Emma Wild-wood, university of edinburgh
Yossa Way, Anglican University of Congo
Supporting the Nation in a Time of COVID-19
On 19 March 2020 President Felix Tshisekedi of Congo announced public health restrictions just 10 days after the first case of COVID was detected in the country. Almost all the Churches in the country submitted themselves to the government’s direction. For example, the bishops of the Anglican Church of Congo set a joint message to their dioceses that Christians should pray at home and respect the public health measures of the government. From March to August, public health measures closed much of civil society. Compliance with restrictions was particularly difficult for market traders and internally displaced people. Churches were shut until restrictions were lifted on 15th August. Schools and bars opened on the 10th August.
The Covid-19 pandemic has raised the temperature on an on-going debate among Christian Churches in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is a debate that can be seen elsewhere on the continent as well. What is the role of the church vis-à-vis government? How does this impact upon health care in a country that is accustomed to dealing with disease? There is little disagreement about a necessary public role for Christianity, nor is there much dissent on the importance of faith in healing practices to combat disease. It is widely believed that the causes of COVID-19 and its ultimate remedy lie beyond human control. The scientific and the spiritual are bound together in many frontline responses. There are, however, a range of views about what ought to be the influence of Christians on the nation. Differences arise on the matter of whether the Church is a civil partner with the government to improve the well-being of the nation or whether the Church has a divine mandate to direct government and create a Christian nation.
Many Christians disagreed with the closure of churches by government authorities and were reluctant to follow the orders. Christians wanted to assemble in order to chase away COVID-19 by prayer. Members of Pentecostal churches were most likely to speak publicly about the need for prayer warfare. Some said that those who denied church activities, far from protecting people, were servants of Satan, exaccerbating the harm caused by the disease. As restrictions eased all churches began to organise services before they has permission. Radio announcements publicised the services and declared the importance of observing the public health measures, but in reality they were not enforced. Since COVID-19 did not spread rapidly there was apparently less need to follow distancing measures and wear face-coverings. By 10th November, 21 provinces had cases of the disease and there had been 11.591cases and 316 deaths from COVID-19.
As a sign of confidence between the Church and State President Tshisekedi invited prominant church leaders prominent church leaders to manage the COVID-19 response fund on 22nd April. Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo declined the role, as did the Revd André Bokundoa of the Eglise du Christ au Congo, the federal group of Protestant churches. The Catholic church and the ECC have collaborated closely in recent years and strongly criticised the government of President Joseph Kabila. Ambongo and Bokundoa said that, whilst they agreed to support the Executive Council, their positions as religious leaders prevented them from overseeing the financial management of a state structure. Revd Dominique Mukanya, a leader of a Pentecostal church took the position on 6th May. The Pentecostal Churches have increased their engagement with the State and their support of central government. Whilst Pentecostal Christians were likely to be most vocal in their dislike of government health restrictions, their leaders were ready to accept government positions that might influence the response to COVID.
Through a variety of medical services, Christian churches and non-governmental organisations support over 50% of biomedical care in DRC. They work with the Ministry of Health and are, for the Congolese population, vital, trusted providers of care. They have led medical responses and social restrictions to the recent outbreaks of Ebola and measles. They have knowledge of disease management and are integral to developing community-led solutions to endemic cholera, HIV, malaria, meningitis, plague. They bridge community and professional sectors, by not only providing medical treatment, but also creating supportive networks of care and responding to ill-health with prayers for healing. They may find the civil partnership model of engagement with the State difficult and criticise the lack of support by government for their efforts but Christian medical services endorsed the public health restrictions to limit the spread of COVID-19. Such medical services are critical of traditional healers and those churches who reject a bio-medical approach and focus instead on herbal medicine, ritual and faith-healing. Nevertheless, for many Congolese people confidence in the protective power of prayer to the Holy Spirit or spirits provides an appealing alternative to restrictive public health measures that damage livelihoods and social relations.
COVID-19 has made apparent what history already knows: Christian practice is both shaped by disease and shapes the response to it. In DR Congo where the scientific and spiritual means are imbricated in disease response and where faith is public and social, the responses of Churches to the pandemic are also intertwined with different notions of Christian support for the nation.
This article is written as part of an AHRC funded project ‘Belief in the time of Covid-19: the making of meaning and trust to maximise public health responsiveness of faith communities in DR Congo’. For further information of the project contact firstname.lastname@example.org. See also, ‘The public role of churches in early responses to COVID-19 in Africa: Snapshots from Nigeria, Congo, Kenya and South Africa,’ Studies in World Christianity, 27.1 (2021).