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Religious congregation raises COVID cases in UK

"Please do not be harsh on the devotees. They didn’t deliberately do something they shouldn’t have done"

Religious congregation raises COVID cases in UK
A Hindu devotee of Lord Shiva holds human skull and bone as he takes part in a religious procession to mark the Hindu festival of Maha Shivratri in Allahabad on February 21, 2020. (Photo by SANJAY KANOJIA / AFP)

London: While the United Kingdom has recorded over 50,000 cases and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in the state has been amongst the worst affected communities by COVID-19.

Funeral congregation

About 1,000 devotees of the UK community had gathered at the March 12th funeral of a beloved devotee following which the body has recorded 21 confirmed cases and 5 fatalities.

Bhakti Charu disciple dies

Although the names of the many have not been officially released by their families, one of the deceased was Rameshvara Das, a disciple of Bhakti Charu Swami in his mid-seventies.

Devotees in critical state

While few devotees have passed away, several others are in critical condition including those in thirties and forties.

Another senior devotee, Dhananjaya Das – well known for being one of the first devotees to join ISKCON in the UK and for starting the first temple in Italy, in Rome – has been hospitalized but is not in critical condition. 

Condolences pour in

“Our hearts go out to everyone on the planet who has been affected by this virus,” says UK GBC Praghosa Das.

“For those in our devotee communities and particularly here in the UK, our hearts, thoughts, sympathies and prayers go out to all of those devotees and their loved ones”

According to Praghosa, at the time the events happened, people in the UK were still going about their normal business, and there were no directives against holding such events.

“Although other countries, such as Italy, Spain and France, did have such restrictions at the time, the UK did not, and devotees in the UK were paying close attention to what their own government was directing them to do, and were following those guidelines,” Praghosa explains.

“In hindsight, I think we would all agree now that it shouldn’t have gone ahead,” he says. “But it’s easy to be wise after the event. We didn’t know then what we know now.”

Praghosa also points out that on March 16th, a full week before the Prime Minister issued the lockdown, ISKCON closed down its temples in the UK. “So in that sense, we were a little bit ahead of the curve,” he says. 

Regarding the number of devotees so far infected, some on social media have claimed that over 100 devotees in the UK have contracted Coronavirus. 

However, there have been only 21 confirmed cases of devotees who have tested positive for the virus, although Praghosa concedes that there are likely more.

“The problem is, we don’t know how many more,” he explains.

“The only basis for stating figures is if people have gone and taken a test, and the test has proven positive. Governments themselves only give us the official figures that they’re certain of. So, while we’re not saying that means there aren’t more cases, we can only give what we officially know. I don’t think it’s helpful for people to throw other numbers out with no facts to back them up.”

For their part, ISKCON temples in the UK have been closed since March 16th, and all temple presidents and other leaders hold regular conference calls with GBC Praghosa that have resulted in a number of protective measures. 

“Firstly, we are consistently reinforcing that everybody must follow all of the directives and guidelines from the UK government,” Praghosa says.

“We regularly go to the government website and send the link with the latest and most up-to-date information to all UK devotees.”

“Secondly, each temple has created its own Coronavirus Team. This includes the Temple President and other senior leaders; a devotee with medical training; and a communications person. The team meets on a regular basis online to assess their local temple’s situation.”

“Thirdly, all devotees who become ill must immediately self-isolate. “Part of the Coronavirus Team’s mandate is to have isolation facilities in terms of affected devotees having their own separate room, and getting prasadam and all the essentials they require,” says Praghosa. 

People asked to follow restrictions

ISKCON UK leaders implore devotees all around the world to strictly follow all restrictions set by their governments. After all, their tragic experience shows that Coronavirus affects devotees just as much as it does everyone else. 

Never neglect physical laws

“So long as you are in the material world, you cannot neglect physical laws,” Srila Prabhupada, an Indian spiritual teacher says in the book Perfect Questions, Perfect Answers.

“Suppose you go to a jungle and there is a tiger. It is known that it will attack you, so why should you voluntarily go and be attacked? It is not that a devotee should take the physical risk so long as he has a physical body. It is not a challenge to the physical laws: ‘I have become a devotee. I challenge everything.’ That is foolishness.”

“Therefore, we should not take this lightly,” Praghosa says.

“We are in the material world, there is a pandemic that is affecting the whole world, and there is no vaccine for it. It’s not that somehow or other by chanting Hare Krishna it’s going to stop us from getting this virus – we have seen numerous cases of devotees being affected by it and sadly passing away.

So we have to follow all precautions and directives from our governments. There is no question of us thinking that this is insignificant, or some kind of conspiracy theory. That would be a crazy path to follow.”

“This is a time to get real, and act like intelligent, coherent, well-balanced citizens, both for society in general, and to keep members of our ISKCON society safe and well,” Praghosa continues.

Srila Prabhupada while signing all his letters said:  

“Your ever well-wisher and I hope this meets you in good health because, without our health, we cannot engage in Krishna conscious activity or be active preachers.”

He adds that with the crisis bringing everyone’s mortality into razor-sharp focus throughout the world, there are opportunities for devotees to try to help people by giving them Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s message. But this should be done in a safe way, using the many technological tools that allow us to connect with people while practising social distancing. 

With Professor Jonathan Van-Tam – leader of the Health Protection Research Group at Nottingham University –  predicting that lockdown measures will last at least “several months,” devotees will have to get used to following recommendations for a long time. 

Don’t be harsh

Praghosa appeals to the worldwide ISKCON community, “Please do not be harsh on the devotees in the UK yatra. They didn’t deliberately do something they shouldn’t have done. They thought they were following everything they had to follow. So please wish them the best, pray for them, and hope that they all fully recover.”


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