, 24 March, 2020 / 7:00 AM
The immediate closure of all places of worship in Kenya was among the raft of measures the government announced Sunday, March 22 in a bid to contain the spread of COVID-19 after the confirmed cases of the deadly virus increased more than twofold from 7 to 25, while in neighboring Tanzania, the country’s President was reported encouraging public worship.
“Let us not forget that Italy began its unfortunate experience through the decision of some people to continue attending gatherings, including religious ones, as if nothing had happened,” Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary of Health, Mutahi Kagwe said Sunday, March 22 during a press conference.
He slammed religious leaders in Kenya for allowing the faithful to congregate despite warnings against the same and termed the move irresponsible.
“On Sunday (March 22), Italy lost 784 people within 24 hours. We will not escape a similar fate if we do nothing to address the risk in such gatherings,” Mr. Kagwe said during the Press Conference.
Bishops in Kenya had, in their collective message dated March 19 announced that Churches would remain open for public celebration of Holy Mass, a move that attracted both praise and condemnation from the faithful as the government put in place measures to control the possible spread of COVID-19, including the suspension of public gatherings.
“Our Churches will remain open; they are not closing. They will be the focal point of prayer, where you will find solace and strength from God,” read part of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (KCCB) statement.
Adhering to the Bishops’ directive, Catholics congregated in various Churches across the country on Sunday, March 22, a move that received a backlash from netizens through an online debate that trended under the hashtag #IgnorantKenyans.
@IAcekid tweeted, “Church goers’ where will you run to after contracting the virus? You are giving our medics hard time!#IgnorantKenyans.”
@CharleeOddie1 noted, “Dear churches, In the holy book even Joseph was warned by God that Herod wanted to kill Jesus and he fled to Egypt. Trusting your God does not mean you should not take precautions. #IgnorantKenyans
During the March 22 briefing by the government, Kenya’s Interior Principal Secretary, Karanja Kibicho tasked administrative officers with the responsibility of ensuring that no religious gatherings take place in their respective jurisdictions saying, “Ensure all churches, mosques and temples are closed. If any are found open within your area, you will be held personally responsible.”
However, Catholics in the country have reacted against the government's reference to the Church as the “weakest link” in the fight against the global pandemic.
Archbishop Martin Kivuva of Mombasa said it was unfair to label the Church as a possible contributor to the crisis, saying it had always played a critical role in providing healthcare to Kenyans, the Daily Nation reported.
In a Facebook post, Fr. Casmir Odundo slammed two national dailies for carrying banner headlines referring to the Church as “agent of death” and “the weak link (in fight against COVID-19)” saying, “Contrary to the media coverage, the Church has been a strong link, agent of life and partner in the face of this epidemic and other major catastrophes in the nation and in the world.”
Referencing the March 21 National Prayer Day, the Director of Radio Umoja in Kenya’s Nakuru Diocese noted, “President Uhuru Kenyatta called on the Church to lead the country on a National Day of Prayer thus recognizing the unique role the Church has to play in this crisis.”
However, in neighboring Tanzania where 12 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed, President John Magufuli announced that the government would not close places of worship saying, “These Holy places are where God is. My fellow Tanzanians, let us not be afraid of going to praise Him.”
The Tanzanian President added, “Corona cannot survive in the body of Christ, it will burn. That is exactly why I did not panic while taking the Holy Communion.”
Ghana became the first country in Sub-Saharan Africa to suspend the public celebration of the Holy Eucharist, a decision taken by the Ghana Catholic Bishops’ Conference (GCBC) on March 16.
In Uganda, where one COVID-19 case has been confirmed, a Catholic priest was among several religious leaders arrested on Sunday, March 22 for defying a Wednesday, March 18 presidential directive against holding religious gatherings.
In the Southern Africa nation of Zimbabwe, the death of the 30-year-old broadcaster, Zororo Makamba after contracting COVID-19 has affected Zimbabweans who are now keen on social distancing, as Churches remained deserted on Sunday, March 22, BBC has reported.
ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.
Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa