A Bradford mosque is trying out new equipment designed to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Dr John Wright, of the city’s Royal Infirmary, takes a look and finds out how other places of worship have been adapting to pandemic conditions. He also hears about a trial in the US to test whether prayer can help Covid patients in intensive care.
It is a telling reflection on our society that the road to normality is lined with pubs, shops and restaurants. When lockdown ended, the government’s priority was to get people back on the high street, and of course businesses badly needed their support. But it’s interesting that our economic health takes precedence, while our spiritual health remains optional.
The closure of churches, mosques and temples during lockdown left a gaping hole in many people’s lives, and their re-opening has brought a welcome return of both religious and social connectedness, particularly for older people.
We know from the dark days of the peak of the pandemic that religious settings hosted some of the super-spreading events that fed the transmission of infection: weddings, funerals and even choirs. After the lifting of lockdowns, churches have been the source of outbreaks in South Korea and the US. So the re-opening of places of worship remains a challenge, and it’s one they have had to face without financial help from the Chancellor.
I visited one of Bradford’s mosques with my good friend Zulfi Karim, who, as well as being the president of the city’s Council for Mosques, is a Covid-19 survivor – and only just. He picked up the virus right at the start of the pandemic and had a relentless and gruelling illness followed by a lingering debilitation that has lasted over six months.
The al-Markaz ul Islami mosque, based in a converted mill, is a focal point for the local Muslim community as well as a spiritual home. Like all other mosques in the city, it closed down during lockdown and its congregation adapted to praying at home. With the lifting of lockdown, the imam recognised the importance of providing a safe space for his congregation and worked with two local GPs, Tahir Shaheen and Shiraz Ali, to create a Covid-secure place of worship.
They showed me how they have redesigned the mosque with the latest technology to screen for fevers and check that face masks are being worn. An airport-style security booth sprays a mist to disinfect all visitors and a clever ventilation system checks the purity and circulation of the air.
“In the lockdown people were praying at home, but there are certain prayers that are only valid if they’re in congregation, like Friday prayer. Our numbers are now restricted; we have capacity for just 10-15% of our normal capacity given the restrictions. We have many more people wanting to come than we can accommodate,” Zulfi tells me.
Since early July, an online booking system has been in place. When people walk through the door, the new equipment instantly measures their body temperature and anyone with a fever is guided to a quarantine room where they can be checked again, imam Muhammad Ishtiaq tells me.
Those whose temperature is normal proceed to a sanitising station, and from there to the prayer room, where there are markings on the floor at one metre distances. The equipment was generously donated by a company called P4 Technology and the mosque will trial it for a year.
“If the technology allows us, and it’s been approved, we are hoping that we will be allowed to take the face masks off and stand side by side,” the imam says.
“If it benefits us, we want all other religions and groups to be able to benefit from it,” adds Dr Shazad Ali.
Prof John Wright, a doctor and epidemiologist, is head of the Bradford Institute for Health Research, and a veteran of cholera, HIV and Ebola epidemics in sub-Saharan Africa. He is writing this diary for BBC News and recording from the hospital wards for BBC Radio.
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At the Sikh temple on Leeds Road, in Bradford, volunteers have been checking that worshippers are wearing face masks. People have been encouraged to remain at a distance of two metres and singers have been located behind glass screens. Earlier this month, though, someone who’d attended the temple tested positive for Covid-19 and all those present on the same day had to self-isolate for two weeks.
The Bishop of Bradford, Toby Howarth, tells me that communion in the cathedral is now very different. Only the priest can receive the wine; the priest then walks down the aisle putting the bread into each person’s hand, disinfecting his or her own hands every time. In some churches, services are held online, or worshippers can watch a recorded sermon and then go to their church for communion.
“Then there are other places that deliver the liturgy to people’s houses, and everyone says the liturgy at the same time every week, knowing that everyone else is saying the same thing,” Bishop Toby says. “So there is this sense that even if I can’t see you, we are doing it at the same time – and almost with a heightened awareness of people saying it because they’re not in the same building.”
One lovely example of where religion and science have come together in the hope of fighting Covid-19 is in Kansas, in the US, where doctors and religious leaders are carrying out a trial of prayer for Covid-19 patients in intensive care.
This is no Mickey Mouse trial either. A double blind, randomised controlled trial of 1,000 patients, trials don’t get much more scientifically robust than that. Now I suspect that most patients would be a little concerned if on the morning ward round their doctors dropped to their knees and started calling out for God’s intercession. It certainly wouldn’t fill you with optimism.
In this trial, however, the prayer is done remotely – a universal prayer from five denominations (Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism) with the control group just getting standard medical care. We are constantly searching for more effective treatments, so let’s wait and see whether prayer is as effective as dexamethasone.