Devout Ethiopians Defy Coronavirus Ban on Large Gatherings

Ethiopian Orthodox female worshippers attend a service outside of the building due to the full capacity inside despite the COVID-19 coronavirus concerns at the Bisraet Gebriel Church in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on March 16, 2020. - Ethiopia announced their first confirmed cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus on March 13, 2020. …
EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images

Religious leaders have failed to cancel congregational meetings in Ethiopia, despite government orders to limit large gatherings amid the Chinese coronavirus outbreak in the country, alarmed African health officials noted on Thursday.

Ethiopia’s government banned large gatherings in the country on Sunday. Enforcing the ban has proven difficult for the security forces tasked with the effort. Religious groups continue to meet despite the restriction. Many religious Ethiopians fail to treat the health risks posed by the Chinese coronavirus seriously owing to ignorance on the matter, say community leaders.

“Basically it’s a lack of understanding. It is not a kind of resisting the regulations. Some people do not understand or capture fully the sensitivity of the issue. That’s why we’ve seen some irregularities, but soon this will be corrected because we are also using our media and administrative channels to regulate this issue,” said Daniel Seifemichael Feleke, media director for the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, in a telephone interview with Voice of America (VOA) on Thursday.

Feleke added that misinformation and superstitious beliefs surrounding the Chinese coronavirus had been circulating on Ethiopian social media, further confusing the populace.

“There are also misconceptions due to social media. People have different information, so now we are trying to do two things: one to propagate and distribute the correct information to the people and the other one is to protect the people from the wrong information. There is plenty of wrong information that is superstitious and irresponsible,” Feleke said.

Religious leaders in Ethiopia have also attempted to regulate behavior by instituting social distancing measures during services. Some guidelines call for worshippers to keep a distance of at least 1.5 meters between each individual.

Despite these measures, some community leaders remain concerned that devout Ethiopians will continue to ignore the restrictions. “People are still feeling that nothing is happening and that worries us, that scares us,” said Teshome Fikre, secretary-general of Catholic Bishops Conference of Ethiopia. “People are not still aware how dangerous and how serious the cases of coronavirus are. You feel that people are just ignoring the fact that there is coronavirus. I think that ignorance and ignoring the truth is dangerous.”

Aware of this resistance among some in religious groups to adhere to social distancing measures, the Africa Centers of Disease Control and Prevention said it will monitor how governments are implementing bans on large gatherings. Social distancing measures have been defied by religious groups in other countries, such as South Korea and Indonesia, as leaders across the world struggle to contain the Chinese coronavirus pandemic, originating in Wuhan, China, late last year.

On Tuesday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed requested $150 billion in emergency funding from G2o leaders by facilitating debt relief as part of his nation’s efforts to curb the spread of the Chinese coronavirus. The pandemic “poses an existential threat to the economies of African countries,” Abiy’s office said in a statement. He added that Ethiopia was “working closely with other African countries” in preparing the aid request.

At press time Friday, Ethiopia had 16 Chinese coronavirus infections and no deaths.

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