Tanzanian Churches are a Hub for Prevention (and Potential Hotspot) for Coronavirus

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Tanzania’s President John Magufuli worships with his wife at a Seventh Day Adventist Church in 2017. Creative Commons photo.

By Georgia Gee

This story originally appeared in Religion Unplugged, a non-profit news organization, funded by TheMediaProject.org, which serves as an online news magazine on the topic of religion.

On Easter Sunday in the center of Dar es Salaam, nearly 40 people sat next to one another, gathered in prayer. Young children were running around in the aisle of the small conference room. All other eyes were focused on the pastor standing at the pulpit and preaching into his microphone.

“They are amazed and asking themselves, why is there no lockdown in [my] country, while every country in the world has this lockdown?” said Dr. Godfrey Emanuel, pastor of the Tanzania Fellowship of Churches (TFC) and chairman of a national prayer committee.

On a normal Sunday, the church draws about 50 to 75 people. For the congregants who chose to stay home, the church service was live streamed on Facebook.

“Praise God,” Emmanuel said as he lifted his finger. “It’s not a small issue but our president has answered and said we believe in God… and this corona can never stay in the blood of Jesus.” Shouts of “amen” could be heard from his congregation as they broke out in applause.

In Tanzania, the spread of the coronavirus is still considered to be in its early stages. As of April 13, the country confirmed 46 cases and three deaths, according to the health minister, adding 14 new cases overnight, the steepest rise in cases so far.

While COVID-19 forced many countries to cancel religious services, stay inside and practice social distancing, Tanzania’s houses of worship have remained open. This weekend the gathering at the TFC was one of many still taking place across the East African country, in which over 60 percent of the population is Christian and 35 percent is Muslim.

The government continues to advise its citizens to attend churches and mosques. In mid-March, President John Magufuli closed down schools and public gatherings for a month but vowed he would never shut places of worship, as “corona cannot survive in the body of Christ.”

Through their call to prayer and repentance, churches have become both hubs for the country’s prevention strategy, as well as hotspots for potential outbreaks of the virus.

Magufuli’s political opposition criticized his response and called for him to “listen to science.” Magufuli, who has a PhD in chemistry, reiterated his religious message during a Good Friday mass at a church in northwestern Tanzania. In his speech, he warned of potential food shortages throughout the country but said that through Christ’s crucifixion God will save humanity from the outbreak of the pandemic.

Studies have shown that in previous epidemics, such as the outbreak of HIV and Ebola in Tanzania and its neighboring countries, churches and religious institutions have played a significant role in education and addressing stigma.

“They play an important role because they are trusted,” said Amy Patterson, professor at the University of the South and expert in African politics and global health. “They’re a place of community.”

During the pandemic, religious leaders in Tanzania have become a bridge between the government, health officials and its citizens. On Twitter, Tanzania’s Ministry of Health shared an Easter lunch it held last week in which it advised leaders to deliver health guidance, such as handwashing, to their communities.

But COVID-19 presents unprecedented challenges to a society in which belief and religion is so deep-rooted. “This is a new experience,” said Dr. Elisha Osati, President of the Tanzanian Medical Association (MAT). “As the government has not banned religious gatherings, it remains the individual’s decision,” he said.

It’s an individual decision that could have fatal consequences. Church gatherings in France and South Korea led to extensive communal transmission of the virus. And with Tanzania’s government refusing to impose a lockdown or secure its borders while church-goers flock to their places of worship, experts say it’s a matter of when and not if the virus will spread there.

A spiritual and physical fight

The first death from coronavirus was recorded on March 31 in Dar es Salaam. Since then many churches in the city — the largest in Tanzania with a dense population of 6.7 million — have remained open to their congregations.

Good Friday services in Dar es Salaam drew large crowds with hundreds of people, even though the services were also broadcast on Youtube live streams. Lines of people can be seen washing their hands outside at soap and water stations before entering their churches. Photos also show churchgoers temperatures being taken before they can go inside.

Under the guidance of Tanzania’s Ministry of Health, preventive measures have been taken to halt the spread of the virus. The churches said they strictly instruct their congregants to wash their hands and encourage physical distance. In some cases they were shortening their services, limiting the number of congregants and instructing those participating to wear masks.

Four pastors across Dar es Salaam told Religion Unplugged that their churches held services for Easter Sunday with 50–200 people attending. Pastors advised their congregants to repent in the face of the virus and adhere to basic health guidance.

“We cannot stop praying,” said Adodo Mwasongwe, associate pastor at Kings Touch church in the north east of Dar es Salaam. “The hospitals are not closed. So if they are not closed why are we supposed to close the church? It is the spiritual hospital.”

“We are praying for the UK. We are praying for America,” Mwasongwe added. “We are praying for Spain and Italy and all other places.”

The calls for prayer are shared across social media. A Whatsapp message from a pastor instructed readers to perform a “self-examination,” a faith-based version of the medical guidelines for coronavirus. “Wash your hands” was followed by “keep a social distance” and “sanitize your life with the word of God.”

Both the physical and spiritual advice given by religious leaders is taken seriously by their worshippers. “It is important for us to go to church,” said Allen Mbaga, a consultant and member of the TFC in Dar es Salaam, “because there are messages we have to hear concerning corona prevention and the Christian message.”

Mosques remain open but the Tanzanian Muslim community has also adopted restrictions. On March 18, The National Muslim Council gave a list of instructions, including the closure of schools and advice for the elderly to stay at home and avoid Friday services.

But as long as the Tanzanian government continues to keep houses of worship open, churches across the country will carry on faithfully reinforcing their message — through personal interaction.

“The good message that they’re giving on the one hand is undermined by their practice,” said Dr. Mike Jennings, expert in development in sub-Saharan Africa.

Church closures and economic concerns

Despite their popularity, some churches have closed since the outbreak, using social media to connect with their communities instead. They held virtual services on Easter Sunday.

Adam Babcock is pastor of a half-Tanzanian, half-expat congregation at Vineyard Church in north Dar es Salaam.

“Immediately we all said ‘okay, we’re going to abide by that,’” Babcock said. “‘We’re going to be proactive and preemptive and try to safeguard what we can.’” Alongside other international organizations, he closed his church on March 17, the day that Magufuli announced schools would be shut down.

Last week, UNICEF Tanzania hosted an interfaith webinar with religious leaders from Tanzania and South Africa — which currently has over 2,000 cases, the highest number in the continent — who said they were virtually encouraging their worshippers to practice social distancing.

For Babcock, online streaming has its pros and cons. He can reach a wider global audience but is unable to connect with many from his local community who do not have access to a smartphone or the internet. This means that the messages he shared with his congregation, including basic health advice, may not reach them. “They are feeling disconnected,” Babcock said.

The big question, Babock says, is how the coronavirus outbreak is not only going to affect his members, but the population of the city, in which three-quarters of its residents live in informal settlements, and across the country, where more than half the population doesn’t have access to clean water.

“We are already seeing that predictions output for the continent are pretty dire,” said professor Amy Patterson. “So people will not just be looking to these religious institutions for spiritual comfort but also for material support.”

Before the outbreak, Vineyard Church hosted 300–400 children every week in a nearby schoolyard, giving them meals and enforcing handwashing. But now that the school is closed and precautions on large gatherings are in place, this community outreach cannot continue.

As the one month ban on these restrictions expires on April 17, Babcock hopes a new ban will not take its place so he and others can more actively provide for their communities. But herein lies the challenges of handling the pandemic in Tanzania; relaxing the minimal provisions that are currently in place will likely lead to an even more rapid spread of COVID-19.

Georgia Gee reports on international human rights and foreign affairs. She is a graduate student at Columbia Journalism School. Follow her on Twitter @georgiagee14.

Columbia Journalism

Reporting from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism

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