Ethical challenges for religious leaders as they prepare to open doors

Kate Nicol-Williams
Source: 1News

Religious groups are facing a shake up over how their services will run when the country switches to the Covid-19 protection framework, also known as the ‘traffic light’ system.

“I'm not going to run any separate services for different people according to whether they're vaccinated or not," EFKS Puaseisei Magele I Sasa’e pastor Victor Pouesi said.

“I’m willing to wait until everything is settled in terms of shifting from one system to another."

Services will continue to be run online for now and over Christmas.

“It might be the only option for us and in that way we don't make anybody feel left out as long as we engage our people and have them part of the celebration... I think that will incorporate it into the spirit of Christmas,” he said.

The framework announced by the Government last month places limits on the number of people allowed to gather, based on their Covid-19 vaccination status, to reduce the spread of the virus.

“If you are not vaccinated, there will be everyday things you will miss out on," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at the announcement.

“And if you are vaccinated you can be assured that in the new framework, you will get to enjoy the things you love, secure in the knowledge that the people around you, and the environment you are in, is as safe as possible in a Covid world.”

If worshippers are unvaccinated, at the red level, just 10 people can gather, at orange, 50 people can meet if distanced by a metre and at green, 100 people can gather with 1m distancing.

If worshippers are vaccinated and provide a vaccination certificate which the Government is currently developing, 100 can gather at the red level if distanced by a metre, and there are no limits on gatherings at the orange and green levels.

Ardern said Auckland is tipped to move to the protection framework first, when all district health boards in the region have vaccinated 90 per cent of their populations with two doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

Elsewhere, the country will move to the new system when all other district health boards reach 90 per cent vaccination, though the South Island could move first if the target is reached earlier than in the North Island.

Supreme Sikh Society of New Zealand leader Daljit Singh is planning for separate worship to be held for unvaccinated people, though he is hopeful vaccination events held at Takanini Gurdwara will be accessed by all community members.

“We want to celebrate with every Kiwi, friends and other communities,” he said.

Otago University epidemiologist Amanda Kvalsvig said vaccination, air filtration and ventilation are important forms of protection for organisations to consider when making decisions about the safety of their space.

Face masks are a form of air filtration, she said.

“This is a challenging time for organisations as they’re going to have to make decisions on a case by case basis,” she said.

“This is where the Government needs to be providing them with clear information and support and sometimes resources to enable them to meet their communities in a safe way,” she said.

Kvalsvig advised caution if organisations are considering holding vaccinated and unvaccinated gatherings.

“What we have to remember is that Covid virus hangs in the air, it's a bit like cigarette smoke… it all comes down to how well that space can be ventilated,” she said.

If the air in a space has completely changed between events, it is possible to run two services in one day, she said.

She said a carbon dioxide meter could be used to give an indication of risk, with a high amount of carbon dioxide reflective of breath from people lingering in the space.

“When you’ve got a lot of people crowded together and they’re unvaccinated, there’s a high chance that one or more people in that group are going to be infectious and then they can spread it to the other people.

“We've already seen churches can be settings for super spreading events and that’s very upsetting for those communities – that’s the risk that we need to prevent,” Kvalsvig said.

Community meal providers are also considering how to run services when the framework comes into force.

The Compassion Soup Kitchen in Wellington is planning to serve vaccinated people inside and give unvaccinated people a takeaway meal, which is currently how food is shared during Covid-19 Alert Level 2.

A spokesperson for the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Covid-19 group said in a statement more information will be provided once ministers have made decisions.

"Work is underway at pace on the detail of how the Covid-19 Protection Framework will be implemented and on the development of guidance, including for events, gatherings and places of worship."

"There isn’t yet specific guidance on switching between serving only-vaccinated and mixed groups of patrons."

The spokesperson said religious groups will be able to decide for each event held whether to require vaccination certificates of people or not.

In another statement, a DPMC spokesperson said work is continuing on finalising which locations are exempt from vaccine requirements, such as supermarkets and petrol stations.