Simply put, religion is a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by several persons. People have their shared ideas, values, and opinions; their faith and trust with their religion. Religion gives way to the people in dealing with ultimate concerns about their lives and fate after death. COVID-19 and its mitigation measures had affected religious practice and beliefs in several ways.
People struggling to find faith and inner peace
With the implementation of lockdown and closure of all holy places to maintain physical distance between people, the entry of devotees to different pilgrimages was restricted. Due to that, the people get challenging to find faith in their god, and the internal peace them get disturbed. Entry of devotees to the Pashupatinath temple, which has continued regularly since ancient times, was prohibited during this pandemic. People visiting temples, churches, and the mosque are for their religious belief and internal comfort and peace.
Many people find confidence and get strong faith in visiting those holy places. Still, they get suffered due to the pandemic and its mitigation measure. Due to the closure of the temples, many people have lost one of the soothing mechanisms. Also, the Pashupati Area Development Trust (PADT) has suffered losses of around 700 million income from the devotees who visited the temple premise daily and during Teej, Shrawan month, or other festivals.
Affected religious tourism
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted religion in various ways, including the cancellation of the worship services of different faiths and the closure and withdrawal of all pilgrimages in temples, churches, mosques, and revocation and restriction to ceremonies and festivals. Along with adventure, culture, and nature, Nepal is also known as a religious destination for tourists. As the year 2020, Nepal was celebrating the Nepal 2020 campaign. The government and private sector, among others, were preparing for grand events in various religious places. Still, due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the religious tourism sector of the country has been adversely affected. Generally, Hindu and Buddhist tourists travel to Nepal for pilgrimage, but due to this pandemic country had lost millions of religious tourists and billions of rupees income from them.
Shaken religious cohesion
When the virus spread, the country imposed a lockdown in March 2020; the government tested 75 people with COVID-19. Since some of them are from the Muslim community, the religious minority has been singled out for contact tracing, especially within some districts of Nepal where the cases were detected. During that time, it was the festive time of Ramadan, which has always meant a time of joyous celebration with friends and family. Still, this year there was anxiety and fear among Nepali Muslims because of worries that they will be blamed for the virus. In Nepal, however, Muslims are in the minority and have peacefully co-existed for centuries.
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Now, after this situation, there is dread for the future and the rise of xenophobia and intolerance spreading across the border. With several Indian media spreading rumors, and at the same time, 11 out of 13 Tablighi Jamaat were Indians and had come for religious instructions. They were living in a mosque in the Udayapur district of Nepal and tested positive for COVID-19. The fear and anxiety among other people became exacerbated. With that, the Muslim people find themselves bearing stigma from other religions. That sensational story by news media suggesting that certain religious groups were plotting to spread the coronavirus in the communities. Hundreds of thousands of social media posts quickly amplified it stoking religious violence. Although the news report was finally found fake, the very fabric of social cohesion was shaken.
The pandemic has threatened to exacerbate existing inequality and instigate conflict, more so where specific communities and groups are exposed to stigma and discrimination. While Nepali society, in general, is seen to be tolerant towards religious diversity and religious tensions in the past have at times turned violent. These crises and disasters fuel existing frustrations created from unequal access and opportunities among different personnel and religious groups. This exposes some of the communities and groups to discrimination. This also makes a lack of understanding and appreciation for each other’s cultures, religion, ways of life, and world views.
The devotee’s faith and trust towards religion are affected due to this pandemic. Also, the economic gain and donation by the devotees to different temples and other holy places have been lost. As per the figure released by PADT, Pashupatinath temple, which stands as the highest-earning temple in the nation, has lost around half a million rupees as offering to Lord Shiva from the devotees daily due to lockdown. Apart from the offering to Lord Shiva, tourists entrance fee of Nepali rupees 3 to 4 lakh which use to contribute 10 million rupees in a month to the fund of PADT. Again special puja arranged for devotees on specific days of a week used to stand at around Nepali 7 million a month. This suggests that around 700 million lost was figured during this lockdown and closure of the Pashupatinath temple. These losses cause vital conservation and restoration work to those sites to withhold or cancel, adversely affecting the preservation of such cultural and religious properties.
Religious sites and pilgrims are closed, ceremonies and festivals are canceled, held, or postponed, which causes frustration among people; people felt less confident and have difficulty finding inner peace and comfort. The positive cohesiveness among the different religious groups is shaken, and the harmony among people is disturbed due to false news and belief during this pandemic.
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought uncertainty and spillover impact on almost all the sectors, and its enduring crisis on religion is a burning issue.