DAKAR/MEXICO CITY/MANAGUA/SAO PAULO – When authorities in Senegal decided in mid-March to close the churches and mosques to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, dozens of young Muslims took to the streets to protest.
As far as the protesters were concerned, their outrage was completely justified. The authorities closed the places where they could fight against the virus with what they considered to be the most powerful tool: prayer.
“Prayer is our main weapon and we’ll do better to use it fully,” Serigne Mountakha Mbacke, the leader of one of Senegal’s main Islamic associations, said at the time. “(Allah) is the one who chooses who will get sick and who will be saved from this pandemic.”
With more than 1.5 million confirmed Covid-19 cases worldwide and tens of thousands of deaths, many believers think that only God can provide an adequate response to the scourge.
“In crisis situations and in all human societies, when people take note that scientific and technical solutions are not very effective, most of the time they return to their beliefs and spirituality,” Senegalese sociologist Djibi Diakhate tole EFE.
“In these coronavirus times everyone, or many people, need faith as a source of hope and that includes even those who consider themselves to be atheists,” Cuban anthropologist Dr. Julio Moracen Naranjo, with Brazil’s University of Sao Paulo, said.
People entrusting themselves to God as the cause of - and solution to - one of history’s major health crises is occurring all over the world, especially in Africa and Latin America.
In these anxious days, the whisper of prayers by the Mexican faithful are being heard with greater clarity inside Mexico City’s Basilica de Santa Maria de Guadalupe, where hundreds of Catholics are crossing themselves and kneeling before the Virgen Morena to ask her for protection and mercy.
Despite the preventive measures Mexican authorities have instructed the public to follow, many Catholics here have not stopped attending church, albeit in lesser numbers than before.
“My heart told me to come here after a long time of not visiting the Virgin,” said Ernesto Arroyo, a young bricklayer who was a believer before the pandemic and is now putting himself in God’s hands and hoping “that nothing happens” to him.
In other parts of the country, religion is taking hold even more strongly. In late March, more than 100 residents of the town of Comitan, in southeastern Chiapas state, hoisted the statue of the town’s patron saint - St. Caralampio - onto their shoulders and paraded it around town “to beg him” to minimize the harm from Covid-19.
Dozens of Tojolabal Indians gathered outside their church in Comitan, which they said was saved from a smallpox and cholera epidemic in the 19th century thanks to their saint.
According to the townspeople, the last time the saint’s image was taken outside the church was 19 years ago to ask for rain and an end to the drought that had been baking the region. And, they said, the saint came through.
This time around, amid drums and flutes, the faithful are requesting that the saint intervene once again to ensure the wellbeing of humanity.
Mexico is the country with the second-highest number of Catholics, after Brazil - 93 million, or about 80 percent of the population - according to official figures.
Elsewhere in Mexico one can see similar scenes at churches large and small, with the faithful praying on their knees before crucifixes and lighting candles to ask God to bring about an end to the pandemic.
In Managua, Nicaragua, the Metropolitan Cathedral is keeping its doors open and the national government is ignoring international warnings and guidelines for avoiding the spread of the coronavirus.
Despite the fact that Nicaraguan bishops are recommending that all priests celebrate religious rites - including those of Holy Week - without the presence of the public, Catholics here have not stopped flocking to churches, although, as in Mexico, fewer are showing up than before.
One of the faithful, Omar Dabul, said he believes that people will soon move from the physical churches to the “spiritual” ones, meaning that they will do their praying at home and follow Masses and other religious services in the media or online.
Although authorities all over the world have been tightening movement and other restrictions to contain the spread of the virus, certain leaders have been reluctant to close down the churches, like Tanzanian President John Magufuli.
“The coronavirus cannot survive in the body of Christ, it would burn. That’s precisely why I didn’t panic when I was taking Holy Communion,” said Magufuli during a Christian service in late March.
The Tanzanian president, who has promised to keep the churches open as sites for healing, the coronavirus is something satanic, but in certain parts of Africa it is being seen as “divine punishment.”
In Zimbabwe, for instance, Defense Minister Oppah Muchinguri has called the pandemic divine vengeance against the European Union and the United States for years ago imposing economic sanctions on his country for alleged human rights abuses and election fraud.
“They’re suffocating us. Where do they want us to go? Now, it’s their turn to be asphyxiated by the coronavirus. Let them feel how painful it is,” Muchinguri said.
Cheikh Sene, a 32-year-old taxi driver working in Dakar, said that the coronavirus scares him “because it kills,” adding that he would feel “calmer” if he had an amulet to shield him from the disease.
Known as “grigris” in West Africa, amulets are used by many people when they’re facing serious situations in life ranging from a wedding to an exam, opening a business, obtaining a visa or making a trip.
According to sociologist Diakhate, “animism - which establishes a link among ancestors, God and the living - had profoundly affected the functioning of our societies” and these beliefs are mixing and blending in various ways nowadays with Christianity and Islam.
Thus, many Christians and Muslims, in addition to praying against the coronavirus, also go to “marabouts” or traditional healers to get amulets.
Although people are obtaining “grigris,” they are still “being careful and continuing to wash their hands, avoiding large groups of people and maintaining (social) distancing” to avoid infection, Diakhate said.
Abdoulaye Ndiaye, a “marabout” in the Senegalese town of Merina Sarr, said that with the pandemic requests for amulets have jumped because if you have one, you won’t get sick, although “if you already have (the virus) ... it doesn’t protect you.”
And everyone is using them: the uneducated and the educated, people of all social classes and conditions, university graduates, lawmakers and presidents.
Some religious leaders have been resisting the restrictions imposed by governments to halt the spread of the virus. In Brazil, Protestant pastor Silas Malafaia, with the Assembly of God Victory in Christ church, said that churches would only close if a court order were imposed, although religious services, Masses and celebrations have been suspended nationwide.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has been one of those leaders who has opposed closing the churches because they are “people’s last refuge.”
Bolsonaro, born Catholic but baptized as an evangelical Protestant in the River Jordan in 2016, said that it must be parents or pastors who decide how to act during Mass or religious gatherings and whether or not to avoid crowds. “The (leader) cannot decide that you can’t attend church or Mass any longer,” he said.
And in Mexico’s indigenous communities, where people profess a religion different from Catholicism, local residents are going about their normal activities despite the recommendations issued by the authorities in various languages.
Luca Perez, 21, hopes that his faith will keep him healthy despite the growing number of coronavirus cases in Mexico.
“We know that there are diseases, but I don’t believe they’ll come here, in Chiapas. I believe in God and hopefully it won’t come here. People here are not afraid. The people are believing in God even more,” he said.
By Maria Rodriguez (Dakar); Juan Manuel Ramirez G. and Mitzi Mayahuel Fuentes (Mexico City); Luis Felipe Palacios (Managua) and Nayara Batschke (Sao Paulo).