A death knell for religious economy

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A death knell for religious economy

Thursday, 12 March 2020 | Michael Song

Like all others, the religious tourism industry is also praying for a quick containment and cure for the Coronavirus epidemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has investors and economists all around the world gravely concerned. The negative impact of the Coronavirus on the global economy and businesses was neither a surprise nor the only outcome. In the light of the risk of exposure to the Coronavirus, several notable summits/meetings/events have been suspended, deferred or postponed. It has had a widespread impact on the Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions (MICE) and event industry globally, not only in terms of the money invested being lost but also brand values seeing a fall.

Many companies have come up with innovative solutions to continue their brand communications and consumer connect in view of cancellations or general aversion to physically attending the events. Keeping safety/health concerns front and centre, brands have showcased solidarity with Governments, the medical and scientific fraternity trying to stem the spread of the Coronavirus and have immediately cancelled or postponed plans for big events.

However, beyond the impact on the manufacturing, production, sports and tourism industry there is another industry that has been severely affected by the Coronavirus that is still to be realised by the world at large. The chaos over the virus has affected the international religious economy. While different industries and brands can utilise innovative solutions to avoid physically attending events, the religious economy is suffering as it does not have that option. Simply put, it operates differently. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has advised major social distancing among other basic protective measures to avoid the risk associated with exposure to the Coronavirus at any public event involving a global audience. The religious industry, which dogmatically relies on the physical presence of the devotees, has seen a major setback due to this. 

So, for starters, Saudi Arabia suspended the entry of pilgrims as a precautionary measure against the spread of Coronavirus. Soon after the number of Coronavirus-related casualties touched 3,000, Saudi Arabia sterilised the Grand Mosque and banned all foreign pilgrims from entering the country. The kingdom has also suspended tourist visas from countries where the Coronavirus is spreading.

Italy is bearing the worst brunt of the Coronavirus. With more than 10,000 people having now been confirmed to have the virus, Italy is under a national lockdown and even tougher measures are being considered. Religious tourism and allied industries have taken a major hit due to the loss of pilgrims coming to Rome and due to Pope Francis cancelling a lot of events in the last few weeks after the virus attacked Italy. The Pope, 83, was also tested for the virus after suffering from illness at the time when the outbreak happened in Italy. He, however tested negative but the Pope still cancelled all major events avoiding large public gatherings as a precautionary measure in a bid to slow the spread of Coronavirus. Authorities have imposed restrictions on the catechism and mass services across the country as well. JP Morgan now expects Italy’s economy to contract 7.5 per cent in the first quarter from the previous quarter, with a modest two per cent pick-up in the second quarter before a full rebound in the third quarter.

Meanwhile, all churches and mosques have been closed in Bethlehem for 14 days, including the world-renowned Church of Nativity. The measure has been accompanied by a closure of all schools in Bethlehem and Jericho areas after Greek tourists staying at a Bethlehem hotel left for Greece and later tested positive for the virus.

At the Sanctuary of Lourdes in France, the authorities have said the pilgrimage season beginning next month will go ahead as usual. However, as Coronavirus cases continue to grow in neighbouring Italy, it is only a matter of time before the pilgrimage season here also comes under threat. As of now, only the pools that sick people bathe in to heal have been closed until further notice.

Another global religious leader, the Dalai Lama also added to the list of cancelled events and postponed them all until further notice, including his annual teachings that were scheduled in March. According to the Dalai Lama’s website, “As a precautionary measure, in view of the Coronavirus outbreak, all engagements of His Holiness the Dalai Lama remain indefinitely postponed. Thank you for your understanding.”

However, the coronavirus epidemic is not the first virus outbreak that has affected the religious economy and spirituality at large. Disease outbreaks have always been a matter of concern surrounding the Haj, for instance and Saudi Arabia’s borders were partially closed to pilgrims from some countries during previous global health scares, such as the Ebola in 2014. Even the Zika virus epidemic of 2016 majorly affected the economic, political, social and religious sector including the cancellation of Haj and suspension of church community activities among others. So, like all others, the religious tourism industry is also praying for a quick containment and cure for this epidemic. 

(The writer is chairman and founder of  Topline Consulting Group, a communications and advisory firm)

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