The problem with churches that defy quarantine restrictions and seek "worship as usual" with crowds of believers attending services goes far beyond Ukraine. In South Korea, the research of infection chains showed that, on average, one person infected with COVID-19 spread the disease among 10 to 15 people. At the same time, one of the patients had transmitted the virus to several thousand citizens through a religious community. That is, it's in churches and temples where the disease spreads at the highest rate.
Even before the epidemic broke out in its territory, Ukraine had to carefully study the experience of those countries that had encountered a coronavirus before. Had this been done, the authorities would have realized that the problem would inevitably arise of high levels of infection among medics, and they would have been convinced much earlier that air travel with the virus hotbeds must be suspended. Also, Ukraine would have known that churches are precisely such hotbeds at a smaller scale so action must be taken in advance to avoid a disaster.
Churches are difficult to mess with, so in many countries, the authorities prefer to cooperate with them rather than get into a fight
However, the situation with the churches is not as simple as it seems. That's because they are one of the strongest institutions in the world, regardless of whether they are public, official, or informal. Churches are difficult to mess with, so in many countries, the authorities prefer to cooperate with them rather than get into a fight.
This also applies to Ukraine.
Traditionally, Ukrainian churches are organizations actively involved in politics. This has been the case since the early times of Ukraine's independence. Over the past years, churches have grown stronger, and their influence on the government has become rather powerful. That is why politicians prefer to go to churches and take selfies there.
Restrictive measures for churches are extremely difficult to implement. Therefore, at least two cases of coronavirus spread through church organizations have been recorded in Ukraine. The first example is the spread of the virus in the churches of the "Moscow Patriarchate", or more precisely, in its headquarters in the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra. Another example is a Protestant church in Dnipropetrovsk region.
As we can see, the spread doesn't depend on denomination. Focusing on the Lavra case leads to another confrontation with a particular church organization. But in reality, this could happen in any church.
I would also remind that the first victim of a coronavirus in Ukraine, who died in Zhytomyr region, as it turned out when her contacts were traced, had visited a church and contacted a few dozen local parishioners before she died...
In Ukraine, the authorities decided not to fight churches because the latter are powerful political organizations
Therefore, the issue of the church being a potentially hazardous site at the times of quarantine remains urgent. But how can it be addressed? If government bans mass gatherings, this rule must apply to everyone, including church communities. Then it would be about executing or not executing the regulation imposed by the authorities.
However, in Ukraine, the authorities decided not to fight churches because the latter are powerful political organizations. The government prefers to remain friends and flirt with top clerics who are able influence their flock, read "electorate". So the authorities are just afraid to interfere.
Meanwhile, implementing these restrictions would be quite realistic. Unlike other European countries, Ukraine has a Council of Churches. The government needed to meet with the Council of Churches in a timely manner, work with its members and brief them on the need to abide by restrictions during quarantine. But this wasn't done.
So far, the problem with the churches has not gotten out of hand, while having significantly worsened. And now, in the wake of the story with the Lavra, church hierarchs will realize the need to adhere to restrictions to tackle the epidemic.
Easter is coming when people usually go to church in large crowds, which, of course, will contribute to a more vigorous spread of the virus. The solution is obvious: the churches should be compelled to obey the ban on mass gatherings and, therefore, the churches would have to opt for online services. Because it seems strange and incomprehensible to the public, why an exception is being made for churches where "special conditions" of quarantine are being set. But in reality, the government is simply aware that the political influence of the churches is far greater than that of the political parties, and is therefore afraid of restricting church activity.
As for the church's unwillingness to abide by the epidemic rules, it's explained as follows. Churches are not only political organizations but also financial ones. They depend on the financial support of their laity. But it's always a choice of those going to church (they do it voluntarily, no one's making them to donate). Because of this, in particular, churches oppose the call to abide by restrictions.
Public awareness of this peculiarity of the church has led to the fact that in the most developed economies, once Protestant countries, the influence of churches is seeing steady decline as citizens are shifting away from church life.
An unfortunate example of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra will make church hierarchs sober up a bit
In Ukraine, the situation is the opposite: it is increasingly becoming a clerical state as the influence of the church is steadily increasing. Naturally, any organization that's becoming influential, is expanding, including economically. And the economic "connection" between the church and its parishioners is through direct communication: ordinary people bring bread to a priest, millionaires make huge donations to churches – and all of this is happening through personal communication. Of course, churches are interested in that.
However, in a situation where some businesses have completely ceased their operations, such as restaurants, and many Ukrainians get by on their savings, there should be a uniform area of responsibility. To put it bluntly, it's not individual categories of citizens who should be "tightening the belts" but everyone. Wiser churches treat this idea with understanding, because in the future, they will depend on how many of their parishioners survive the pandemic. It might be an awkward thing to say, but it is the interest of the churches to keep their flock healthy. Therefore, they must care about their health.
The unfortunate example of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra will make church hierarchs sober up a bit as they now have to deal with the need to treat restrictions differently in order to counter the epidemic.
Oleksandr Donii is a Ukrainian political analyst, head of the Center for Political Values Studies, Former People's Deputy of Ukraine, Chairman of the Last Barricade Art Association