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Are Churches Essential Services? Religion, Public Health Policies and the Politicization of COVID-19 in East Africa, Kenya

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Abstract for Online Program Book (maximum 1200 characters including spaces)

In responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kenya's government introduced public health policies that closed churches and mosques as well as physical distancing measures aimed at curbing the spread of the disease. Essential services such as health, security and transport were allowed to continue. However, some religious leaders begun clamoring for religious services to be included among the essential services arguing that religions help people cope with the effects of the pandemic. This elicited huge and emotive debates in the country. This paper examines the politicization and spiritualization of COVID-19 in Kenya with a special focus not just on the debates and discourses, but also the role religious leaders have played in impacting public health policies in Kenya. This paper examines church-state relations, religion, and public health, understanding how churches, through their leaders, have impacted the narratives around COVID-19 informing reactions to the pandemic in the forms of denial, resistance, bargaining, acceptance, and adaptations. The paper is based on observations of the social, religious and political debates in Kenya throughout the lockdown from March 2020 to date.

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