A United Methodist Reflections on COVID-19 in Nigeria
Rev. Esther Inuwa, Church and Society Intern, reflects on how COVID-19 raises recurrent challenges in Nigeria of whether God causes disease in response to humans for their sins and whether God is powerful enough to prevent disease from occurring in the first place.
Where is God?
Many Christians turn to Psalm 91:1-16 as their guide and prayer. In Nigeria and other parts of Africa some read this Psalm and claim that God will not allow people who believe in him to be killed by this disease. Within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, they look to how Christians have understood the cause of other diseases, such as tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, Lesser Fever, Ebola, and even cancer and diabetes. My experience is that too many either spiritualize (stop taking medicine and continue to visit one prayer house to another, searching for divine miracles) or depend on traditional medicine as their only hope. We still hear statements like, “let the disease come, we will cure it with our herbs”. Certainly, while herbs help to cure some conditions, they won’t help others.
I remember one man in my village (Tau) who was diagnosed with liver cirrhosis. He was asked to avoid drinking alcohol. The man came back from the hospital, and actually increased his alcohol intake as if the doctor had told him to do so. I visited him, spoke to him about the danger he was imposing on his health, and eventually on his young children if he died. He responded that God would heal him and that if God decided not to treat him and he died, God would take care of his children. There are many who approach disease this way. Going to the hospital when people are sick is common among Nigerians, but adhering strictly to the doctors’ advice is another matter.
The World Health Organization (WHO) calls on all nations and people to take urgent measures to slow down the spread of the Coronavirus. However, for too many in Africa there is still the notion that “the God of the land” causes disease as a form of punishment for a nation’s disobedience. There is a belief that whether the disease is caused by God or human made, only God has the power to cure, heal, and eradicate disease; people can do their part by taking preventive measures, but God is the ultimate cause and cure. The message on social media is ,“is there any disease that is new to Africa that can kill more than what Boko Haram bomb blasts have already done, communal crises that continue to claim lives, like malaria, and other preventive diseases?”
On March 19, the Federal Government of Nigeria declared that there will be no gathering of people in one place. For this to be effective, the educational sector, which is one of the most critical institutions in the country, must be closed from Monday, March 23, for one month. All religious places such as churches and Mosques are not to hold their worship in gathering. When the Federal Government announcement came on Thursday, March 19, Muslims gathered as usual in their Jumaat Mosques and observed their prayers, while Christians worshipped as usual in their churches on Sunday, March 22.
But the social challenge is real because of how we understand disease in Nigerian and African society. That church is the place that people gather to pray to God for forgiveness and hope, “God will hear from Heaven and forgive our sins” and bring healing (1 Chronicle 7:12-15; Psalms 91).
The unquestioned belief is that, “If God did not bring healing, the medicine wouldn’t work—especially appealing to scriptures such as Psalms 91:10, “no evil shall be allowed to befall you”. And, there is a real denial of the threat the coronavirus poses. In a social media post, I’ve seen written:
Christ Jesus defeated you
On Calvary tree.
Return to where you came from.
Our homes and bodies are untouchable.
None of your weapons (virus) formed
Aagainst us will succeed.
Victory over you, (Coronavirus),
Reassured through our
Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
This and many other prayer-like statements have been the church prayers in Nigeria.
One pastor’s wall on Facebook attracted my attention. He said, > “Sometimes, God allows certain situations to humble us to reminds us of his glory and power over us; it is time for humanity to return to God. Europe, and America, China, and Russian return to God who prospers you”. Another post said, “this is just the beginning of God’s judgment on the world powers.” They wrote, "Corona is a warning alert from heaven to the whole world saying that something of large global magnitude is about to happen, the world market is collapsing, and nations are entering into recession with speed. If a common virus could do all these, imagine what will be on the earth the day King Jesus Christ will return in the sky.”
Global events like Coronavirus lead to dangerous apocalyptic interpretations. It is hard to understand a disease’s beginning and, eventually, its end.
Yet, amid this dim situation, I suggest seeing the Coronavirus outbreak as a natural phenomenon that is part of our life on this earth, and our returning to God is essential.
For most in Africa, health is not only a physically experience but something that is connecting to God. Nigerians, because of their trust and belief in God, live as if religion controls our behavior, our mind, and spirit. So, if any human being feels anything in these places: body, mind, and spirit, good or bad, there must be a connectedness’ with what she or he has done, good or bad in his/her body, mind, and spirit. People’s optimism, trust, purpose, hope, and faith, and even compassion and care, are all strongly associated with their spiritual life. Though Coronavirus is unexplainable, Africans, especially Nigerians, their belief is that God alone can bring an end to it.
Social distancing as applied in Nigeria is another challenge. My elder sister called and told me they are going to a night vigil in a church organized to pray against the Corona virus. When I cautioned her, she responded that Coronavirus is not more powerful than the blood of Jesus.
As of 03/23/2020 about forty cases have been recorded with one death already. Knowing that the country does not have sophisticated medical equipment like the U.S. Italy, and other countries, people do not easily adhere to the Federal Government restrictions on gatherings. The Minister of Communications has said that he will mobilize police and the military to arrest of any group that refuses to adhere to the government’s orders and yet people are seek protection for their health in the name of religious belief. Some Nigerians claim the disease does not exist.
While I do not support blaming God for the xoronavirus pandemic or any other diseases in the world, I do understand as an African and as a Nigerian that sin is a reproach to the nations. The evils we do in the name of God are experienced like a plague on the earth; Boko-Haram’s attacked on unarmed women and children, disguised Fulani herdsmen occupying farms, ethnic cleansing under the guise of tribalism, participation in small arms trade, and kidnapping for extortion, all cause God’s heart to grieve. Governments’ corrupt practices, economic systems that maintain unemployment, the production of weak building materials used to construct houses and schools and public roads and that lead to avoidable accidents and harm, and the proliferation of low standards of medications available to the poor, are all injustices that indicate a lack of love for humanity and provoke God and people of faith to react.
As a Nigerian, I understand that if our Government and religious leaders attended to their responsibilities rightly, there would be a maximum reduction of poverty, disease, and sickness, and even the so-called religious wars in my region and country. All of these public diseases are preventable and will save thousands of lives.
The Bishop of the United Methodist Church in the Nigeria Episcopal Area addressed all United Methodists members on Monday, March 23. Bishop John Wesley Yohanna urges us to follow all the directives from the National Center for Disease Control for how we can altogether help prevent the spread of the virus and stay healthy. The Bishop admonishes United Methodists from John’s Third Epistle, "Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prosper.” Bishop John Wesley urges all to stay healthy and to obey the rules set by the Government.
To practice and model healthy behavior, Bishop Yohanna affirmed that all church meetings that will have more than 20 participants should be canceled. All meetings should be rescheduled, and non-worship events should swing to action. Prayers should be organized at homes with neighbors; Pastors should visit church members or call to keep in touch and pray with them, among other necessary advice.
Coronavirus is a new disease that shakes the world, and Nigeria is not exempt. Even though some are showing unserious attitudes toward the disease and taking it as those diseases been experienced, putting our faith and hope at work by doing our part of staying at home and praying for people’s well-being, the spread of the disease will be prevented, and it will flatten the curve.
The Rev. Esther Inuwa is a clergy member in the Southern Nigeria Conference of the Nigeria Episcopal Area, West Africa Central Conference. Esther is a Master in Theological Studies student at Wesley Theological Seminary and serves as an intern with Church and Society in Washington, DC.