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Catholics show devotion to statue amid super-spreader worries

More than 400,000 Catholics in Manila celebrated on Saturday a feast for a centuries-old wooden statue of Jesus Christ, despite health experts warning it could turn into a super-spreader event for coronavirus.

Authorities canceled an annual procession of the life-sized image of the “Black Nazarene”, the country’s largest religious event that draws millions of devotees in an annual ritual that has been observed for 200 years.

Instead, church leaders organized 15 Masses at Manila’s Quiapo church, which houses the statue that is believed to bring miracles. They livestreamed the services and urged devotees not to attend.

Most of the faithful stayed at home and attended Mass by means of social media or broadcast television, Alex Irasga, head of the celebration’s working committee, told ANC news channel.

But many still attended, with a total of around 400,000 people cumulatively going in and out of the church vicinity by late afternoon, police data showed.

“We’re really going to need a miracle to stop a super-spreader event in Quiapo right now. Please don’t go,” said Edsel T. Salvana, director of the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the National Institutes of Health at the University of the Philippines Manila on Twitter before noon.

More than 6,000 police officers monitored entry points and enforced physical distancing at the Quiapo church, but this was sometimes ignored by people hustling to be blessed with holy water at the end of every Mass.

“We know that social distancing violations will lead to increased number of cases,” tweeted Dr. Anthony C. Leachon, former adviser of the coronavirus task force.

The Philippines, which has the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Southeast Asia after Indonesia, reported 1,952 new infections on Saturday, the highest in three weeks.

PRAYING FOR AN END TO THE PANDEMIC
About 80% of the country’s 108 million people identify as Roman Catholic.

“I am not afraid to go here even with the risk of COVID-19 because I have faith in Jesus the Nazarene. Every year, every week I go to church,” Arjay Echon, 29, a supermarket employee and a devotee for seven years, told Reuters.

Mr. Echon, wearing a facemask and shield while carrying a small replica of the “Black Nazarene,” said he was praying for the pandemic to end.

The annual procession of the statue depicting Jesus shouldering a heavy cross—canceled this year—usually draws millions of devotees, many barefoot and jostling to get close and touch the image.

The statue was carved in Mexico and brought to the Philippines in the early 17th century.

“My personal prayer is good health for my family… I pray for a better Philippines this 2021 and for COVID-19 to end,” Prubancio Sarasin, A 56-year-old security guard, told Reuters. — Adrian Portugal and Eloisa Lopez/Reuters

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