Post COVID 19: Social Distancing or Changing People’s Way of Thinking?

social distancing

Information has to be pure, or else output will be impure and ignored. Information about the dire need to follow the injunctions of the health authorities in times of pandemic ought be taken up in all seriousness by religious leaders. Else, one joins the band of loyal and dedicated allies of coronavirus among the religious fanatics spreading disinformation.

Another myth is that everyone can read. Not true, particularly for asylum seekers and refugees, and those who have migrated from war-torn countries where education is the child of a lesser god. Audio / visual messages are a must in this day and age where everyone has a mobile phone and can view/listen to the important health messages given out.

Social distancing and physical distancing are not the same thing. The central component of social culture, people’s way of thinking, should be helped to adopt to changing situations and emergencies with alacrity and full understanding of the need to adapt.

By Ahmed Al-bakry

Until 9/11, air travel and entering public buildings was done effortlessly. Now standing in line, taking off shoes, belts and jackets, and passing through metal detectors and X-ray machines at airports has become the norm.

Last May, when invited to a friend’s home, I accepted thinking I was the only guest. Moments later, a close relative of his who doesn’t need to be invited, barged in. Feeling uneasy, I didn’t hug as our customs would appreciate. Instead I sat on the furthest corner. It was his response to feel uneasy and he berated me for being paranoid and losing my faith in Allah who would not allow a man-made virus to infect a Mue’Min (an Arabic word for believer). Getting into a non-secular debate is not my forte; I just smiled and left.

A week later a friend told me some people in Melbourne were slapped with a fine for violating the social distancing regulation: at a time of a clear directives of physical distancing, 18 people with similar ethnic background had gathered in a home for a non-essential social event.

These two events inspired me to think about the damage that misinterpreted religious myths have on societies, and how they can hamper the fight against the COVID-19. I ended up with dozens of examples to support my assertion that ignorance equipped with myth is a lethal potion.

In India, during April 2020, a Hindu extremist mob killed a 22-year-old Muslim, claiming he was on a coronavirus jihad to spread the deadly germ. Over 8,000 kms away west from India is Casablanca with its pride and landmark, the Hassen 2nd mosque. The minaret that towers over the city at 213 metres is the second tallest in the world. Last April, the Moroccan government ordered the closure of all mosques to fight the spread of Covid-19; a decision that shocked many conservative Muslims. In protest, a dozen defiant worshippers prayed alone in that huge mosque, which has the capacity to accommodate 25,000 worshippers. In other areas also, fervent Muslims prayed on the streets outside their mosques.

Halfway between India and Morocco, in the Middle East, television talking heads have used the virus pandemic to raise old scores against – and undermine – their real and perceived political foes: a sort of unannounced civil war on the airwaves. Several Egyptian and Saudi news commentary programs were gloating that Turkey had been hard hit by the virus. That was before they discovered the virus was not fighting alongside any country.

To make matters worse, talk-show hosts on media outlets controlled by government went as far as claiming that inhaling steam from the spout of a kettle kills the virus in one’s respiratory system. Of course, that came with insistent mocking of the world-wide instruction to adhere to ‘social distancing’.

In Kuwait, Fejir Al Saeed, another talk-show host believed she had an expose! She claimed that the Houthis of Yemen drove thousands of Ethiopian coronavirus-carrying refugees across the rugged border from Yemen to Saudi Arabia to infect the country. Fejir Al Saeed is fond of making racist remarks; she had once made offers to buy slaves from Canada.

In Iran, many Shias who regularly visit shrines defied all hygienic precautions and indulged themselves by licking the greasy iron bars that fence the shrines for blessings. The bars carry layers of human sweat, tears and other bodily fluids left there from the hands of worshippers.

A Christian priest in Asyut, Egypt, told a packed congregation that the church has closed regular and Sunday schools, and declared “we will never close down a church congregation.” He tried to calm the faithful by telling them there is a saint called St. Corona as well as a brand of chocolate – “it can’t be that bad!” Then he suggested a protection against the coronavirus: “if all the people of Asyut prayed wholeheartedly and with genuine faith, the coronavirus would not dare come close to us!” Then he asked the congregation to repeat after him,

‘if we pray wholeheartedly,
The corona will not come close to us.’

The slogan rhymes in Arabic and the congregation repeated the strophe after the priest.

A few miles away in Cairo, a Muslim preacher said, “the corona is a bigger germ, though still a germ that enters the body through a dry nose”. He assured the congregation that a Muslim person who performs ablutions before every prayer, washes his nose three times during each ablution, 15 times daily, “It’s impossible that the Coronavirus will get him”!

Another priest from the Levant said that, “the devil is telling believers not to take holy communion in a spoon that the rest of the congregation uses, and not to kiss the hands of priest for blessing! That is what the devil is doing”. He further warned, “we are doomed if we fall into the devil’s trap.”

These snapshots highlight the loyal and dedicated allies of coronavirus among the religious fanatics. and in the circles of world leaders who seem to have joined the fray of spreading ignorance.

Human conscience has developed enough to criminalize hate crimes, inciting violence, and other forms of speech that promote hate. It would be exhilarating to know why the misleading, dangerous and irrational speeches are not criminalized! Is it not exposing humanity to greater risks?

Importantly, what will be considered normal and be an established way of life post-COVID-19 anxiety? Certainly, business trainers will have to find a way to replace their ‘make a confident and firm handshake’ gospel. As it is, the West has proven ill-equipped to lead or deal with the psychological and cultural influences of many people flocking to its shores. It’s time that cultural adaptation is brought to the forefront, it should become the priority.

But it’s certain lifestyles will change, and humanity has to adopt yet another set of new norms dictated by the Covid 19 pandemic, including social distancing. Just imagine continuing with the same lifestyles of the last three months for many years to come! That is why countries need to strategize on how to return to normal life. If the pandemic doesn’t subside soon, there has to be a new plan that not only focuses on the virus but also studies its effects on society, the economy, and citizens’ rights.

Anthropologists theorize that culture is something that ‘evolves in the same way as biological mechanisms.’ Sadly, it also implies that changes such as social distancing will be very difficult to maintain for a longer period without severe social damages such as isolation and loneliness that would have devastating effects. Therefore, it is important to note that social distancing is not as simple as physical distancing because the former involves the soft power of society such as passion, interaction, care, mutual respect and so on. However, the central component of social culture, people’s way of thinking, should be helped to adopt to changing situations and emergencies with little damage.

Changing peoples’ behaviours is not an easy feat because any plan that aims at that will be challenged and likely face tough resistance. For some cultures, social distancing could be considered social suicide as it interferes with their communal and religious practices. That is why the delivery should be well thought of and palatable to the audience-changing the message from “social distancing” to “changing norms of socialising’ for instance.

Cultures and religious practices are established over centuries, and people do not change them easily. That is why governments, business, social and religious institutions will need to undertake good quality research, involve and consult with multicultural and multi-faith groups to avoid a one-size-fits-all plan of action. They need to devise and design national, regional and local strategies that are tailored to accommodate the multicultural and multi-faith realities.

It has been said that the wise person does not hurry history but in times of crisis history must be pushed in certain directions. We cannot talk about social distancing without discussing the underlying social structures and the cultural and religious sub-structures as all are founded on social interaction, face-to-face, even if that is sometimes promoted to online communities.

Ahmed is an Africa Subject Matter Expert and Senior Consultant.  He has a professional background in policy, counter-terrorism, community and education. Ahmed’s research interests are in the areas of terrorism studies and de-radicalization with a focus on protecting the youth from sources of terrorism. He has prepared widely strategic studies papers on diverse issues including ‘Grieving for Lost Democratic Aspiration’ and the role of youth in promoting religious harmony.  Currently Ahmed is writing a book titled ‘Curbing radicalization: Redefining the strategy’.


social distancing