Contrasts in how religious festivals have been perceived in the COVID-19 response show us society’s entrenched hierarchy of religions.
Most people will likely have come across reports in the news about various changes in lockdown measures in response to COVID-19 and debates about the timing of these changes. What some people may not have realised is that these debates and announcements show much more than just the changes in infection rates across the UK. By comparing the government’s responses before important festivals or celebrations for different religions, we can see a clear difference in the extent to which the government considers it necessary to change policy for members of particular religions or even takes some religious festivals into account. Where restrictions have been changed before religious festivals, the societal response is also interesting to observe. All belief systems are of equal worth and they should all be considered when formulating policy, especially policy that affects individual behaviour and will impact on how people worship or celebrate. The UK may be a traditionally Christian country, but there has been a clear difference in mindset that results in a discriminatory or, at the very least, unequal result for other religions. Whilst it is understandable that many of us have internalised traditionally Christian celebrations as part of life in the UK, we should try to check our own preconceptions of which festivals are ‘important’.
Around a month before Christmas, it was announced that there would be a relaxation of lockdown measures over the festive period to allow people to celebrate Christmas, with “political leaders [concluding] it was essential to allow people to meet their loved ones”. Without getting into the science behind the possible effect this could have on infection rates and how individuals may react, the timing and content of this announcement were in stark contrast with those of some of the major festivals for other religions in the UK. Ultimately, the risk was too great, with further restrictions announced days before Christmas Day and Christmas effectively being “cancelled for millions”. Much of the upset and disruption could arguably have been avoided, had the government simply announced restrictions earlier to give people adequate time to react and prepare. The loss of a ‘traditional’ Christmas is very upsetting, particularly for those whose plans have now been ruined, but it is important to remember that other religions also had to abandon plans for their major festivals last minute and with less sympathy. For Diwali, people were ‘encouraged’ to stay strong and obey existing measures. A tightening of lockdown measures was announced in areas with significant Muslim communities late in the evening of the day before Eid, mere minutes before the changes were due to be implemented.
Although Christmas is admittedly also a national secular celebration in some ways, there is arguably still a strong disconnect between the reactions to how lockdown measures were changed for Christmas and for other religious celebrations that cannot be explained by pure coincidence alone. Even if we go for the extreme and assume Christmas to be a wholly secular celebration, there is a clearly observable inequality. Other religious communities have suffered considerable disruptions to their major celebrations in a way that Christians celebrating Christmas religiously would not have experienced, were it not for the need for the government’s need to react to the virus mutating. The government should have reacted much earlier and it is clear that there was a strong desire to ‘save’ Christmas even though this course of action has had entirely the opposite effect. As with any similar measures, there will inevitably be individuals who go against recommended best practices, and it is extremely likely that there will be a spike in infection rates over this period. When this happens, it is the minority ethnic, mostly non-Christian, communities who will be disproportionately negatively affected by an increase in infections than their White, mostly Christian counterparts. We must all make an effort to be more aware of our preconceptions and the extent to which we see our own traditions as ‘more important’ than others’.
Even if there was no direct intention to prioritise the majority over the minority, which seems unlikely, the minority will ultimately still suffer the consequences of an unequal society that treats minority groups as second-class citizens. At JAN Trust, we value all groups equally and work to empower marginalised and minority communities by providing individuals with valuable skills and knowledge, whether through classes on life skills or programmes on important issues like online extremism. By educating, encouraging, and empowering our beneficiaries, we can all work together to combat some of the biggest obstacles and issues facing our minority communities.