The first lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19 was over 100 days ago. Our lives have not yet gone back to normal. As countries come out of lockdown, many governments have prohibited the gathering of people in indoor and outdoor spaces. Places and experiences that we took for granted for the longest time – malls, restaurants, cafes where we shopped, socialised, and consumed – have become a distant dream, with no end in sight to when we can frequent them again. This has already had a bearing on these sectors.
In the United States, for example, it is estimated that over 25,000 stores will shut down, mainly in malls. Decreased footfalls means decreased revenues. In India, malls have seen a 77 per cent degrowth, and we have no idea if enough number of people will risk going to one. Between the loss in jobs leading to less disposable income, and the fear of COVID-19 driving more shopping online – the proliferation of malls has hit a massive speed bump. While the impact on retail has been well discussed, as has been the economic impact of COVID-19 on it, there is another sector that is equally impacted, but under the radar, and that is organised religion.
COVID-19 has already impacted the Haj. Saudi Arabia has barred all Muslims from outside Saudi Arabia from the faith’s most holy shrines. They are trying to limit further entry of the virus into their country. For most Catholics across the world Easter was spent listening to live streams of mass from their Church. This year’s Eid saw the faithful offer prayers from home, as mosques held to the social distancing norm, not just in India but worldwide.
The coronavirus has also impacted Hindu festivals and organised events. Lalbaugcha Raja – the Ganapati that is most beloved to Mumbaikars will not be coming home this year. The pandal, one of the most respected ones, has taken the call to keep devotees safe, and organise a blood and plasma donation drive instead. This would be the first time since 1934 that Lalbaugcha Raja would not be installed. The Warkari tradition of a walking procession to Pandharpur was suspended, as was the Vaishnavo Devi yatra. While some of the larger temples are gradually reopening, with strict social distancing norms – the smaller ones, based in individual communities are deeply impacted.
For most Indians, the place of worship is integral to our lives. For most of us, it has been over 100 days since all religious places got locked down, depriving many of us of the spiritual solace that arises from visiting these places. Also, for many it is a place of social interaction – the building and nurturing of community ties. In addition to this, there is an entire market ecosystem that is based around the place of worship – the sellers of flowers, the sellers of religious curios, the sellers of sweets that are offered, those who manufacture chadars and agarbattis; just to name a few. Over and above that, there are priests, tellers of parables, helpers and more who have also been deprived income, and face an uncertain future.
While the larger temples, mosques, churches can switch to a virtual mode of serving the needs of their congregation – it is the smaller local community-based establishments that are deeply impacted. These temples, churches, mosques, and other places of worship don’t just provide space for local communities to pray, but also form the invisible bonds that tie people together. And, it is important that this sector that plays such a vital role in our social cohesion be protected against the vagaries of economics caused by a virus.
Given the number of places of worship that we have and the number of people involved in the economic ecosystem that supports worship, there is going to be a fair amount of impact on life and livelihood. And, this is so under the radar, that it often escapes detection. Priests, preachers, musicians, candle sellers, sellers of pooja material, garland makers, and more are going to face a bleak future, if nothing is done to support them. We cannot expect normal market forces to help restore this anytime soon.
The economic crisis faced by priests, preachers and others who are a part of the ‘temple economy’ does not mean people are turning away from religion. Rather, they are finding new ways to pray, and congregate. What was a curiosity a few years ago – online services and prayers – is now becoming more normalised.
With places of worship being closed, and more people spending more time interacting with screens it is likely that a whole range of activities related to worship will move to the virtual space. Larger temples and churches already had online services, and it is likely that this would be more in vogue, going forward. The lockdown period has already seen wedding and funeral services moving online, as people realise that it is a convenient way of participating in activities. Several start-ups catering to the worshipper with a high-speed internet connection is rising, as more people realise that God can be accessed via the click of a button. Priests are using Zoom calls to perform full-fledged ceremonies, as their congregation adapts to the new normal. Organised religion is finally facing digital disruption.
The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology, and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty, and filmmaker.