‘Where is God in All of This?’ COVID-19 and the Palliative Force of Religion

Why are end-time conspiracy theories attributing the spread of COVID-19 to the 5G network and a proposed global world order gaining momentum?

Global attention is focused on COVID-19 and the social distancing we must keep between ourselves in this present moment. The abundance of caution now organizing our social, political, and economic lives echoes other pandemics in human history—SARS, MERS, and H1N1 are only among the most recent. As politicians and scientists struggle to curb the spread of coronavirus, religious institutions globally, from the land of the Two Holy Mosques to the Office of the Papacy, have issued new religious instructions to mitigate the risk of infection.

To contain the dangerous multipliers of coronavirus in Nigeria, religious organizations are swiftly adapting to a new reality as the pandemic upends the communal observance of religious rituals. Christian organizations, Islamic institutions, and the priests of traditional religions are each offering new spiritual counsel on the ways to observe religious rituals without physical presence at a sacred site. Historical and modern responses to pandemics are fraught with tensions between the scientific demand for truth through reason and experiment, and the religious appeal for consolation and revealed truth.

Although the belief in religious causation is pervasive in Africa, it is important to avoid one-sided depictions of African etiologies of diseases. Historians of religion and medical anthropologists such as David Westerlund in his book ‘African Indigenous Religions and Disease Causation’ identified three causation of disease etiologies in Africa: religious, social and natural causations. Religious and social causations are personalistic etiologies that presupposes a belief in supernatural causes of diseases. Natural causation, on the other hand, is based on the belief that diseases do not stem from the machinations of an angry deity, but rather from natural forces such as cold, heat, wind, germs and worms in the body, hereditary factors and other toxins. This article examines the belief in religious causation as it plays it out during the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

Faith-Centrism in the Time of Pandemic

The proponents of faith-centrism interpret pandemics through the prism of cosmic fear and apocalyptic visions. It is a period when some people seek solace in religion for psychological and emotional support. For people of faith who are increasingly anxious and unsure about where to turn at a time of grave uncertainty and confusion, religion is conceived as a fundamental source of comfort, spiritual healing and hope. In the time of pandemics, people of faith ask deeper spiritual and philosophical questions: Where is God in all of this? Why is this happening? Is this God’s retribution for our earthly sins?

To find meaning in religion in a situation marked by suffering and tribulation, people of faith often adopt self-blame and personal guilt as coping mechanisms for reconciling their belief in God’s benevolence with the mystery of evil, and the question of theodicy, or of why God allows bad things to happen to good people. Since all sickness and all health is believed to be shaped by God’s will, it is most convenient for people of faith to explain away pandemics as a divine punishment for the sins of humanity, for our impiety and disobedience. For believers, the ultimate antidote for pandemics, therefore, will come not from vaccines or antibiotics but through renewed faith, repentance and seeking God’s forgiveness.

Faith-Centrism in Historical Practice

The history of religion is rife with examples of people of faith who upheld the faith-centrism approach to pandemics. ‘Umar ibn al-Muẓaffar ibn al-Wardī (d. 1349), a medieval Islamic historian, attributed the doctrine of God’s punishment as the causation for plagues and pandemics. In his book, Risāla an-Nabaʾ ʿan al-Wabāʾ, Ibn al-Wardī said, ‘We ask God’s forgiveness for our souls’ bad inclination; the plague is surely part of His punishment. We take refuge from His wrath in His pleasure and from His chastisement in His restoring.’ Similarly, Konrad von Megenberg (d.1374), a German Catholic scholar of the Middle Ages and author of the Book of Nature, blamed the Black Death on divine retribution for the sinfulness of the European society. The fourteenth-century Italian poet and renaissance humanist, Giovanni Boccaccio (d. 1375), also seemed to hold the belief that plague is the wrath of God and a direct consequence of wickedness, sin, and the iniquities of mankind. In his book on the Black Death, The Decameron (translated into English by George Henry McWilliam), Giovanni Boccaccio said, ‘It was as though they (i.e. the people fleeing Florence to escape the plague) imagined that the wrath of God would not unleash this plague against men for their iniquities irrespective of where they happened to be.’

Aḥmad ibn Yaḥyā ibn Abī Ḥajalah (d. 1375) reiterated a parallel position to Boccaccio in his Kitāb aibb al-masnūn fī dafʿ aāʿūn, where he argued that plagues and pandemics are divine punishment for the sins of usury, sexual immorality, crimes, and corruption. Drawing on early ḥadīth literature in his seminal treatise, Badhl al-māʿūn fī fal aāʿūn, Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī (d.1449) carefully examined the three Islamic orthodox and prophetic responses to plagues and pandemics—firstly, that plague is sent by God as martyrdom for Muslims and punishment for unbelievers, secondly that a Muslim should not enter or flee a plague-stricken area and thirdly that there is no contagion or inter-human transmission of plagues and epidemic diseases because all diseases came directly from God. Ibn Ḥajar went further and attributed plagues and pandemics to the internal piercing of jinn rather than the corruption of air by a miasma.

The theme of divine retribution and beseeching God’s forgiveness against influenza also featured in the manuscript, Tunkuyau, written by ʿUmar b. Abī Bakr b. ʿUthmān (Imām Imorū Kete-Krachi) during the period most scholars assume to be the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. In Qiraʾ al-Aibba fī bayān sirr al-asmāʾ, the longest surviving text on Islamic medicine in Hausaland and written in 1809, Muḥammad Tukur, the author of the text, did not address plagues and pandemics but he emphasized the efficacy of using prophetic prayers drawn from the Qurʿān as the sole means of treating all types of diseases.

The Persistence of Faith-Centrism

Science and technology have evolved beyond what was available in the Middle Ages. Unlike our predecessors that lacked the knowledge of the aetiology of epidemic diseases and pandemics, today we can access up-to-date knowledge on medical pathology and epidemiology. Although times have changed, the faith-centrism approach to pandemics still persists. This is evident in the way some people of faith have responded to COVID-19. In South Korea, the secretive sect, Shincheonji Church of Jesus, became a lightning rod for the spread of coronavirus.

In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh in India, the Hindu worshippers of Ram vowed to celebrate their nine-day festivity despite the Indian government warning against religious gatherings. In Malaysia, the members of Jamaʾat Tabligh defied official health advice and their gathering of 16,000 congregants became the epicentre for the spread of coronavirus in Southeast Asia. In Ukpute, Benue State, the women of the Methodist Church of Nigeria laid on an untarred road in their white and blue church outfits to pray for the safety of the Igede people against coronavirus. In Lagos, members of the Ekiti Parapo Association flouted the social distancing directive by gathering to sing and pray to God against coronavirus.

The proponents of faith-centrism understand pandemics from a single spectrum: this is God’s ‘death angel’ sent to earth to purge sin from this planet so that humans can repent and draw closer to Him. This line of reasoning was buttressed by Nigeria’s Minister of State for Labour and Employment, Festus Keyamo, when he tweeted that ‘God has allowed COVID-19 to afflict the human race only to redirect our steps back to Him. We have so distorted God’s Word to suit our own human weaknesses and satisfy our greed, even in supposed Holy Places. We should collectively ask for forgiveness & it will all end in praise.’

Reducing God’s Wrath

Since the causation of pandemics is diagnosed as the spectacular display of God’s immense power for the spiritual rebellion of mankind, the next phase for people of faith is to engage in penitential acts aimed at tempering God’s wrath. These penitential acts are acted out in different forms including self-flagellation, mortification of the flesh, expiatory pilgrimages, and hermitical religious seclusion. For members of the Ogboni Cult, a traditional Yoruba religious group, the only way to temper divine wrath and bring an end to the pandemic is by appeasing the gods through rituals. According to the leader of the Ogboni Cult, Oba Abdul Olakisan Adetoyese, the pandemic has defied medical and scientific know-how and, therefore, demands a spiritual solution. People of faith like Governor Okezie Victor Ikpeazu allay God’s anger by invoking scriptural sources that purportedly guarantee divine immunity. He said:

Abia State is the only state mentioned in the Bible. We have been promised by God that none of these diseases will get to us. We saw ebola and monkey pox and [they] did not get to us. Even this [coronavirus] will also pass us by in Jesus name.

Others like President John Magufuli of Tanzania and Bishop Sam Zuga in Adamawa State have called on believers to remain defiant and not succumb to shutting down holy places where ‘true healing’ can be found. After all, ‘COVID-19 is satanic and it cannot survive in the body of Christ’. It is not uncommon to hear people of faith defiantly parading a renewed faith in God with remarks such as ‘Allah is my protection’ and ‘Jesus is my sanitizer’ even when scientific bodies have debunked the idea that holy water is a hand sanitizer and prayer is a vaccine. For some people of faith, there is an irreconcilable conflict between asking for divine help and then also trusting in science.

Spiritual Leaders and the Upsurge in Spiritual Needs

The period of pandemics is often marked by an upsurge in the spiritual needs of the people of faith. Believers flee to holy places to petition God and to seek divine miracles and healing not grounded in science. Clergymen, who are producers in the competitive religious marketplace, have to cater to the spiritual needs of their followers by producing liturgical ‘goods’ and services of the kind ‘consumers’ demand. The more competition that clergymen and their religious firms face, the more likely they are to adapt their products to the demands of the consumers in order to maintain or increase their market share. For example, during the coronavirus pandemic the migration of religious services to the remote virtual space spurred a shift from physical tithing to virtual tithing. 

Liturgical goods and services during pandemics often come in the form of a plethora of prophecies and catastrophe sermons. Numerous examples include prophecies made by Pastors Temitope Balogun Joshua, Enoch Adeboye and David Oyedepo. Pastor Jeremiah Omoto Fufeyin preached that ‘God reveals…that in one month and one-week COVID-19 will be gone. It will disappear the way it came in starting from Wuhan, China then to other countries of the world’. Pastor Kingsley Innocent (Talkanado) argued, ‘what do you mean by coronavirus when there is corrosive anointing? It cannot survive here’. The general acceptance of these clergymen is not because of their prophecies, which mostly turn out to be false, but because their followers believe that they provide an alternative to the malfeasance that has plagued the players in the political arena.

Unlike their Christian counterparts, Islamic clerics in the faith-centrism school of thought do not peddle prophecies or catastrophe sermons, but conspiracy theories against ‘the West’. This psychological projection is one of the effects of the colonial trauma inflicted upon Islamic communities specifically in northern Nigeria. The present-day pervasive distrust of ‘the West’ in the Muslim public sphere in Nigeria can also be traced to the interpretation of Western countries’ foreign policies, particularly in the Middle East, as an all-out war to destroy Islam and the Muslim Ummah. The distrust of ‘the West’ (and more recently of China because of the mistreatment of Uighur Muslims), extends beyond the realm of politics into the field of global health. It is this same distrust that influenced suspicion of Western biomedical interventions and the boycott of Western-sponsored immunization programs and polio vaccination initiatives.

Islamic clerics like Shaykh Yahya Sani Jingir, Shaykh Nasir Abdulmuhyi, Shaykh Saidu Hassan Jingir, and Shaykh Dr. Muhammad Ahmad Ibrahim BUK who initially denied the contagious effect of COVID-19 were basing their arguments on two premises. First, a politically framed distrust of an imagined enemy waging war against the Muslim Ummah and, second, an orthodox theological position summed up in the often quoted authentic ḥadīth ‘ʿadwā wa lā iyarah wa lā hāmah wa lā afar’, which translates as ‘there is no contagion or inter-human transmission of diseases (without Allah’s permission), no augury (evil portent), no death bird and no worms in the belly.’ The gestures of protest from these clerics should also be understood as a way of proving to the secular authorities that their social capital is still a force to reckon with. These clerics needed to prove a point that their public influence cannot be undermined in the same way that secular politicians have weakened the dynastic legitimacy of the emirate system. Even when these clerics were confronted with rising COVID-19 fatality figures in Italy and the United States, they persisted in their intransigence and attribution of the pandemic to Western scheming against Islam until they were appeased by the secular authorities. But are the Islamic clerics alone in peddling Western conspiracies? No, they are not.

Pastors have also peddled conspiracies about the West, using the cover of Pentecostalism to animate the Protestant Reformation schism with the Catholic Church. The Protestant split from the Catholic Church began in 1517 when Martin Luther penned his Ninety-five Theses on the abusive practices of the Catholic Church. The deepening of the division in Christendom between Catholics and Protestants is most likely what Apostle Sunday Suleiman aimed to achieve when he said:

The vaccine will come but the vaccine will carry the actual disease. It is loaded with signals to control the human being by sending signals from his body to their power base. That would be the only proof that you are safe and virus-free and not contaminated. When they tell you to take the vaccine and you refuse, you will be denied a lot of things. Italy was sacrificed for this agenda because the Pope is part of it.

As Professor Moses Ochonu noted, the circulation of Western conspiracy theories within Nigeria’s Christian communities has often been overlooked by scholars and observers on account of the perceived ideological proximity of Nigeria’s Christians to Western modernity. Unlike research on radical Islam, which tends to be cyclical and fixated on jihadism, Islamic extremism and other attention-grabbing securitization clichés, little is known about the effects of contemporary Christianity and its conspiratorial bent against science in Nigeria. The war of ideas shrouded in end-time conspiracy theories gained momentum again during the coronavirus pandemic when Pastor Chris Oyakhilome, the founder of Christ Embassy, attributed the spread of COVID-19 and the 5G network to a global new world order. In a live broadcast, now removed, Oyakhilome said: 

If you still don’t yet know what is going on, know today; it’s not about the coronavirus. This is basically a group of people serving a devilish cause trying to checkmate humanity to hell. Don’t be ignorant, neither silent… It boils down to two options: Life or Death… Brothers and sisters, this isn’t a time to play with Christianity. Give your life to Christ now while you still can because these things will happen, but after the Church is raptured.

The reference to a new world order helps to perpetuate the belief that the spread of coronavirus and the 5G network is part of an Anti-Christ agenda. The search for vaccination for the virus is, therefore, construed by conspiracy pastors and pundits as a secretive plan to build digital ID and to use microchip implants to control people and derail them from their religion. With this line of reasoning, COVID-19 takes on a new apocalyptic identity—an identity of the ‘mark of the beast’ manufactured through the introduction of the 5G network to cut down the world’s population and usher in a new world order. One potential consequence of this conspiracy theory is the scepticism it can create towards the medical diagnosis of COVID-19 and vaccinations against future pandemics. This conspiratorial form of Christianity that now has a grip on a large congregation of Christians in Nigeria, including some of the nation’s intelligentsia, is a throwback to the Christianity of the European Middle Ages. 

The Palliative Force of Religion

For people that maintain a critical posture to religion, the faith-centric response to pandemics might look irrational, and therefore unacceptable. Nevertheless, the palliative force of religion, especially for coping and surviving in times of tribulation, is beyond the reach of any scientific alleviation. Religion may not conform to the rational scientific method of evaluation, but it is a powerful analgesic that helps to numb pain and suffering. For people of faith, religion offers a moral outlook of seeing the world which is far removed from scientific explanation

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