Religious gatherings have been reported to be sites where the coronavirus is more easily transmitted. Picture: REUTERS
Religious gatherings have been reported to be sites where the coronavirus is more easily transmitted. Picture: REUTERS

Just 10 days ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa, writing in his weekly newsletter, sought to reassure South Africans that when it comes to making decisions and formulating regulations to curb the Covid-19 outbreak, officials rely on scientific and empirical data.

It’s a message often repeated by his team, led by health minister Zweli Mkhize. But several examples reveal that what they tell themselves is not always what we hear.

One of them is Monday’s announcement by Ramaphosa that from June 1 places of religious worship will be allowed to reopen, provided they don’t admit more than 50 people and implement strict social distancing and hygiene protocols.

The decision appears to have been fought from political and lobby groups’ corners, far from the scientific counsel the president and his team say they rely on to ease restrictions on people’s movements.

Following the nonsensical banning of unrestricted e-commerce, there was hope that the government would be persuaded to explain the science behind the regulations to retain broad societal support for the lockdown.

One could well ask, if Ramaphosa is allowing millions more people to return to work from next Monday, what is wrong with lifting the ban on religious gatherings?   

As evidence of the rolling economic destruction piles up, threatening to push millions of middle-class South Africans into poverty to further cement our sorry position as the world’s most unequal society, it makes sense to open factories and other businesses.

One could also argue that allowing religious gatherings is an example of government doing exactly what we’ve been asking for: trusting citizens to do the right thing rather than depending on force and coercion.

Even so, questions are raised about how regulations are formulated and who deserves to be trusted. Are 50 people 1.5m apart in a temple in less danger than the same number in a restaurant of the same size? Or is there a reason one can’t host a dinner party of 10 people with appropriate social distancing, masks on faces with sanitisers in hand?

We won’t be surprised if restaurant owners start demanding equal treatment, citing their role in ensuring the livelihoods of millions of waiters. It would be difficult for Ramaphosa to ignore their appeal, though the government has in many cases shown itself to be incredibly stubborn, only bending to common sense after unnecessary damage had been inflicted on key industries.

Allowing synagogues, mosques and churches to escape the lockdown while other forms of social activity are still considered “high risk” smells of political expediency and will diminish the government’s credibility.

Evidence from across the world has identified religious gatherings — which typically take place indoors with people in close contact — as among the most potent sites for fuelling transmission of the disease. Talking loudly and singing have also been associated with the spread of virus-containing droplets that linger in the air.

This has raised genuine questions about whether rules are going to be based on science and the need to limit infections, or is it a case of who has the most effective lobbyists? Clearly religious leaders are more organised and politically influential than restaurant owners or hairdressers, who haven’t been able to make a living in the past two months.

And if the rules apply to some interest groups and not others, the result can only be a breakdown in compliance. It’s hard to see the government being able to point to any evidence that shows religious places are safer than restaurants and cinemas.

If the government doesn’t want its entire strategy to unravel, it should at least try to explain how religious sites differ from restaurants and other places of business.

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