Italian churches are stepping up measures to contain the spread of coronavirus, from calling on priests not to distribute holy communion wafers directly on to worshippers’ tongues and urging congregations to avoid exchanging handshakes during mass.

The Catholic archdiocese of Messina in Sicily made the recommendations in response to the rapid rise in infections in Italy.

In an official statement, the religious authorities of the Sicilian province wrote: “In the face of the spread of the Coronavirus, it is considered appropriate to comply with some provisions and hygiene measures. As a precaution we are advising to distribute the Eucharist preferably into the hands of the faithful, and to avoid the physical contact from a peaceful handshake.”

They also recommends that vessel containing holy water remain temporarily empty.

Italian authorities are struggling to contain the outbreak, with 12 people dead and more than 370 having tested positive for Covid-19.

Several other churches, both in the north of the country – the centre of the Italian outbreak – as well as the south, are also in a heightened state of alert.

Religious authorities in Padua, Vicenza and Milan, close to the coronavirus red zone areas in northern Italy, have suspended all masses and religious celebrations until next Sunday, including catechism lessons for children. Cremona has also closed side chapels, with relatives of the deceased asked to limit invitations for funerals.

“It seemed important to us, during this period, to favour the directives taken by the Italian authorities, to put into practice small sacrifices to avoid the spread of the virus,” Vincenzo Corrado, the head of communications for the Italian bishops’ conference, told the Guardian. “The health of the people is the priority at the moment.”

Meanwhile religious authorities of Reggio Emilia-Guastalla have asked worshippers to follow masses on local TV channels rather than going to church, “to give the greatest number of people the opportunity to gather in prayer, while remaining in their own homes.” In the province of Venice, some churches are putting systems in place to allow people to follow mass via Facebook live.

The World Health Organization is recommending that people take simple precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of the Wuhan coronavirus, for which there is no specific cure or vaccine.

The UN agency advises people to:

  • Frequently wash their hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or warm water and soap
  • Cover their mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue when sneezing or coughing
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever or cough
  • Seek early medical help if they have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and share their travel history with healthcare providers
  • Avoid direct, unprotected contact with live animals and surfaces in contact with animals when visiting live markets in affected areas
  • Avoid eating raw or undercooked animal products and exercise care when handling raw meat, milk or animal organs to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods.

Despite a surge in sales of face masks in the aftermath of the outbreak of the coronavirus outbreak, experts are divided over whether they can prevent transmission and infection. There is some evidence to suggest that masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions, given the large number of times people touch their faces. The consensus appears to be that wearing a mask can limit – but not eliminate – the risks, provided they are used correctly.

Justin McCurry

‘‘We have done this in the past, for other reasons, and we are considering doing it now in this period of emergencies,” Don Nandino Capovilla, parish priest of the church of the Resurrection of the City in Marghera, near Venice, told the Guardian. “For the time being, it is necessary to avoid infections, not only of the coronavirus, but also the virus of discrimination.”

In Palermo priests have been asked to restrict home visits to the sick to cases of extreme necessity.

Similar measures have been taken by religious authorities in other parts of the world. South Korea has stepped up its “maximum measures” to contain the coronavirus with plans to test about 200,000 members of a secretive church believed to be at the centre of the country’s outbreak.

Along with an emergency budget and a crackdown on the hoarding of face masks, the government in Seoul will test members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus after its founder agreed to provide authorities with the names of all its members in the country.



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