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Press: Religious beliefs don’t protect against virus

26 June 2020


Shoppers wearing facemasks walk down Oxford Street, in central London, last Saturday

Shoppers wearing facemasks walk down Oxford Street, in central London, last Saturday

THE Mail Online has a sidebar of shame — the strip down the right-hand side of the website with an unending scroll of full-bodied nonentities “displaying”, “flaunting”, “showing off”, “stepping out”, and “revealing” themselves. Perhaps the Church Times should start a sidebar of sanctity, with chisel-jawed clergy proclaiming the gospel. After last week’s Mail coverage of the Revd Pat Allerton in Notting Hill, The Guardian retaliated with the Revd Chris Lee, of St Saviour’s, Wendell Park, in London. “A friend says his insta is full of boobs and bums and then I pop up and it’s a breath of fresh air.

“I joined Instagram five years ago, and my following has doubled over the past year. I have 168,000 followers — more than the Church of England and the archbishop of Canterbury combined.”

Later in the piece was an even better crossover of social-media fame with priesthood — an American Roman Catholic priest who had once weighed 210 kilos (not pounds) and now, after years of diet and exercise, has an Instagram community in which he posts pictures of himself with an exercise bike, and captions like this: “Fr Ryan @spinningpadre, our cofounder, loves his new @priestfit gear from @swole.catholic Loving the lightweight hoodie, perfect for spring, and the moisture wicking T-shirt for working out!” and “Our cofounder Fr Ryan @spinningpadre models our new #Priestfit tank on a beautiful sunny day during the octave of Easter outside his church”.


THE TIMES raised the interesting question which religious beliefs protect you best from the pandemic. The answer appears to be “none”: “People without religious faith are less likely to die from Covid-19 than believers, according to the first analysis of its kind from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

“The highest death rates were among Muslims, with Hindus and Sikhs also seeing more deaths than Christians.”

What made these figures interesting to me was that the death rates were broken down by ethnicity as well as by religion. This meant that it was possible, at least in theory, to sort out possible genetic from cultural factors in the very wide gaps between different groups in the tables, which covered all deaths from Covid-19 from the beginning of March till the end of May. There were huge gaps: Muslim men were more than twice as likely as Christians to die from the disease. The only genetic factor that matters is whether you are male or female, and the most important factor is simply age.

The researchers then attacked the raw figures in the obvious ways, by controlling, so far as possible, for social class, poverty, and other factors. Once this is done, the added danger of being a Muslim compared with a Christian shrinks dramatically but does not entirely disappear. Only when ethnicity is added into the calculations do Muslim and Christian death rates appear the same. “Ethnicity” is a curious term in this context: the ONS distinguishes between “Indian” and “Bangladeshi/Pakistani”.

The Guardian, reporting the same statistics, leads on the ethnic angle: “Black men in England and Wales are three times more likely to die from Covid-19 than white men, the Office for National Statistics has found,” but I thought, paradoxically, that it was the religious statistics that showed most clearly the bad health effects of racism, because they showed that even at comparable levels of poverty, pre-existing conditions, and so on, there is an additional health risk simply in belonging to the group at the bottom of the heap — presumably to be explained by the cumulative effect of stress hormones released in daily interactions and humiliations.


THE Radio 4 Today programme provoked a headline in the Daily Express which was so ludicrous that I had to read it three times to be sure that it wasn’t a spoof: “Pope sparks fury with ‘ridiculous’ BBC R4 broadcast calling for downfall of global system”.

When the story was checked out, it turned out to be even stranger. For a start, the “fury” consisted entirely of sputterings from Twitter. This is an interesting sidelight on How Journalism Works today: the Today programme broadcast the Pope’s words at 8:10 a.m.; the story went up 40 minutes later. And if “someone on Twitter is angry” constitutes a news story, then the whole business will be automated even faster than I was expecting (Press, 19 June).

But, when I went to listen to the Pope’s “call for the downfall of the global system”, things got even stranger. The programme had asked an actor to read out the Pope’s words from a translated interview with Austen Ivereigh, and he did so in a very slow and exaggerated foreign accent. The effect had something of Marlon Brando in The Godfather. From time to time, they would fade up a recording of the real Pope speaking perfectly normally in Spanish. Then we’d be back to the Mafia voice. It was a distancing effect that guaranteed that it was almost impossible to take seriously what was actually being said.

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