of the pandemic, engaging with civil society, other faith groups, and local and national governments to try to find satisfying answers to this question. In the vast majority of cases, restrictions on religious gatherings to protect vulnerable persons in view of a public health crisis represents a legitimate restriction from a human rights perspective. Here we’ll explore the human rights framework for freedom of religion or belief and some of the implications for our faith communities in this extraordinary time.
FORB FUNDAMENTALS AND POSSIBLE LEGITIMATE LIMITATIONS
Article 18 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) states that:
“Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right includes freedom to change her/his religion or belief and the freedom, with others and in public or private, to manifest her/his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.”
Article 18 is enshrined in international treaty law through the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, communities of faith all across the globe have experienced some level of restrictions on gathering, worshiping together, and serving their communities. How is this possible when the right to manifest a religion or belief, in private or public, alone or with others, is enshrined in international human rights law?
The answer to this question lies in provisions within the human rights framework for the legitimate limitations of some aspects of the right to freedom of religion or belief under exceptional circumstances. Article 18 is divided between absolute or non-derogable rights which cannot be restricted under any circumstances, and other rights that may, under the most limited of circumstances, temporarily be restricted. Put simply, the right to confess or identify with your faith (for example: to confess your faith in Jesus Christ or to be a Christian) cannot be restricted under any circumstances; such a right is non-derogable. The right to manifest religious belief (for example: the right to express your faith in public, corporate worship) can however be restricted under a very limited set of circumstances. Any potential restriction to the manifestation of religious belief must fulfill all of the following four criteria. A proposed restriction must:
- Be provided for in existing law.
- Be necessary to protect:
- Public safety
- Public order or morals
- Rights and freedoms of others
- Be non-discriminatory.
- Be proportionate to the situation.
A restriction on religious gathering is then permissible if the country has legally codified a provision to restrict public gatherings in emergency situations that constitute a major threat to public health or public safety, i.e. a pandemic. Further, any such restrictions must be non-discriminatory, that is the restrictions must apply equally to all religious groups. Any restrictions on the gathering that are applied in a discriminatory way (i.e. one religious group receives exemptions from restrictions as a show of favoritism over other groups) are in violation of international human rights standards.
Finally, any restrictions on religious gatherings must be continually reassessed and adapted in proportion to the threat. In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, if the threat level lowers, then restrictions should be loosened. Further, if the threat is nearly entirely removed, then the restrictions on gathering should also be removed. To reiterate, any restriction on religious expressions in response to the pandemic must fulfill all four criteria. Failure to fulfill even one of the above criteria would render restrictions illegitimate by international human rights standards.
LOOKING BACK: Examples and Approaches from the European Context
The first wave of lockdowns to protect against the COVID-19 threat hit Europe in March 2020. Schools, offices, non-essential shops, indoor gatherings, public life, and religious services all but came to a halt in the hopes of limiting the spread of the virus and preventing hospitals and medical care providers from being overwhelmed. Restrictions were gradually loosened in Europe during the late spring and early summer as the infection rates waned. In Germany, for example, religious services were forbidden in the first lockdown in the spring but allowed during the summer under specific hygiene regulations. An April decision from the German Constitutional Court indicated that blanket prohibitions on religious services, even in response to a public health crisis, are not compatible with fundamental rights guaranteed by the German constitution.Measures made to protect public health should not constitute an all-out ban on religious gatherings in Germany. In reflection of this decision and in contrast to the previous lockdown, religious gatherings are still allowed in Germany during the second “lockdown,” which began in November 2020, was made stricter before Christmas, and remained in effect until the spring of 2021.
In the spring of 2020, the Conference of European Churches (CEC) Working Group on Human Rights produced a position paper, addressing issues of freedom of religion or belief during the COVID-19 crisis. The group assessed the restrictions on religious gatherings as in-line with international human rights standards and encouraged religious communities to cooperate with public health authorities while also defending the rights of individuals and communities to question protocols through the appropriate channels, should they suspect they doubt the legality of any of the measures. CEC indicated that “to do so, is not a sign of a lack of solidarity, but of the exercise of another fundamental right – that of legal protection.” Indeed, even with all of the difficulties, there have been countless stories of faith communities demonstrating solidarity throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, both in their cooperation with protocols intended to protect public health as well as their willingness to support the sick, marginalized, and vulnerable persons impacted by the pandemic. Baptists have been among the voices calling for justice in global vaccine distribution as well as in providing crisis relief for those affected by earthquakes in Croatia, the explosions in Beirut, and refugees and asylum-seekers living in vulnerable circumstances in Turkey and the Balkans. The danger in all of these crises has only been intensified by the ongoing pandemic conditions.
LOOKING FORWARD IN HOPE
The COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the greatest challenges of our lifetimes. We have lost many to this illness. Many more have suffered emotionally, spiritually, financially, and socially as a result of the isolation caused by the largely necessary social distancing protocols. The civil and political rights that we hold so dear, and that some were previously lucky enough to take for granted, were suddenly temporarily restricted in order to prevent a deadly, exponential spread of the virus. Many asked if their rights, including their right to religious freedom, were being violated while also worrying about the rights of their brothers and sisters in faith across the globe. It seems, however, that the COVID-19 pandemic was not used as a pretext to restrict freedom of religion or belief in all but the rarest of cases. The majority of restrictions on public gatherings seem to have fallen under the purview of legitimate limitations to collective worship in view of a grave public health threat.
Still, we have seen Baptists pose reasonable questions to their governments about the justice and proportionality of certain COVID-19 measures; such questioning should not only be seen as permissible but vital to the health of a democratic society. Further, we have seen Baptists make bold and Christ-like efforts to support the most vulnerable during the pandemic.
With mass vaccination efforts already underway, there is hope on the horizon for an end to the pandemic. With this, we can rightly hope for a day where we can again gather again in worship and physical community. But there is still danger on the horizon. The Baptist World Alliance has called broadly for a just global distribution of the vaccine. Fair distribution of the vaccine in all countries and regions and across all income levels is not only vital from a justice standpoint, but also vital to effectively combat COVID-19 and prevent dangerous mutations. As Baptists and people of faith, it is important that we continue to follow recommended health protocols, encourage our communities to seek vaccination, and continue to monitor the situation regarding freedom of religion or belief. We pray for the good health of our neighbors, we mourn for those whom we have lost, we stand up for dignity and equality for all in the vaccination process, and we pray for a day when we can soon gather again in praise of the God of all hope who walks with us even in the valley of the shadow of death.
 To see if your country has signed and ratified the ICCPR, visit https://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?chapter=4&clang=_en&mtdsg_no=IV-4&src=IND
 For more information, see: https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/gottesdienste-verfassungsgericht-corona-101.html
Conference of European Churches (CEC). 2020. CEC Thematic Group on Human Rights reflections on Freedom of Religion or Belief during the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. 2020. https://www.ceceurope.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Covid-19-and-FORB-FINAL-20-04-2020-.pdf
World Health Organization (WHO). 7 April 2020. Practical considerations and recommendations for religious leaders and faith-based communities in the context of COVID-19. guidelines for religious organizations. https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/practical-considerations-and-recommendations-for-religious-leaders-and-faith-based-communities-in-the-context-of-covid-19
United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. March 2020. The Global Response to the Coronavirus: Impact on Religious Practice and Religious Freedom. https://www.uscirf.gov/resources/factsheet-global-response-coronavirus-covid-19-and-impact-religious-practice-and
For Reflection and Discussion
- Do you think geographic areas with the most expansive personal freedoms have been the most challenged by restrictions on the freedom of assembly? Why or why not?
- One of the biggest arguments against restrictions on religious gatherings has been that it is not non-discriminatory, and therefore does not meet all four criteria. Even when certain restrictions apply to all religious gatherings, restrictions often differ for non-religious gatherings, i.e., for stores and the retail industry, bars/restaurants and the hospitality industry, or protests and political rallies. What discrepancies have you seen in your community and how has it made supporting restrictions more of a challenge?
- In what ways has your church worked to ensure equity of healthcare for underserved populations in your community?
COVID-19 continues to be an unstoppable pandemic with the capacity of locking down the whole world, causing many deaths and infecting millions of people. The virus is going to be endemic; it will stay with us. Concerning the discovery of a vaccine, the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Gherbreyesus said, “It won’t end the COVID-19 pandemic on its own, and there’s no guarantee that scientists will find one.”
Many experts have expressed similar opinions that the vaccines are “no guarantee for permanent eradication.” The WHO Director-General further said, “We will not – we cannot go back to the way things were.” We just have to adopt a new normal way of life.
Social media is full of ‘Gospel’ messages. We have heard many videos saying that COVID-19 is a warning sign of the end times, the signs of divine wrath, or the consequences of violations of natural laws. Some say that it is the end times, the fulfilment of 666, and China is branded as anti-Christ/Christian because of their anti-Christian attitude and activities. Some see it as God’s punishment for sinful people.
Instead of discerning God’s love amidst suffering, many preachers have over-emphasized an angry God. This is nothing but a prosperity theology. When we measure God’s works only from an “abundant blessings” and a “miraculous cure” perspective, then it is prosperity theology. In other words, such people can be termed as the worshipers of mammon (money and wealth). Some even prophesied that Israel will be the only country that will not be affected by COVID-19. (It was also affected by the pandemic.) For me, it is not a curse/divine punishment, but a blessing – it makes us realize our mistakes and open up new opportunities to work for God’s kingdom.
COVID-19 is challenging us to go out from the four walls of the church. We have been so satisfied with our normal get-together worship services, but worship services have now been locked down for months. COVID-19 is demanding a new Christian ministry in action. It is like telling us, “Come out from the church and go to homes, marketplaces, and preach there!” We are being reminded that the Church was started at home. God is there where one or two are gathered in God’s name. The Church is the people and not the magnificent building. The Church is also not a few older men making decisions for everybody. All people – men, women, youth, disabled, etc. – are included in Church. The Church becomes vibrant when we build the whole people of God. We need to build an inclusive Church where all are treated justly and equally. Today, it seems that people see only money, fame, and power. Nothing else.
It also seems that the world has lost the value of love, care, and support. It is as though humanity has no place in society. The story of Jyotikumari and her father testify to it. She is just a fifteen-year-old girl, but she dared to take her father home on a bicycle. They were evicted from the room where they lived in Delhi. The father, who had a broken leg, was seated on the carrier of an old bicycle, and she pedaled him to their home village in Bihar. The journey took seven days. The distance covered was around 1,000 miles. The landlord asked them to leave since they could not pay rent during the COVID-19 lockdown. We live in a world where human beings are treated worse than animals. They also passed by many churches, mosques, and temples, but nobody came forward to help. No one offered them shelter.
The COVID-19 pandemic is challenging us to show love and justice in action. It is urging us to go to the homes of drunkards, killers, commercial sex workers, and preach there! Pray there! Sing there! About justice, love, care, and solidarity. It is challenging us to be the hands and feet of Jesus in our everyday worlds.
For Reflection and Discussion
- Some Christians are saying that COVID-19 is a sign of the end times. What are your thoughts on this? What does the Bible say about indicators of the end times?
- What do you think it means to “discern God’s love amidst suffering” within your community? Do you agree that this should be our priority as people of faith? If so, what are practical ways to do so?
- Jyotikumari’s story is heartbreaking – evicted from home, cycling 1,000 miles, carrying her father and yet no “good Samaritan” passed by. For whom have you recently had the opportunity to express care and compassion? Did you or did you not act in a way that “shows love and justice in action”?