The Rivers State Government has reversed its decision to allow churches in the state hold services on Easter Sunday.
The Commissioner for Information in the state, Paulinus Nsirim, in a statement issued on Saturday, said instead of the churches having their “full congregation”, they “should stick to the 50 persons per service to maintain social distancing”.
Nsirim said the Rivers State Government took the decision “after due consultations with eminent clergy men, well-meaning Nigerians and civil society groups”.
The governor, Nyesom Wike, and his counterparts in other states such as Akwa Ibom, Ondo, Bayelsa, Katsina, Kogi, and Bauchi have been criticised by many Nigerians for relaxing the stay-at-home order they had introduced in their states to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The relaxation of the restriction order, the state government said, was to allow Muslims to participate in their Friday prayers and Christians, their Easter celebrations.
Federal authorities were said to be alarmed by the development, and were said to be making frantic efforts to reach out to the state governors to abandon actions that could worsen the nation’s health crisis.
One group with a focus on health reforms in Nigeria issued a statement on Friday, warning the governors that it was not yet time to lift the ban on public gathering.
The group, the Health Sector Reform Coalition, said it was shocked that some states were lifting the ban on public gathering because of the Muslim Friday prayers and the Christian Easter celebration.
“The lockdown in the FCT, Lagos and similar decision by some governors across the country was a welcome development. It is important for containing the spread of COVID-19, avoiding the high number of deaths that might follow and the disastrous effects on the health system and economy, as we are seeing with countries like US, Italy, Spain, UK, amongst others,” the group said.
The coalition said it recognises and respects the importance of worship and religious celebrations to Nigerians. But that scientific evidence and experience from developed and developing countries have shown that avoiding crowds, physical distancing, handwashing and respiratory hygiene remained the best ways to prevent the spread of the virus and halt associated deaths.
It appealed to the governors to cancel the directives to lift the ban on religious and other gatherings in their states until the NCDC and Federal Ministry of Health advise otherwise.
“With the high number of people living in poverty, high prevalence of chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes (underlying diseases) and very weak health systems, it will be catastrophic if the virus spreads widely in Nigeria,” the coalition said.
The Catholic Diocese of Port Harcourt, in response to the relaxation of restriction in Rivers State, issued a statement saying it preferred to have its members stay isolated at home, instead of congregating in churches for Easter.
The Bishop of the diocese, Camillus Etokudoh, in a statement, Thursday, therefore, directed priests and faithful in the diocese to continue to pray from home.
In the wake of the lockdown in the states, some churches in Nigeria began running online services for their members, using Facebook, YouTube, and other internet platforms.