Without even consulting church groups and other religions, the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) on Emerging Infectious Diseases has once again banned churches from holding religious assemblies as it placed the Greater Manila Area under enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) anew. The unilateral decision came at an expressly significant season for the Catholic Church that is set to observe its most important memorial, the passion and death of Jesus Christ.

Last year the ECQ locked down the churches during Lent and beyond. Ditto this year. What is wrong here? Despite having the toughest and most debilitating lockdown in the world, the Philippines still hasn’t put the Covid-19 crisis under control. ECQ part II should underscore the continuing and lethal incompetence of the Duterte government. The more it betrays its incompetence, the more it displays its arrogance. It could have benefitted from the collaboration of the Church and other faiths but because of its arrogance, the IATF, in true miltary-junta style arrogance, unilaterally made the decision to close all worship places.

Catholic leaders, most notably Manila Apostolic Administrator Broderick Pabillo, have been making prudent efforts to help gather the scattered flock. Last March 23, Pabillo instructed churches in the Archdiocese of Manila to accept churchgoers at 10 percent of their total capacity while strictly implementing health protocols. The Church understands the threat of the virus, but with due care and vigilance, surely people can still worship and stay safe at the same time. After all, the government’s health protocols are an overkill—aside from masks and distancing rules, the public is also required to wear face shields, which are “not as effective” at protecting people from respiratory droplets that spread Covid-19, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Even then, the spokesperson of the infamously God-fearing and faithful President Duterte threatened that the government could close churches violating mass gathering rules imposed by the IATF, to which Pabillo quipped: “Kung 10 percent lang ng loob ng simbahan, hindi naman mass gathering ‘yan.”

Churches, by purpose and practical significance, are essentially infirmaries. People come to visit not because they’re healthy or whole, but because they are in varied circumstances sick or damaged in the first place.  

It is deplorable when religious gatherings are regarded among the less important public activities that society can do without for extended periods. It is contemptuous when spas and gyms had been allowed to operate—until local chief executives themselves interjected and banned them by their own capacities—and chapels and mosques aren’t, as if church experience does not contribute to individuals’ overall well-being. At a time when everything is going south and awry, the occasional uplift can have long-lasting effects that science and regular indulgences that pampering and workouts can hardly ever produce.

A year of lockdowns and control has brought us nowhere, really, and for all the fuss and trouble, the country has remained crippled and desperate. The pandemic isn’t the only one killing and threatening people since the past year. Recent data from the Philippine Statistics Authority showed that there were 3,529 suicide deaths in 2020—25.7 percent more than in 2019. Pandemic fatigue is obviously taking its toll on Filipinos, and the government should realize that faith and religion could help Filipinos cope with the stress of the pandemic.

The stress threatens to aggravate because of ECQ II which, the IATF and the Duterte government must be reminded, has been brought about by the alarming rise of Covid-19 cases lately, which in turn owes to their continuing failure to roll out the vaccines they’ve been promising no end since the last quarter of 2020.

Indeed, where’s the vaccine rollout? All that have been rolled out are the donated vaccines from Sinovac and AstraZeneca, which were barely enough to cover all the medical front liners. Carlito Galvez, “vaccine czar,” said the rollout would start in the “second quarter,” which may mean next month or worse, in June! Even the World Bank has slashed its growth projections for the Philippines because the latter’s vaccine rollout is going slowly and its Covid situation remains in a “worrisome state.”

At the least, IATF should have consulted the churches and faiths; there’s the separation of church and state, so the state cannot impose unilaterally on the churches. IATF has been completely disregarding the religiosity of Pinoys since the start of the pandemic. In May last year, IATF set a ridiculous rule allowing only five persons at a time in churches under modified ECQ and 10 persons for churches in modified general community quarantine areas. Pabillo was right: “There is a problem with the government. They make arbitrary decisions without proper consultation with the sectors involved, so they come out with unreasonable directives!”

The government can either allow for more freedom and accountability to boost activity and growth or waste another year. Its incompetence should not punish Filipinos and stunt their faith in the year that is supposed to be a grand jubilee of Christianity.


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