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Covid-19: how a virus is turning the world upside down

BMJ 2020; 369 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m1336 (Published 03 April 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;369:m1336

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COVID-19: religion and the rise of trust in science

A cartoon picture circulating in the Greek social media depicts the following scene: in the centre there is a scientist looking through his microscope, while religious leaders are standing next to him in profound anxiety. One of them cries out: ‘please son, please hurry, we need to tell the flock that our prayers have been heard.’

In the past few weeks we have come across unprecedented uncertainty and fear. Our sense of being safe and healthy has been lost, given that the endpoint of the COVID-19 pandemic is unknown, and treatment is not in sight. We need comfort and solace; and religious faith is what a lot of people rely on in circumstances like this (1).

So, why does God ‘allow’ this pain? A lot of people are sick and die. A lot of people have already died (2). Why does it seem that God is not intervening to outwardly stop the pandemic? These are the silent (and sometimes not so silent) thoughts of many people during these past few weeks in Greece, a country where religion still plays a significant role in public discourse, with Greeks being the most devout believers in Western Europe (3).

What is the Greek church’s position in all this? Its stance so far has caused a lot of controversy. Initially, the ruling body of the Greek church (alongside some scientists) declared that the virus is not transmitted through Holy Communion, during which worshippers sip from the same spoon(4). The religious temples did not close down despite increasing fears of the virus being transmitted in confined spaces, until the government forced the Greek church leadership to do so.

Instead, people are tuning on their TVs at 6pm every day to hear Professor Tsiodras, the infectious disease specialist and head of the National COVID-19 Scientific Committee. His calm voice, his resilient demeanour and his insistence on an evidence-based approach has gained the trust of the vast majority of the population (5). Greece, compared to most countries, even the most developed ones, has been doing relatively well in this crisis (6), which has increased public trust in the scientific approach .

It has become clear that COVID-19 does not discriminate; it affects everyone regardless of beliefs, social class, skin colour. Believers and atheists run the same risk. Faith does not protect; religious leaders and religious believers seem to be as helpless as everyone.

Facing a biothreat of this scale has pressured people to evaluate and compare what is helpful and what is not as a coping strategy during this physical and psychologically challenging crisis. People need explanations and seek answers, which divine preaches may not satisfy. The scientific announcements and recommendations help them understand what is happening and how to best deal with it. Faith is working in tandem with science; and, symbolically, the health response against this unprecedented catastrophe is defined by science leading the way. Τrust – and faith - in science is at an all-time high, and this can only be a good thing.

References
1. Grabenstein JD. What the World’s religions teach, applied to vaccines and immune globulins. Vaccine [Internet]. 2013 Apr;31(16):2011–23. Available from: https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0264410X13001898
2. Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2020 Apr 11]. Available from: https://www.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd4029942...
3. Fouka G, Plakas S, Taket A, Boudioni M, Dandoulakis M. Health-related religious rituals of the Greek Orthodox Church: their uptake and meanings. J Nurs Manag [Internet]. 2012 Dec;20(8):1058–68. Available from: http://doi.wiley.com/10.1111/jonm.12024
4. Reuters. In era of coronavirus, Greek church says Holy Communion will carry on [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2020 Apr 12]. Available from: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-greece-church/in-e...
5. Matina Stevis-Gridneff. The Rising Heroes of the Coronavirus Era? Nations’ Top Scientists [Internet]. The New York Times. 2020 [cited 2020 Apr 13]. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/05/world/europe/scientists-coronavirus-h...
6. Bloomberg Opinion. https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2020-04-10/greece-handled-cor... [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2020 Apr 12]. Available from: https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2020-04-10/greece-handled-cor...

Competing interests: No competing interests

14 April 2020
Konstantinos Tsamakis
Consultant Psychiatrist , Research Visitor
Christoph Mueller, academic clinical lecturer in old age psychiatry,King's College London, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Neuroscience, London, UK, Ayesha Ahmad, lecturer in global health,St George's University of London, London SW17 0RE, UK.
King's College London, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Neuroscience, London, UK.
16 De Crespigny Park, Camberwell, London SE5 8AB, United Kingdom