As he recalled his grandfather’s tales of coffins lining the churches in Mason Hall during the 1918 Spanish Influenza, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley yesterday said Government will use a heavy hand if it needs to intervene in large gatherings. He made the comment yesterday in response to a question on religious gatherings following Pastor Dalton Bruce and his congregation’s disregard of Government’s advice for people not to gather in groups larger than 10.
Bruce officiated over a memorial service at his Bethel ‘The House of God’ church in Freeport on Thursday night, which was attended by scores of members. As police and media personnel gathered outside the church, Bruce was heard criticising the Government, saying that they allowed COVID-19 into the country by allowing Carnival to go on.“Take it in your mouth now…lock me up if you want, I’m talking the truth,” Bruce reportedly shouted.During a post-Cabinet media briefing dealing with the response to COVID-19 at the Diplomatic Centre, St Ann’s, yesterday, Rowley said none of the strategies Government had implemented in the fight against the virus was aimed at punishing anyone.He said the objective is to prevent the virus from passing from person to person and the way to do this is by people distancing themselves from each other.“It is about all about trying to save lives and to protect our population. It has nothing to do with curtailing people’s rights and expectation to worship their gods. It is about saving lives and protecting our yet unidentified persons,” Rowley said.He then instructed National Security Minister Stuart Young to read a 1918 order signed by DW Sutherland, then mayor of the town that is now Port-of-Spain. The order, published on October 19, 1918, was implemented to prevent the spread of the deadly Spanish Influenza.
The order stated that all schools, public and private, churches, theatres, moving picture halls, pool rooms and other places of amusement and large meetings were banned. It also stated that all public gatherings consisting of 10 or more people were prohibited. Rowley then shared the story that in Mason Hall, Tobago, in 1918, the Methodist, Anglican and Catholic churches would have three to seven coffins lined up daily, bearing the bodies of people who died from the Spanish Influenza.“Going to funerals had become a ritual in 1918/1919 in what they called then, epidemic year. That is what some of our citizens face in this territory. Let us not take this thing as a joke,” Rowley said.
“Nobody is preventing anybody from communicating with God. I think it is possible, even in the teachings of the Bible, to communicate with God without going to church. That is my understanding of it. But if in going to gatherings, you are risking your life and the rest of lives in this country, please be sensible. That is all we’re saying.”He said the law provides for intervention but Government started by speaking to the population and relying on the “good sense” of the majority. However, he said they also foresaw there would be a defiant minority. He said Government passed legislation yesterday that will allow police to intervene in gatherings. However, he asked that the population not lose sight at the overall objective of saving lives from COVID-19.Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh also said religious leaders who do this are not helping the country’s thrust to contain the virus.
He said while action has been taken to prevent beach and river limes, he had received calls from the Hindu community about their ability to use rivers for religious purposes. Deyalsingh said Hindus can continue to carry out their practices in rivers, especially in a time when the country needs prayers. However, he said they must limit their party to no more than 10 people.