Battle against COVID-19 intensifies in Abuja

MANY Nigerians were obviously pleased with the decision of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 to allow places of worship to re-open. Coming after months of lockdown and other social restrictions meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease in the country, it was seen as a welcome development and perhaps, a prelude to the return to normalcy.

But not many people applauded the guidelines, which the churches and mosques, were required to adhere to. As part of the protocol, the Federal Government stipulated that the places of worship should open for one hour, while the congregation should observe physical distancing of at least two meters between persons. It also prescribed temperature checks and mandatory use of face masks.

Adherents were also required to sign an attendance register, while children, those above 55 years and individuals with underlying health conditions were discouraged from attending religious services. According to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, practices that require sharing of materials should be limited. For example, ablution should be performed at home.

The NCDC guidelines also stipulated that religious centres be disinfected routinely before and after worship. The guidelines stated that “there should be no entry without face masks. 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.”

While some of the protocols like temperature screening of worshippers can easily be done and are being carried out, many others are being flouted as findings indicate.

Many adherents, who took part in services in mosques and churches in the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, since the re-opening have failed to observe the guidelines. Temperature checks and attendance were taken at some churches, but the use of face masks was not complied with. Some even dismissed as ludicrous, the idea of singing and praying while wearing face masks.

For instance, at the Ark of God Church, Kubwa, the attendees did not wear face masks, while musical instruments, including microphones and organs, were in full use contrary to the guidelines.

At the Redeemed Christian Church of God branch, also in Kubwa, the temperature of individuals was checked at the entrance, but only a few worshippers were seen wearing face masks during the Sunday services. They subsequently removed the masks during the praise and worship session.

The congregation at the Our Lady Queen Catholic Pro-Cathedral, Garki, observed the physical distancing, while attendance was also taken at the entrance.

In mosques, little or no regard was paid to physical distancing as the faithful stood shoulder to shoulder during the daily and Juma’at prayers. Also, hand sanitizer was not provided at many mosques; the worshippers simply performed ablution with water, while only a few persons wore face masks.

It was also observed that the National Mosque did not provide sanitizer for the faithful, many of who simply performed their ablution with water in kettles, contrary to the guidelines that advised worshippers to perform ablution at home. The temperature of the faithful was not taken at many worship centres in the city.

For some Nigerians, old habits die hard. Individuals could still be seen shaking hands and hugging each other after the prayers despite the attendant risks.

With cases rising above 15,682 and 409 deaths in the country, many argued that it was too early to ease the lockdown on religious places, noting that the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 simply succumbed to pressure from certain quarters.

Critics equally believe that the move may exacerbate the coronavirus burden in the country.

An Abuja resident, Mr Kayode Disu, was of the view that the reopening of places of worship was hasty. He expressed doubts about adherence to the COVID-19 guidelines in churches and mosques.

“I consider it too early to open places of worship; I doubt if worshippers can adhere to the COVID-19 guidelines of the PTF, especially when it comes to social distancing. Maybe, they might manage to obey those instructions in their first service, but I doubt if they can be sustained owing to the fact that people will get carried away on the long run,” he said.

Disu pointed out that many individuals would use the excuse of faith to flout the protocol, adding that opening the places of worship might likely lead to an increase in infections.

The civil servant did not believe that the worship centres could sustain the decontamination of their auditoriums for long either.

He noted, “In churches, there are a lot of hugs and handshakes during services and some of the pastors have the false belief that if you’re a child of God and have faith, you cannot be afflicted by the virus. Yes, there are miracles, but we shouldn’t tempt God.

“In mosques, worshippers usually shake hands after prayer Sand the plastic kettles with which they do ablution are shared by all. All these can result in an increase in infections and at some point, handlers of these places of worship might not be able to sustain the decontamination of their facilities and the provision of the non-pharmaceutical items required to mitigate the spread.”

An activist and co-convener, Centre for Liberty, Ralph Adebayo, agreed with the guidelines but stressed that the consequences for violation should also have been spelt out.

According to him, this omission should be addressed by the government in order to put would-be violators on notice.

He stated, “Although we are seeing a consistently worrying rise in the numbers of cases recorded in the last few days, the guidelines laid out for churches and mosques appear to be in order.

“It is, however, very important that as the guidelines have been laid out; the consequences for disobeying them should also be spelt out. If there are no consequences for religious places that intend to stretch the boundaries of the guidelines, I fear that we may see an astronomical rise in the number of COVID-19 cases in the coming days.”

In the opinion of a lawyer, Mr Johnson Oyewole, the protocols could help in curbing COVID-19 spread if meticulously observed by religious places. He described churches and mosques as “places of contacting this disease if all the aforesaid protocols are not observed accordingly.”

“It is more advisable that places of worship should continue to maintain their online services, because churches and mosques are among the easy contact points for this disease. Above all, they won’t be able to observe all the 12 protocols put in place by the NCDC,” he noted.

An activist, Ariyo Dare-Atoye, argued that the guidelines were an adaptation of the World Health Organisation’s coronavirus response protocols, which he said were riddled with inconsistencies.

According to him, the global health body had earlier said “there was no specific evidence to suggest that the wearing of masks by the mass population has any potential benefit.”

“But if we are to tell ourselves the truth and without indulging in the sickening political correctness of the pandemic that has polarised the West, the compliance by these institutions in Nigeria will not last,” he argued.

On how his congregation had been coping with the guidelines, Pastor Emma Adefowora of the Trinity Living Church Worldwide Ministry, Abuja, said many found it difficult to wear face masks for a long time due to breathing challenges.

He noted that the need for social distancing had also limited the number of attendees.

With the scepticism being expressed by many individuals, it remains to be seen how long Nigerians will continue to adhere to the guidelines.

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