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Soon after Günther Schlee took up a professorship at Arba Minch University, Ethiopia the university was closed as a measure to control the spread of the corona virus and the students went home. Schlee tried to continue teaching his class by email and asked his students to keep a diary. In this blog entry the professor shares parts of his correspondence with his students. A recurring theme in the first part of the series is the connection between corona and religion.

Disaster and Serendipity: How this research has come about

In February 2020 I interrupted my stay at Arba Minch University for a research trip to Sudan This break was meant to last one month, but it so far has not found an end, since it was impossible to return to Ethiopia. To prevent the spread of the corona virus, Ethiopian universities closed, Sudan closed its airports and boundaries and Ethiopia followed with the same measures a little later.

I tried to maintain contact to my students by email and wrote to them on 21 March from Abu Nacama on the Blue Nile:

» Dear all,

to make the best of the corona crisis from a social science point of view, I think we should regard it as a huge ‘natural experiment‘. ‘Natural’ in this sense means not designed by the researcher. For the first time in history one could say that ‘the world shuts down’ or at least that major parts of the global economy, including business travel and tourism, no longer take place and that at national and subnational levels educational systems and the whole of the public sphere (events, leisure activities) come to a halt. Consumption breaks away with unforeseen consequences for production.

In the end the consequences of the precautions may turn out to be much more severe than the consequences of the disease would have been.

Maybe food producers are on the safe side, but what will happen to the service sector? Temporary labour is sent home to live on what? Permanent labour will work from home or stop working, with their salaries continuing to be paid for a while, with which consequences for their employers? [...]

My suggestion is that you all use your forced stay away from the university to do some research on this topic wherever you are. Just keep a diary and note down all your observations which have anything to do with corona. Watch the media and record people’s reaction to media reports. Listen to discussions among your family and neighbours. How is daily life affected?

With ten such diaries from ten different locations in Ethiopia we will be able to write an interesting article together.

What do you think?

Günther «

Retrospectively, the guess that “[i]n the end the consequences of the precautions may turn out to be much more severe than the consequences of the disease would have been,” may sound like taking the pandemic too lightly. By the time of writing (August 2020) we still do not know which course the pandemic will take under different climatic conditions and much less which course it would have taken world-wide in the absence of precautions. But that a policy of ‘flattening the curve’ in order not to exceed the capacity of intensive care units cannot simply be transferred to poor countries in which no intensive care units are available to the bulk of the population anyhow, and that under certain conditions, like precarious economic circumstances in which people need a small income every day in order to have something to eat, it is legitimate to compare the cost of the precautions in terms of human lives to the costs of the pandemic. This phrase was meant as a reminder to look also at the effect of the precautions, including the negative ones. 


Corona and religion

Medhin, at his base in Sodo (see map) in the Wolaita zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Regional State (SNNPRS), in his mail from 5 May 2020, reports on observations he has made on the media and on direct observations about the local scene. Both are about clean and unclean animal food. In both the conventional distinction between ritually unclean and unclean from a hygienic or toxicological perspective is hard to maintain.

Medhin reports about media discussions about the origin of the corona virus. This is claimed to be found in “eating exotic animals which are forbidden by religious doctrine.” Dr Rodas Tadesse [who also has quite a presence on YouTube] cites the Mosaic prohibitions “to eat land animals that are not ruminants and fish without gills and scales”. In the discussions these were related to scientific findings about oysters containing radioactive materials and the mercury content of sword fish. “In the debate on JTV Ethiopia, Dr Rodas Tadesse stated that rats can transmit more than 35 diseases. For him for a thousand years in history, Ethiopia did not transfer diseases to the outside World, but received the last ten pandemics from outside. This is due to the fact that Ethiopian culture promotes to eat cloven-hoofed animals which are also ruminants and classified as clean in [...] the Old Testament.”

Local perspectives on Covid-19 included that it was not a simple disease but an indication of the end of the world. Punishment for sin comes in as an explanation, both in connection with food and in other contexts. “One local comedian in Shola Kodo Village declared that the people of the Far East were infected due to their unselective habit of eating unclean and game animals; Westerners are being stricken for the bad deeds they committed against the poor peoples. But ‘God is saving us from such a catastrophe.’”

Not everyone attributes sin to the Whites. When Medhin visited his mother on 28 March 2020 at Kodo Gawliya Village, she wondered what had happened, because she had not expected his visit. He explained about the corona virus and remarked that it was severely affecting White people. “She responded in contrast to the local comedian, ‘the White people are righteous people, so they should not be hurt. She wished them well and said:, ‘Faranjati Xillo’ meaning ‘the White people are righteous.’” What she shared with the comedian was the basic conviction that being affected by the virus or not has to do something with moral considerations.

On 3 April 2020, there was a mourning ceremony in Wolaita Sodo town. The evangelist Abraham Bota in his sermon in Wolaita Kalehiwot Church “motivated the people to follow preventive rules and regulations concerning Covid-19, particularly sanitation and keeping physical distance as advised by the World Health Organization and Institute of Public Health of Ethiopia. Another evangelist, Efesson Emane, citied the Old Testament scriptures and concluded that the pandemic is the indication of God`s punishment of human beings.” The preacher referred to Hezekiel chapter 34, Amos 6 and 8 and Jeremiah 9 [all these chapters are about sin and impending disaster].This may be characteristic of the mix of scientific and religious reasoning about the pandemic.


Similar observations in an Islamic context

The attribution of religious meanings to the corona pandemic resonated with ideas I had come across in the same period in neighbouring Sudan. Here is what I wrote to the group of students on 5 May 2020:

What I found most interesting in Medhin's text are his observations about religious explanations of the corona pandemic. These explanations can be used for exclusionary rhetoric. Corona is brought by those who eat impure animals and is a punishment by God, so its remedy is to keep those sinners=outsiders away. A colleague has mentioned to me a video showing how a ferenji [European]was beaten up in Addis Abeba. Such a course of action seems to fit this kind of logic. Hygiene and sasocisss'social distance' thereby acquire an additional, religious ‘social distance’ thereby acquire an additional, religious and moral meaning: distance form sin and sinners.

Orthodox Christians are not alone in stressing that corona is not meant for them, but is a punishment God metes out to others. The Friday sermon which I attended in a mosque in Sudan on March 20 illustrates this.The khatiib [the one who delivers the khutba], a lecturer of agricultural economics, devoted his khutba, which turned out unusually long, to the theme of Corona. Regular prayers were found to be the solution. Unnamed scientists had reported that the virus stays in the nose for about three hours before it moves on. As during the ablutions the nose is rinsed, with some water drawn up the nostrils, Muslims who keep the prayer times run no risk of infection. The only problem is the long interval between the morning prayer and the noon prayer. To cut this interval in two, he recommended salaat ad-duha, a sunna [customary, non-obligatory] prayer of two rakaa [prostrations]

This may appear a rather materialist view of the workings of prayers, since it was the effect of washing the nose during the ablutions which were thought of having the sanitary effect. Would washing the nose without subsequent prayers be less effective? This question was not addressed and the line of reasoning of the sermon seems to have been different. The omniscient God when revealing the Ourcan, the basis of the sharica, already arranged things in a way that pious Muslims would not be affected by Corona.

The distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims, ghayru l Muslimiin, played a great role in the sermon. France, Spain and Italy, all non-Islamic countries, in spite of being scientifically and technologically advanced, now have some of the highest infection rates.

So far my notes about the sermon. The khatiib came basically to the same conclusions as the Orthodoc Chtistian discussants cited by Medhin: Those who follow the rules given by God do not risk contracting corona.[...]

Stay well!


The Evangelical churches and corona

In his mail from 21 May 2020, Loang Chuol, writing from Gambella, a marginalized region far to the west, makes similar observations about the connection of corona with religious and moral categories.

As all religious places were closed by the government, Loang spent time with five to ten people who before used to attend the services in the the Makane Yesus church every Sunday. To explain the cause of the pandemic, these interlocutors referred to the original sin and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden. Humankind is still punished for this original sin. Loang’s interlocutors also claimed that Covid-19 is meant when the Christian Bible describes the “many problems which will occur in this world” in the last days [the Apocalypse?]. According to them “gay marriage which was introduced by developed countries” is one of the sins for which the corona virus is the punishment.

For Kebede’s Konso (see map) interlocutors, the risk of not going to church, which they perceived as a duty and its omission as a sin, is worse than the risk of corona infection. Being poor and pious, they did not feel at risk. With an element of playfulness they explained: “Corona is the disease of the rich, so there is no way I can be infected,“ or “We believe in God. The virus cannot affect us.”

People in Arba Minch, including our two researchers Biritu and Kansite, are worried about difficulties with maintaining church life. Biritu reports that she has skipped the Sunday service and held prayers in her family at home, but on May 24 she went to church again “to pray to God because there is no medicine for this virus. Healing comes only from God.” After that and other errands, on her return home, she explains: “I washed my hands 20 to 30 seconds and all my clothes and took a shower.” Some people explain the spread of the virus by moral and religious causation, some by bio-medical causation. Biritu obviously combines the two.

On 12 May 2020, Kansite writes: “[...] My membership in [the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY), Secha congregation] enabled me to closely observe the response and activities of the church during this pandemic.[..]"

On 17 March, in response to the government’s ban on mass public gathering, the church’s council of elders has cancelled its weekly programs where approximately 300 souls gather at a time. Since then, only group of 10-15 individuals can pray, worship and study the Bible together.

As a strategy to smoothly run Sunday program on 22 March, 5-7 neighborhood families were grouped together to choose a convenient place (either of the members’ home) that can accommodate the participants. Program leaders where strictly oriented to offer hand-washing water and soap both before and after the Sunday service has taken place. Physical distancing and non-shaking hands were also additional rules to be observed by all participants.

On 26 March, discussion was held with household heads who have hosted the Sunday program. Some church representatives were also invited. The main purpose of the meeting was to discuss the challenges faced during the Sunday’s program and suggest future directions. The discussion was commenced by a 10 minutes orientation by a healthcare profession[al] invited from Arba Minch University to share his expert knowledge about Covid-19.

When the participants were asked to comment on the Sunday’s program, nearly all participants reported that their houses were overcrowded. They also worried that it may increase the chance of their family members’ exposure to the disease. Thus, as a future strategy to continue the program, participants suggested that each family should undertake regular programs at their home to avoid social contact and minimize the risk of being infected. Therefore, since 29 March, all church’s regular programs were decided to be undertaken by each family.

However, this strategy is not free from limitations. Some of the major challenges faced during this time include;

  • Those families who do not read the Bible couldn’t undertake programs [for lack of literacy].
  • Families with members that are from different denominations and religions ... [have difficulty to agree on one form of worship]
  • [Church] members who are either single or live alone also faced a problem
  • Reduction of the Church’s income which has resulted in the termination of the building which was under construction
  • Diaconia service, whereby participants contribute money and items to help the poor is terminated."


Corona and Ramadan

Shafi Muze, a Muslim writing from a Muslim setting, Worabe (Silte), expresses similar concern about reduced opportunities for religious practice.

The month of Ramadan in the year 2020 lasted from 24 April to 23 May. Shafi sent a report on 28 April, when the restrictions on public events started to interfere with the usual observances of Ramadan. Mosques were closed. So people could not attend the nightly Qurcan recitations.
“Covid-19 impacted Muslims celebrating Ramadan in Worabe town (also in other ways. Normally). Every day of Ramadan, practicing Muslims are to reconnect with their faith through acts of worship, such as praying, reading the Qurcan and charitable giving, as well as rekindling relationships with friends and family.
Ramadan in Silte is high season for shopping as stores stock traditional treats and themed decorations. Streets are laced with festive lanterns and colorful lights, while residents decorate their homes with ornaments, some shaped as crescents and stars, to mark the start of the month. This year, curfews and lockdowns imposed in Worabe town, as well as reduced opening hours, mean that many Muslims will struggle to prepare as usual for the month ahead:. Independent businesses and market sellers are likely to be hardest hit by the pandemic as Ramadan is typically a key period for bakeries, restaurants and fruit sellers.
Covid-19 impacted Ramadan mealtimes. [...] Iftar - "breaking the fast" - is a highly anticipated meal often shared with extended family and friends but not this year. Governments urge people to physically distance themselves from one another. It may also prevent those living in smaller households, who are often invited to join a larger gathering, from getting a free meal. [In other years] often charitable organizations or individuals erect large tents where [also the less fortunate] Muslims can gather and break the fast.
Covid-19 impacted prayers in Ramadan. Every evening during Ramadan, extended prayers, called tarawih, take place in mosques around the world. These communal acts of worship are held in the belief that there is greater reward for prayers made in congregation. Mosques fill with worshippers during this time: the more popular venues are filled to overflowing, with the faithful following prayers from the courtyard and surrounding streets. But this year, all mosques [...]  closed. Tarawih prayers are a key part of Ramadan and they have been cancelled by many  mosques.  In some villages [...], the call to prayer, which is done by loudspeaker five times a day, has been used to encourage people to stay safe [and to pray at home].”

A material aspect of changing conditions are the rapidly rising food prices which affect the dietary habits, marked by rich nightly meals, in Ramadan.

These are some ways in which religion has influenced the explanation of the pandemic and the pandemic has affected the practice of religion. They comprise etiological accounts (explanations of the origin of the pandemic in a religious and moral frame), discourses of identity and exclusion (blaming others) and the worry about disruption of religious institutions and the break-down of faith-based solidarity.