As we approach World Mental Health Day on 10 October, Melburnians will still be in a state of lockdown. It will be our tenth consecutive week of strict restrictions in our five kilometre bubble in our second wave.
The negative impact of the pandemic on mental health cannot be denied. However, the impact on spiritual wellbeing, a key dimension of a person’s “quality of life” according to the World Health Organisation, has been largely ignored in public discourse.
For many, religion in particular is used as a refuge for hope, meaning, comfort and an effective way to cope in difficult circumstances. With almost 60% of Victorians affiliating themselves with a religion, the importance of spiritual wellbeing should not be ignored. While the government announced a much needed increase in funding into the mental health sector, the doors of places of worship remain closed. With restrictions only eased momentarily for a few weeks, many people have not been able to access their place of worship since restrictions began in March.
Regardless of your beliefs, the inequality of the rules has been concerning. Throughout stage 4 restrictions we could all enter our local ice cream shop or pick up any number of questionably “essential” items from retail stores, but have been denied access to receive blessings or Communion from their faith leader.
According to the roadmap, during “Step 3” we will all be able to enjoy hairdressing and retail stores. Shopping centres will be open with density limits in place but the doors of places of worship – including large cathedrals, temples and mosques – will only open for private household bubbles. Up to 10 people plus a faith leader will be able to gather outdoors nearby – a stark difference to the 50 person outdoor and 20 person indoor cap afforded to restaurants. Further restrictions are in place on ceremonies at the heart of faith-based practice.
The question is, can we justify open access to mass retail therapy while depriving those in need of spiritual therapy?
Clearly there is a strong economic argument to be had with opening the retail and hospitality sector. However, one could make a similar argument with the economic benefit of supporting the wellbeing of our citizens. Sacred buildings, rites and rituals can and should also be allowed to operate in a COVID-safe way. Instead, we are so busy fighting death that we have deprived many of the ability to observe their faith and, inadvertently, the very practices that give their life meaning.
Experts are already signalling that the aftermath of mental health issues and suicides may be more evident in the years to come. By opening the doors of worship, we have the opportunity now to increase the wellbeing of our community, to provide hope and strength to many, at no financial cost to the economy. We can allow people to grieve the lives of those they have lost and did not get a chance to farewell, help those who are not coping and give thanks for the good that continues to exist. Just as we provide safe access to places of work, food, drink and clothing, we should also provide COVID-safe access to the essential spiritual needs of our community.
Archbishop Peter A Comensoli20 October 2020
Bishop Peter J Elliot13 October 2020