Updated: May 19
The source of the coronavirus originating in Wuhan, China remains a mystery to most of the world, but to some, religion offers the clear cut answer to the puzzle: some divine being is angry and punishing people for it. One circulating allegation claims that the coronavirus is retribution from god for locking up Uighur muslims, with a Singaporean teacher recently investigated for making these statements on social media.1 Others, such as conservative Christian pastor Rick Wiles, proclaim that the virus has been sent by god to purge the world of sin.2 Meanwhile, the president of the nationalist Hindu Mahasabha, Swami Chakrapani suggests the disease is not caused by a virus, but an ‘avatar’ here to punish non-vegetarians and “to give the message of death and punishment to the one who eats them (animals)”.3
Although nowadays, it may seem like these claims are made only by a select few eccentric, extremist folks, the reality is that most of these outliers hold positions of power in their community and have significantly large audiences who listen to their every word. Usually, their views reflect the views of said audiences. Furthermore, when an unexpected event like an epidemic occurs, people often turn to mainstream religion and god for answers as to why it is happening. The phenomenon of attributing illness to divine beings is one that has existed for centuries and continues to persist.
Take the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918 as an example. It was the belief of many pastors and consequently common people, that the influenza was “divine retribution”, a punishment for sin meted out by god. The list of sins featured avarice, gluttony, drunkenness, lax church attendance, but also the novel sin of “worshipping science” .4 Similarly, in several African religions, such as the Yoruba religion prevalent in southwestern Nigeria, the reason for the smallpox epidemics in the 19th century were traced back to divine displeasure of Sopona, the god of smallpox.5
With religion playing a key role in many peoples’ lives, it is not surprising to see people turn to god for answers in extreme circumstances such as epidemics. What is surprising to see is how this link established between epidemics and divine powers is used by religious institutions and individuals to exploit people’s beliefs for their own benefit. For instance, it is not uncommon to see religious celebrities exploiting public health crises to promote their remedies or beliefs for curing diseases.
Circling back to coronavirus, one needs to look no further than televangelist and former Assemblies of God minister Jim Bakker, who utilized his television program to advertise ‘Silver Solution’ dietary supplement products sold on his website. The preacher claimed that the supplements could cure the coronavirus in a matter of just twelve hours.6 Other religious celebrities have used their platforms to spread misleading information, such as Gloria Copeland, another televangelist who took to television to claim that one didn’t need vaccines against the flu because “Jesus himself gave us the flu shot”. She continued on to claim that inoculating oneself with the word of God was the best protection from flu and other illnesses.7
Looking beyond independent evangelization, on a larger scale, epidemics and illness are sometimes used as a conversion tactic by mainstream religions. For example, certain sects of believers may be told that they will be spared from the disease by believing in the right religion and thus avoiding god’s wrath. Such was the assertion of a recent youtube video, which offers religious conversion to Islam as a novel way of protecting oneself from coronavirus, with captions such as “20 million Chinese converting to Islam after it is proven that the corona epidemic has not affected Muslims. God is Great, praise be to God for the blessing of Islam.” In reality, the video was filmed in 2019, before the coronavirus had even been discovered.8
The heightened vulnerability of people during disease outbreaks makes them all the more susceptible to believing misleading and manipulative information. This misinformation can be particularly dangerous as it prevents people from taking proper protective measures. For example, if someone were to take Copeland’s word that vaccines are indeed not necessary, they could contract an easily preventable disease. Similarly, if someone were to believe that they are protected from the coronavirus due to their religious beliefs, or because they are taking Silver Solution dietary supplements,they may not feel the need to carry out proper hygienic measures as recommended by health organizations. Most times, misinformation like this creates an atmosphere of public fear and moral panic which is not constructive in alleviating a public health crisis.
Today, diseases and epidemics are largely viewed through a scientific lens, broken down to cells and molecules, but from a humanities perspective, they also offer unparalleled insights into people’s mentality. It is important to understand this intricate connection as religion has an uncanny ability to shape people’s actions, possessing the power to instigate abnormal behavior. By analyzing this connection, we become more adept at mitigating damages from misinformation in order to properly inform the public.
Citations: 1. Kurohi, R. (2020, February 7). Coronavirus: MHA investigating religious teacher for ‘xenophobic, racist’ posts. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/coronavirus-mha-investigating-religious-teacher-for- xenophobic-racist-posts 2. Brown, L. (2020, January 29). Evangelical pastor claims coronavirus is God’s ‘death angel’ to ‘purge a lot of sin’. Retrieved from https://nypost.com/2020/01/29/evangelical-pastor-claims-coronavirus-is-gods-death-angel-to- purge-a-lot-of-sin/ 3. Joshi, S. (2020, February 17). A Hindu Organisation Believes Coronavirus Is an ‘Angry Avatar’ to Punish Non-Vegetarians. Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en_in/article/884mgp/a-hindu-organisation -believes-coronavirus-is-an-angry-avatar-to-punish-non-vegetarians 4. Phillips, H. (2008). Why Did it Happen?: Religious Explanations of the “Spanish” Flu Epidemic in South Africa. Historically Speaking, 9(7), 34–36. doi: 10.1353/hsp.2008.0022 5. Soumonni, Elisée. (2012). Disease, religion and medicine: smallpox in nineteenth-century Benin. História, Ciências, Saúde-Manguinhos, 19(Suppl. 1), 35-45. https://doi.org/10.1590/S0104-59702012000500003
6. Holman, G. J. (2020, February 13). Jim Bakker show hawks ‘silver sol’ product to ‘totally eliminate’ coronavirus. But there’s no medication for that disease. Retrieved from https://www.news-leader.com/story/news/local/ozarks /2020/02/13/coronavirus-jim-bakker-show-guest-product-claims-virus-cure/4747622002/ 7. Matyszczyk, C. (2018, February 7). Televangelist: Don’t have flu shot, inject word of God instead. Retrieved from https://www.cnet.com/news/televangelist-gloria-copeland-says-jesus-best-flu-shot/
8. Indonesia, A. F. P. (2020, February 26). The video shows an Islamic conversion in Saudi Arabia in May 2019 – months before the novel coronavirus outbreak. Retrieved from https://factcheck.afp.com/video-shows-islamic- conversion-saudi-arabia-may-2019-months-novel-coronavirus-outbreak