The decision to resume congregational prayers which include daily and Friday prayers, nightly tarawih and Aidilfitri prayers as recently announced by the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department for Religious Affairs, as well as some states such as Johor, Perak, Negeri Sembilan and Perlis should be reconsidered and viewed cautiously. Congregational prayers are gatherings.
A review of the guidelines for the religious congregational activities found that social distancing, hand hygiene and mask-wearing protocols have been included. However, it is worrying to note that there is a lack of consistency on several points which may increase the possibility of infection, of non-compliance, and lack of effectiveness in disease prevention.
While a number of states have stated that the congregation must be limited to 12 and only be mosque officials and committee members, the Wilayah Persekutuan religious authorities allows a maximum of 30 individuals, which includes members of the public up to the age of 70, to attend.
Anyone above the age of 50 is at higher risk of developing severe complications due to Covid-19 infection and that multiplies when a person has a chronic disease. At least 40 percent of people in that category have an undiagnosed chronic illness such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease.
As most of those attending these congregational prayers will also be men, they should also know that men are at a greater risk of dying from this disease than women.
Regular supplies of alcohol-based hand sanitizers and face masks will need to be provided by all participating mosques and suraus to their congregation. They must be consistently used and worn. Enforcement to ensure compliance and adherence will be challenging.
If we take Wilayah Persekutuan as an example, how do you enforce the guidelines for at least 84 mosques, 108 surau Jumaat and 486 suraus registered with the religious department? The Minister’s statement implies that there will be police and religious personnel on site.
Will there be enforcement personnel stationed at each of these locations for the daily prayers and tarawih prayer every day for at least the next two weeks? Even if it is just those in the green zones, it is a major undertaking across the different states.
If we are absolutely unable to wait for the epidemiological situation to improve, then the staged approach taken by Selangor is the model to follow.
Starting off with limiting daily and Friday prayers to just nine district mosques and five royal mosques, allows for adherence and compliance to be monitored. Later expansion to all 24 registered mosques will be guided by the lessons learnt from the earlier stage allowing for more effective implementation. Restricting the congregation to just 12 individuals and no one above the age of 60 should be adopted by all other state religious authorities.
However, recent Ministry of Health data from the tahfiz/ madrasah school cluster has demonstrated a clear threat of asymptomatic transmission. Most of those confirmed positive did not show any of the typical symptoms of someone infected with Covid-19, nevertheless they could infect others.
In principle, we believe that resuming congregational prayers so soon to be premature. It could make the third wave of the Covid-19 epidemic in Malaysia become inevitable. Disease prevention depends on the ability to change people’s behaviour to adopt protective actions and attitudes. It is one of the hardest things to do in public health interventions. It takes time.
During a public health crisis involving an infectious disease, we must place the priorities of disease prevention and control before anything else.