Coronavirus. Pandemic. Lockdown. Social distancing. Suddenly these words and phrases began to echo round the world as the Covid-19 virus spread from country to country, from continent to continent – spread as no disease has ever spread before. Soon it became a global danger, infecting even princes and prime ministers. But what is the impact on our Christian brothers and sisters, many of them poor, many of them persecuted?
Take Mukhtaran Bibi, for example, a partially-sighted widow in Pakistan. She and her three daughters work as domestic helpers in other people’s homes. But when Pakistan went into lockdown they could no longer work and had no income. Their wages had been too low to set aside savings, and they had only meagre food stocks in the home. Mukhtaran’s only son used to try to support the family by begging on the streets. But social distancing means this is now illegal.
Hundreds of thousands of Pakistani Christians face the same plight as Mukhtaran. Not just domestic helpers, but those in factories and brick-kilns that have been closed to stop the virus spreading, auto-rickshaw drivers who have no customers as people stay home, daily labourers who hire themselves out each day for construction work which has now been put on hold – all of these have lost their livelihoods in an instant. The same is true for many other countries where Christians are poor and despised.
Then there are the pastors whose only income was the giving of their congregation at Sunday services or pastoral visits. Now there is no Sunday worship, no visiting. In any case, their church members have nothing to give. The pastors are left destitute. This applies not just in Pakistan, but in many other countries, including Uganda where, like Pakistan, coronavirus has coincided with a plague of locusts.
Discrimination, violence and the virus
For Ethiopian Christians, the Covid-19 virus was the third major disaster to afflict them. Like Pakistan and Uganda, their crops had recently been ravaged by locusts. In addition, they were facing ongoing anti-Christian violence.
In other cases, Covid-19 did not just coincide with persecution but actually caused it. In Sri Lanka, some Hindu Tamils are blaming Christians for the virus. A pastor came from Switzerland and held a Christian worship service in Jaffna, after which it was discovered that he was infected with Covid-19 (caught while he was in Sri Lanka). Sri Lankan Buddhist fundamentalists are posting on social media reminders that the virus raged through a Christian church in South Korea and that it is rampant in Italy, viewed as a pre-eminently Christian country. “Why has God forsaken the Christian community?” they ask.
A separate challenge faces Sri Lankan Christian converts from Buddhism and Hinduism. A Sri Lankan pastor, giving an update to Barnabas Fund on 27 March, explained that the government had announced it would distribute food through the majority places of worship. But converts would not be helped by either a temple or a mainstream church, so they would not be able to get the food.
Discrimination has been seen in India against Indians from the north-east of the country, which borders China where the coronavirus outbreak began. Indians from that region have facial features rather like Chinese people, and are being “teased, abused and humiliated by the people, who are calling them as ‘Coronavirus’. Some shops are refusing to sell them groceries. Landlords are asking them to vacate the houses,” wrote an Indian Christian leader to Barnabas Fund on 29 March. There are a large number of Christians in some states of north-east India. There are also examples of verbal abuse, harassment and even stoning of foreigners, which spells danger for Indian Christians who are always struggling to convince the Hindu majority that they are loyal Indian citizens, not agents of the West.
Namibia is 90% Christian, but police brutality and human rights abuses in the name of public safety were already a familiar part of life in Namibia before the virus. Citizens braced themselves for an escalation of such behaviour as the country moved to a martial-law style of full lockdown on 27 March. Namibia, called after the Namib, a rainless coastal strip with gigantic sand dunes, is characterised by harsh desert and semi-desert conditions; 80% of its food is imported from South Africa. The public health system has deteriorated over the last five years and only 20% of the population have proper medical insurance. Humanly speaking, it is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to Covid-19.
Several church leaders have shared with Barnabas the dangers arising from the ignorance of the poorest and least educated in their societies. In Ethiopia, the Church urged Christians to follow the World Health Organisation’s guidance and to pray night and day. However, confided an Ethiopian church minister to Barnabas Fund, “with the cultural and religious backward attitude of our people, I am afraid to say that the virus will be very disastrous.”
In the Central African Republic, where the virus was first brought by a pastor returning from a trip to Europe, church leaders were doubtful that traditional behaviours could be changed by government announcements, for example, the habit of gathering in large numbers for funerals. “We are in very hot times,” wrote one on 28 March, “the lack of electricity and running water in the city, are not to settle the situation. The hygienic conditions are deplorable … The borders are closed. Commodity prices are rising because everything comes from Cameroon. Thank you for praying for the survival of the people.”
In northern Malawi, a rumour was circulating in late March that the coronavirus was a blood-sucking animal. Many Christians therefore took to spending the night in church buildings, so that some could sleep while others kept watch for the bloodsuckers. Just at the time when people should have been distancing themselves and staying home, they were gathering together in the belief that they would be safer that way.
Sad to say, some church leaders have insisted on continuing to hold Sunday worship meetings, for example in the USA, South Korea and Uganda. Some Muslims in Pakistan also have been resistant to instructions on physical/social distancing, believing that this would go against their Islamic duties and practices. This attitude is a cause of great concern, especially to Christians involved in providing medical care in Pakistan. “We are fearing a rapid great transmission if this mindset continues,” wrote a senior Pakistani Christian involved with Christian hospitals on 25 March. There are at least 65 Christian hospitals in Pakistan, most of which have no outside source of funding to assist them.
Key as at 2 April
Countries with more than 25 cases of Covid-19
Areas where locusts are currently
Areas where locusts are expected by June 2020
Countries on lockdown
Countries where Barnabas Fund is helping locust affected Christians
Countries where Barnabas Fund is helping Covid-19 affected Christians
Building up believers who cannot go to church
In many countries, Christians are quickly learning the skills necessary to provide their Sunday worship online in some form, even if it is just filming it with a phone for others to view on their phones, as in some Ugandan churches. But in Namibia, where only 10% of the population have access to the internet, even this is not possible, and instead there is a surge of interest in radio.
A presidential call to prayer
The president of Christian-majority Ghana called his country to fast, repent, confess their sins and pray, while they implemented safety measures. “I appeal to all Ghanaians, Christians and Muslims, to observe a national day of fasting and prayer. Let us pray to God to protect our nation and save us from this pandemic,” said President Nana Akufo-Addo on 21 March.
Tears for a cup of tea
In Indonesia, there is a general call for people to help those whose livelihoods have been badly affected by everyone staying home. One such group of workers are the Gojek motorcycle taxi drivers. Called by an app, Gojek motorcyclists transport people and run errands.
Senny, a Christian who owns a small restaurant, had closed up for the day, put the ingredients away, turned off the stoves and cleaned the kitchen when a Gojek driver came in, asking if she was still taking orders. At first, Senny felt inclined to refuse but changed her mind, seeing “his face full of hope”. She explained it would take a long time, but he was happy to wait, telling Senny that he had waited on the streets for work since morning and only now had got his first job.
Wondering how the driver’s family would live if he only got one job a day, Senny prepared the food the driver had ordered for his customer, and made him some hot, sweet tea. When she put the tea on the table, the driver was shocked, saying he had not ordered a drink. “It is free for you,” said Senny, which caused tears to come to the driver’s eyes. As she handed over the five portions he had to deliver to his customer, she also added a small plastic bag alongside it, saying, “The small bag is dinner for you.” Again the driver’s eyes brimmed with tears and he thanked her hoarsely.
After the driver had left, Senny asked the restaurant staff to give thanks “because even though the condition of our restaurant is not good, we still have enough food for us every day. Thank you, God.”
Christians offering aid
The well-resourced churches in Ghana have donated items to the Ministry of Health, including personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers. They also lent ten vans equipped with public address systems to the National Commission for Civic Education and pledged to provide drivers, fuel and vehicle maintenance as long as the coronavirus crisis lasted.
The strict lockdown in India soon created hunger, food shortages and untreated medical problems in the villages, reported the Church of North India. All public transport was shut down. Thousands of migrant workers whose jobs disappeared overnight started journeying on foot from Delhi back to their home towns, without adequate food, water or shelter. Some had distances of hundreds of kilometres to cover. Children and elderly were also on the move, as separated family members tried to find each other. Punjab is known as “India’s bread-basket” and is famous for its wheat, which is the staple carbohydrate of the northern part of this vast country. The wheat crop was ready to harvest in late March, but people were not allowed to go to the fields. There have been reports of riot-like situations in the villages. At the time of writing, the Church in Punjab was exploring with the government how to distribute or facilitate access to food and medical supplies.
But even the poorest Christians are striving to help others. “This will be a pea in an elephant’s mouth,” said a church leader from Nepal as he described the near-futility of his church’s efforts to raise funds to help in the face of overwhelming needs. Hundreds of thousands of people in the Kathmandu valley would be the first victims of the lockdown if it lasted more than a week, he predicted. Nepal, already poor and underdeveloped, received a rush of people who had been working in Covid-19 infected India, as they hastily crossed back into Nepal, just before India closed the border. An estimated 50,000 labourers arrived and scattered themselves across the country as each went to their own family home. Some even fought with police in their efforts to get back to Nepal.
Many churches in drought-ridden Namibia are distributing food parcels and making their water taps available to use by the community, because people in the shanty towns do not have access to water. “We hope that our Lockdown Theologies will bring some comfort,” said a Namibian church leader to Barnabas Fund, explaining how they were seeking to show, in word and deed, God’s love and presence in the midst of the lockdown suffering.