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Easter 2020 and COVID-19: High in spirit, low in funfare

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There was no Station of the cross procession this year.

Tomorrow, majority of Christians across the globe will not congregate to sing Robert Lowry’s popular Easter hymn, ‘Low in the grave He lay’ with its victory-inspiring refrain, ‘Up from the grave He arose, With a mighty triumph o’er His foes; He arose a Victor from the dark domain; And He lives forever with His saints to reign. He arose! He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose!” They will do that in their homes.

A great event in Christendom, Easter is usually celebrated with fanfare. In this part of the world, churches organise a lot of spiritual activities during the period. Businesses boom as families shop to ensure they celebrate in grand style. Tourists seize the opportunity to visit choice destinations even as people travel far and wide to meet loved ones. Individuals schedule social events like wedding, house warming, fund raising, community meeting and even burial in the Easter week. But all that will not happen this year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has literally put the world on pause and Nigeria is not left out. With 96,783 deaths globally as at 2.00pm yesterday, out of which Nigeria accounts for seven, most countries are presently on lockdown in a bid to stem the spread of the virus.

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The impact of March 29, 2020 broadcast of President Muhammadu Buhari ordering a two-week lockdown of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja; Lagos and Ogun states with only essential services providers allowed to operate is felt by both animate and inanimate objects. Most states of the country have since toed the same path, consequently cancelling many events/plans scheduled for the Easter period.

A member of Deeper Christian Life Ministry (DCLM), Onyegbule Chidozie, told The Guardian in Lagos that the COVID-19 lockdown forced his church to postpone its yearly Easter retreat. “Our yearly Easter retreat which was billed for April 9-12, 2020, has been cancelled. I am 35 years old; I was born into DCLM. In my 35 years of existence, not once have I heard that the Easter retreat or any of the other basic retreats of the church were ever canceled for any reason, not even during the Ebola crisis.

“This coronavirus pandemic is an unfortunate situation for everyone all over the world. But what is more unfortunate is how some of us had hoped that the pandemic would pass before this Easter. But as it is now, no one can really tell when the virus will give way for normalcy. So at this time, we can only pray for God’s intervention and redemption of the entire world, which is what Easter signifies,” he said.

A member Regina Mundi Catholic Church, Mushin, Lagos, who identified himself simply as Mr Alabi, spoke in the same vein, saying even though the church was into the Holy Week that ushers in Easter, all the usual activities could not hold. He said: “This time last year, I was at the church in preparation for the Holy Thursday (washing of the feet) but as it is now, no much preparation would be needed concerning it. This week doesn’t feel like a Holy Week that would have ushered us into the Easter festivities.

“The COVID-19 lockdown has led to the postponement of the first Holy Communion, Confirmation and the Adult Baptism. All these activities would have been done on Holy Saturday, the day before the Easter Sunday. As it is now, I just hope this whole situation will eventually come to an end.”

Another member of the Roman Catholic Church, Mrs Mba, also said: “I know the lockdown is for our benefit, but as human beings, I wish normal activities would be restored. My daughter’s wedding, which is supposed to be held at the church towards the end of this month, has been put on hold till further notice due to the lockdown and closure of the church. I have never experienced this kind of situation; I have never experienced the closure of the church, especially during this Holy Season. During the time of the Ebola crisis, the church and the country itself carried on with their normal activities perfectly. Few measures were taken to prevent the spread of the virus but this time around, the situation is seriously appalling.”

Bishop Wale-Oke

Tomisin Adegbemi has similar narrative: “My father who died in February was billed to be buried on Good Friday, but because of the lockdown, we had to postpone the burial ceremony and services indefinitely. What is worse is that we have to keep paying mortuary bill until the lockdown is lifted and this COVID-19 issue becomes a thing of the past,” he lamented.

Another resident, who identified himself simply as Isaac said that he had to postpone activities already slated for the Easter period. “I was supposed to travel home for my town’s general meeting and other festivities, but due to the lockdown, I have to put everything on hold until this whole situation gets settled. Weddings and other gatherings have been put on hold due to the law concerning social gathering. This is not something the intending couples and the town are happy about but the law is the law. We have to obey.”

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For Funmi Ishola, a businesswoman, the Easter season has been boring because people have been indoors. This is as she lamented a slowdown in international trade as a result of the virus.

“What I usually do is to order for goods early enough. They come in from China. But since the COVID-19 outbreak in that country, the inflow of goods has been slow.

“It usually takes 30 days for the goods to come in by sea; now it takes at least three months. That is a quarter of the year. Now if you want to do air freight, the rates are ridiculous. When I wanted to order something for my client as at March 30, it cost about five dollars per kilogramme. I learnt that it’s now $10.3 per kilogramme. How much will I charge my client?” she queried.

Another business woman, Faith Emadu, said she has been surviving on her savings since the lockdown, describing the development as a setback.

Chris Irifo, who is into sales of computers, said he was feeling frustrated by the present situation. In fact, I’m losing about N3.8 million in this lockdown. But there is no option than to stay at home and be safe. This time last year, I made huge sales; a lot of youths got laptops. Sadly, I am indoors this year.”

But despite the pains and losses thrown up by the COVID-19 pandemic, the General Overseer of Christ Power and Grace Miracles Ministries, Esther Adekanmbi-Osinubi, urged Christians, nay all Nigerians, to fully comply with the lockdown order.

Referencing Romans 13:1-2, she said, “the voice of authority is the voice of God. More so, the lockdown is for everyone’s safety pending when this COVID-19 pandemic fades off. So, as Christians, we must continuously obey the authorities as long as they did not declare that we must not worship God.

“Easter can be celebrated within the family, not necessarily inside a church building. The home can also be a place of worship. The scripture tells us in Mathew 18:20, ‘For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

The cleric further said the COVID-19 pandemic has indicated that everyone in the universe was connected one way or the other; and that human beings have the same blood running in their vein irrespective of race.

“It also reminds us about brevity of life; the thin line between life and death which could happen at the blink of an eye hence the need to show love to everyone especially in this time. So, let those who are rich and wealthy help the less privilege during the lockdown. Let’s not solely depend on what the government wants to do,” she added.

Grotto at St. Jude Catholic Church, Mafoluku, Oshodi where faithful usually pray after procession to commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on Good Friday was deserted due to the government restrictions to fight the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in Lagos…yesterday. PHOTO: FEMI ADEBESIN-KUTI

The state of affairs in other states of the federation is akin to what obtains in Lagos. Findings in Taraba State showed that the usual fanfare that often heralded Easter celebration was totally absent. Unlike in the past when the state witnessed a lot of buying and selling, travellings, street decorations and increased activities in the church, the reverse is the case. Many parts of the state are more or less like ghost communities.

With the total lockdown coupled with the state government’s inability to cushion its effect on vulnerable residents, people wore long faces as they spoke about how the virus has spoilt their Easter plans.

A lady who said her wedding has been shifted till further notice as a result of the lockdown, expressed the fear that she might lose her heartthrob as a result of the postponement. “My only prayer now is for the guy that wants to marry not to change his mind because he has spent a lot in preparing for our marriage. But see what this so called coronavirus has caused me,” she said.

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Madam Becky Akerele said her family had planned to travel to Edo State for Easter, “but this development has changed our plans. We cannot travel and even to go to market to buy things that we can use to celebrate, here in Jalingo, it is not possible because the markets and shops are shutdown.”

She called on the government to relax the lockdown and allow people to buy foodstuffs for Easter celebration.

Traders also lamented lost opportunity with one of them stressing that COVID-19 pandemic “is biting hard on everybody.”

Meanwhile, many Christian leaders in state who bared their minds on the development, urged their followers to adhere strictly to the directives by the government.

The state chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Rev. JerapiIsiah Magaji, urged Christians to use this moment to reflect on their past, noting that it has become necessary “for us to help government to prevent this virus from spreading into our state.”

In Abia State, the way the Palm Sunday was celebrated had signaled that the Easter celebration in the state would be without pomp. But the state government last Wednesday adjusted the lockdown to pave way for Friday Jumat prayers for Muslims and Sunday worships for Christians. The implication is that Christians in the state will have the opportunity to congregate in their respective churches tomorrow to mark this year’s Easter.

However, the government’s ban on social gatherings still subsists. So, groups and individuals would still not be able to hold social events.

Mr George Ike told The Guardian that he had since last year scheduled his wedding to hold on Easter Monday and was working towards it but had to cancel it. “I had sent out invitations, paid for the hall and arranged for entertainment, among other plans. But I have shelved it indefinitely. The way things are, the wedding may not hold even after the lockdown because my wife is getting due for delivery,” he said.

In Ogun State, people who spoke on preparations for Easter painted a pathetic picture. They said that they had spent all they had on foodstuffs, lamenting that the continued lockdown of the state would portend danger for them.

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Some of them said that they could no longer go to where they buy things in bulk and resell, thereby getting more impoverished.

From Kuto to Omida, IsaleIgbehin, Kolobo, Quarry and Lafenwa, the story was the same. The residents also complained that palliatives being given out by the government were not reaching them.

When The Guardian spoke with some small business owners in Ibadan, Oyo State, many of them also lamented hard times.

“It’s a very challenging season for small businesses in the face of this coronavirus pandemic. Sales have not been fantastic because people would eat first before they wear cloth. Everyone is on survival instinct,” said Mrs Atinuke Smith, a dealer in clothing materials. “We haven’t been able to open our businesses for weeks now and we still need to keep our employees on our pay roll. We also have stocks that need to be sold and projects we have invested in that we need to complete. But we had to abandon them due to the issue of coronavirus. We hope everything comes back to normal soon.”

For Mrs. Omobolade Faluyi, an Ibadan-based fashion designer, the usual boom her business used to experience during this Easter period was non-existent this year.

She attributed the development to the stay-at-home order by the state government.

Faluyi said: “This coronavirus pandemic has really affected sewing business. We can’t get fabric at the same amount we used to get it before because some of the fabric we use are imported from China . It has really affected sales because our customers prefer to stock up foodstuffs and stay at home rather than sewing new clothes during this period. They are setting their priorities right because food is more essential than clothes.”

On their part, Christian leaders in the state charged Nigerians to draw closer to God during this Easter period.

Presiding Bishop of the Sword of the Spirit Ministries, Ibadan, Bishop Francis Wale Oke, admonished Nigerians to fear God more than the dreaded coronavirus.

Oke noted that if the people could take God’s instructions seriously as they were taking the rules aimed at stemming the spread of COVID-19, the world would have been a better place.

In an Easter message titled ‘Coronavirus: Fear God More’, the cleric urged the people to focus more on Jesus whom he asserted, was capable of delivering mankind from all predicaments.

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He said: “In the world today, nothing appears to be cheery. The news being churned out on a daily basis, especially during this period of pandemic, is not ear-appeasing at all. But the good thing is: The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord, has conquered all fears. He died and rose for you and I.”

While not wishing away the prescribed rules to help curtail the spread of the deadly virus, he implored the people “not to turn coronavirus into another demi-god to be  worshiped through unnecessary fear.

“Rather, it is God that needs to be feared most. There is no disease or power above God. So, just like most people have obeyed and are still obeying the stay-at-home order while still observing other rules related to coronavirus’ prevention, we should more than that, obey God,” he added.

On his part, the Oyo State Chairman of CAN, Pastor Benjamin Akanmu said: “Let’s keep to the directives given to us. My advice to people is that it is only those people who survive this critical period of time that can worship and celebrate. The situation of things now doesn’t mean that we will not be back to our former situation when we used to celebrate it well. But it is for those who survive this period. If anyone forces himself or herself to do things this period, if he dies, he dies for himself. But only those who survive it will celebrate subsequent ones.

“My Easter message is that Christianity teaches us simplicity. Jesus entered into Jerusalem with all simplicity. He didn’t go there with arrogance.  So, showing off with all sorts of things is not the way of Christianity.

“The main thing for us is to be appreciative. Jesus Christ came to the world to reunite sinners with God. Now, we should go back to trace our steps to God and forsake our sins so that that power of resurrection will come to our lives to revive those things that are not right in our lives. The power that moved on the tomb is still much will us.”

The Emeritus Catholic Archbishop of Ibadan Archdiocese, Most Rev. Felix Alaba Job recounted how COVID-19 pandemic affected the programmes of the church globally, noting that God has a message in the present situation for mankind.

“The feast in the Catholic Church is the beginning of the celebration of the Holy Week and Easter. As you are aware, throughout the whole world there is a pandemic, Coronavirus. Because of that we did not go on procession. We have blessed the palms because it is significant and signifies for us a lot of things.

“We are not made of body alone. We are made of body and soul. The complete human being must realise that he belongs to God and he has a soul. We can see today the message of the present time: Change your ways and wash away your sins. That is the greatest message for each one of us.”

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For Residents of Rivers State, this year’s Easter celebration would be as usual. The coronavirus lockdown and the economic hardship in the country have forced them to adjust their usual Easter preparations and planning.

In the past, during Easter festivities, residents shopped for new clothes, shoes, ear rings, did makeups and new hair styles, among others.

Checks around Port Harcourt metropolis and some markets which only operated between 7:00am and noon showed that the residents’ major concern this time was how to have foodstuffs that could sustain them until further notice. This is with exception to the political elite who can purchase whatever they like at will.

A visit to the popular Mile One market revealed panic buying of essential commodities like rice, garri, beans, yam, meat, oil, pepper and tomatoes, among others.

Recall that as part of its measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the state, Governor Nyesom Wike had on March 28 ordered the closure of all markets no matter how small. However, on April 5, the governor announced that markets should open between 7:00am and 12noon to enable residents shop for Easter celebration.

However, most of the residents lamented that they couldn’t buy much things due to the high price of foodstuffs and other essential commodities, saying government was making life very difficult for the citizens.

One of the residents, Mr. Emma Ihekire, said: “The situation is getting worse everyday; they locked down everywhere and because of that, everything in the market became very expensive. They did not also provide alternatives; the palliatives they announced that they are giving, we have not seen them. I don’t know who is advising government.”

Adekanmbi-Osinubi

Another resident who went to Rumokoro market, Mrs. Margret Iheozor, described the crowd in the market as alarming, adding that the crowd was overwhelming and posed great danger to efforts at containing the spread of coronavirus.

She said: “What I saw today was alarming; everywhere was filled up. You couldn’t even see where you could step your foot. There was no social distancing and no protective kits; people were just sneezing and coughing openly. Prices of items were very high; I couldn’t buy anything so I left.”

Easter celebration is often associated with lots of ceremonies in Rivers State like Chieftaincy coronation, ‘Iwa Akwa’ but checks within the metropolis showed no indication that such events were in the offing.

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Also, residents who love travelling have adjusted their plans.  Mrs. Alice Onukwugha, who loves travelling with her family during Easter and Christmas holidays, said: “We like travelling during Easter festivity but obviously, we can’t travel this time. It was necessary we adjust because all the borders are closed, even though security operatives allegedly take bribe to let people travel but to me it’s risky and we don’t want to take such risk.”

Speaking on her plans for Easter, Mrs. Edna Brown, said, “during Easter period, I and my daughters make new hair styles but this time, nobody is thinking about that. Our major concern is to see what we can eat.”

Meanwhile, some worshipers in the state expressed dismay at the turn of events following the COVID-19 pandemic, saying this year would be their first time to stay at home on Easter Sunday.

“I am 40 years now. I have never stayed at home during Easter Sunday. I just wonder how I will feel that day,” Ebenezer Njoku said.

In Imo State, as at the time of filing this report, there was no sign that the Imo State government would direct churches to open tomorrow for Easter Sunday worship.

Although there is no confirmed case of coronavirus anywhere in the 27 Local Councils of the state, Governor Hope Uzodinma in taking preventive measures banned all forms of gathering in the state for 14 days in the first instance, which would elapse on Sunday.

It dawned on Christian leaders and other faithful that churches in the state were not allowed to congregate during the Palm Sunday.

In reaction to that, Christian leaders in the state under the auspices of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) held a meeting with the state chairman of the COVID-19 Prevention Committee, Prof. Maurice Iwu, last Tuesday in Owerri, where they bared their minds on the development.

The Bishop of Anglican Diocese of Ohaji/Egbema, Dr. Chidi Collins Oparajiaku, lamented that the “church has the need to meet this week (Holy Week). If this is denied us, at least it will be part of history till eternity.”

Bishop Stafford Nworgu, in his contribution, said, “churches should be allowed to pray and celebrate the resurrection of our Lord. We will do that in 20s or 50s observing social distancing.”

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The General Overseer of Charismatic Ministries, Dr. Cosmas Ilechukwu, who insisted that the church leaders should always be carried along by the state government said, “there is the need for churches to meet and pray this Holy Week, including Good Friday and Easter Sunday.”

The Imo State chairman of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN), and the leader of the Seed of Life Evangelical Christian Mission, Bishop Titus Akanabu, cautioned that putting churches under lock and key was inimical to God’s kingdom.

Iwu promised to forward their messages to the governor. But it appears the government did not shift ground. The much the government has done was to approve Friday, April 10, for residents to shop for food items for the Easter celebrations from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm.

A statement by the Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Declan Emelumba, however, warned: “The total lockdown of the state resumes with full force from Saturday April 11, 2020. Imo people are also advised to observe the Easter Sunday church services on-line or through the electronic media as it affects their respective denominations.

“Security agencies are under firm directive to ensure that the lockdown order is strictly adhered to and that those caught in violation are promptly arrested and prosecuted.”

Without doubt, most Christians in the country would observe 2020 Easter Sunday worship in their homes, a development Christian faithful never expected. But COVID-19 has made that to happen. And it will forever be remembered as a pandemic that destabilised a major event in Christendom that forms the bedrock of their faith.

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