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MAHLATSE MAHLASE: Why the decision to open places of worship is disappointing

OPINION

I must admit that until now, I sympathised with the difficult choices President Cyril Ramaphosa and his team of ministers have had to make in the war against COVID-19.

No one should ever be in a position to choose who lives or who dies. No one should have to choose between saving the economy and saving lives that are being snatched away by the invisible enemy that is the coronavirus.

Even when they passed ridiculous regulations barring the sale of open shoes and cooked chicken, I gave our government the benefit the doubt.

I calmed myself down when I couldn’t buy pots - you know, the things that are used to prepare the ultimate essential that is food? It was so ridiculous; one retailer told me I could buy Hart pots but not any other brand. But I explained it away.

The regulations are not based on science alone, but also aim to reduce the number of reasons why anyone would want to go shopping. Or government wanted to be seen as fair by barring both Mamkhize and Woolworths from selling grilled chicken.

I was even outnumbered on e-commerce deliveries because I was still arguing that someone must take a taxi to arrive at work to pack the goods at the warehouse before it can be delivered to my door.

Last night, though, my faith in the government’s plans to fight this deadly disease waned. I could not believe that the same leaders who have stood steadfast against the sale of cigarettes and alcohol (which contribute billions to the fiscus) capitulated to the men and women of the cloth.

The decision to allow congregational gatherings at so-called recognised places of worship comes as the rate of infection rises and is expected to get worse.

I am no scientist, but from early on churches were identified as the biggest contributors to cluster outbreaks. A so-called super spreader was reported to have infected at least 37 people at her church in South Korea.

Here at home, 67 people who attended a church gathering in Mangaung tested positive. Those people went back home and infected family members who likely infected other people. We even had to close down a clinic because one of the nurses who had tested positive had attended the church services.

I have always thought that government was making hard choices based on science and the safety of livelihoods. The decision to open churches seems to me to be based on neither.

Places of worship by design are intimate spaces. Some churches that have benches instead of individual chairs that can be separated make social distancing complicated.

The people of the cloth who have the ear of the president and his Cabinet are those who have the deep pockets (that they don’t share with the state) to prepare and protect their churches from the disease, but for thousands of others this won’t be possible. I don’t see a church in rural Limpopo, which barely affords to pay the priest, being able to buy sanitisers.

Limiting attendance of funerals to 50 has proven difficult for a family, so imagine trying to pick and choose congregants. Who will police the churches to ensure they abide by the rules?

Some members are talking about increasing the number of services to meet the numbers, but will those churches be properly deep cleaned in between services? What about the common areas, like toilets? What about Sunday collection? Money is notorious for spreading the disease.

We are yet to hear the full details of the regulations, but it does not sound like it has been thought through. The opening of churches comes into effect this Sunday, but the ministers have cancelled their briefing on Wednesday where details on this and other alert level 3 plans were to be revealed.

More questions are flooding in: why are you not opening restaurants for sit downs then? They can also limit numbers and put distance between the tables.

Why can't I visit my mother in Limpopo, who hasn’t physically seen her grandson in close to three months and lives alone?

Why can't I have my wedding ceremony – after all I can limit guests to 50 and it is a one-off ceremony as opposed to a church services that can be held everyday.

The jokes about taverns turning into churches already abound. Remember, churches don’t have to be legally registered, so law enforcement will have a hard time arguing that a gathering is not a church. Even the Bible states: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them."

There are many who gather in shacks, under trees and on top of koppies to worship. It is the very poor who will be exposed.

The decision to open places of worship really felt as if those with access to decision makers lobbied hard and pulled on the emotional strings that pushed science out the window and won the day.

Dressing up in our Sunday best and worshiping is part of who we are as a people. But my family and I will continue to worship via television or live streaming. Andizi to Church.

It is just not worth the risk. But hopefully those who demanded that government open the churches will take full responsibility if the decision contributes to the ever-increasing number of infections and deaths.

Mahlatse Mahlase is group editor-in-chief at Eyewitness News. Follow her on Twitter: @hlatseentle