The Soho St temple and Govinda's restaurant before the pandemic.
ISKCON UK has been amongst the worst affected communities by COVID-19, with twenty-one confirmed cases in the greater London area congregation, and five devotees passing away.
Although the names of the others have not been officially released by their families, one of the deceased was Rameshvara Das, a disciple of Bhakti Charu Swami in his mid-seventies. A devotee for over thirty years, Rameshvara was instrumental in the campaign to save Bhaktivedanta Manor from closure in the 1990s, and has advised and guided many temples in the UK to this day. He also lent support to the New Mayapur community in France and Ujjain in India; as well as the Sandipani Muni schools in Vrindavan and the Bhaktivedanta National School in Mayapur. A well-wisher of many, he was a warm-hearted father and husband who left behind a wife, son, daughter and grandchildren.
As well as the devotees who passed away, several are in critical condition, including younger devotees in their thirties and forties. Another senior devotee, Dhananjaya Das – well known for being one of the first devotees to join ISKCON in the UK and for starting the first temple in Italy, in Rome – has been hospitalized but is not in critical condition.
“Our hearts go out to everyone on the planet who has been affected by this virus,” says UK GBC Praghosa Das. “Specifically, those in our devotee communities, and particularly here in the UK. Our hearts, thoughts, sympathies and prayers go out to all of those devotees and their loved ones.”
Some have theorized that one of the ways the virus could have spread amongst the UK devotee community was when about 1,000 people gathered at the March 12th funeral of a beloved devotee.
Some devotees have criticized ISKCON UK in this regard, but Praghosa Das is keen to clear up the impression, perpetuated in some corners of the Internet, that management was irresponsible.
“The dates are very important,” he says. “The funeral was on the 12th of March. But Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister, only issued the stay-at-home order on March 23rd.”
According to Praghosa, at the time the events happened, people in the UK were still going about their normal business, and there were no directives against holding such events. Devotees and organizers at the events followed all then-current guidelines given by the UK government, including regularly washing hands – hand sanitizing gel was placed at various points around the venue – coughing into one’s elbow, and not shaking hands. Social distancing guidelines, recommending that people stay at least two meters away from each other, had not yet been issued in the UK, nor had stricter-than-usual limits on the amount of people allowed into a building at one time.
Although other countries, such as Italy, Spain and France, did have such restrictions at the time, the UK did not, and devotees in the UK were paying close attention to what their own government was directing them to do, and were following those guidelines, Praghosa explains.
“In hindsight, I think we would all agree now that it shouldn’t have gone ahead,” he says. “But it’s easy to be wise after the event. We didn’t know then what we know now.”
Praghosa also points out that on March 16th, a full week before the Prime Minister issued the lockdown, ISKCON closed down its temples in the UK. “So in that sense, we were a little bit ahead of the curve,” he says.
Regarding the number of devotees so far infected, some on social media have claimed that over 100 devotees in the UK have contracted Coronavirus.
It’s important to note, however, that there have been only 21 confirmed cases of devotees who have tested positive for the virus, although Praghosa concedes that there are likely more.
“The problem is, we don’t know how many more,” he explains. “The only basis for stating figures is if people have gone and taken a test, and the test has proven positive. Governments themselves only give us the official figures that they’re certain of. So, while we’re not saying that means there aren’t more cases, we can only give what we officially know. I don’t think it’s helpful for people to throw other numbers out with no facts to back them up.”
The Bhaktivedanta Manor
Currently, in the UK, the lockdown requires people to stay at home and only leave for four reasons: “1) Shopping for basic necessities such as food and medicine. Shopping trips should be as infrequent as possible. 2) One form of exercise a day such as a run, walk or cycle. This should be done alone or only with people you live with. 3) Any medical need, or to provide care or to help a vulnerable person. This includes moving children under the age of 18 between their parents' homes, where applicable. Key workers or those with children identified as vulnerable can continue to take their children to school. 4) Traveling to and from work, but only where work absolutely cannot be done from home.”
For their part ISKCON temples in the UK have been closed since March 16th, and all temple presidents and other leaders hold regular conference calls with GBC Praghosa that have resulted in a number of protective measures.
“Firstly, we are consistently reinforcing that everybody must follow all of the directives and guidelines from the UK government,” Praghosa says. “We regularly go to the government website and send the link with the latest and most up-to-date information to all UK devotees.”
Secondly, each temple has created its own Coronavirus Team. This includes the Temple President and other senior leaders; a devotee with medical training; and a communications person. The team meets on a regular basis online to assess their local temple’s situation.
Thirdly, all devotees who become ill must immediately self-isolate. “Part of the Coronavirus Team’s mandate is to have isolation facilities in terms of affected devotees having their own separate room, and getting prasadam and all the essentials they require,” says Praghosa.
As they work hard to protect their communities, ISKCON UK leaders implore devotees all around the world to strictly follow all restrictions set by their governments. After all, their tragic experience shows that Coronavirus affects devotees just as much as it does everyone else.
“So long as you are in the material world, you cannot neglect physical laws,” Srila Prabhupada says in the book Perfect Questions, Perfect Answers. “Suppose you go to a jungle and there is a tiger. It is known that it will attack you, so why should you voluntarily go and be attacked? It is not that a devotee should take physical risk so long as he has a physical body. It is not a challenge to the physical laws: ‘I have become a devotee. I challenge everything.’ That is foolishness.”
“Therefore, we should not take this lightly,” Praghosa says. “We are in the material world, there is a pandemic that is affecting the whole world, and there is no vaccine for it. It’s not that somehow or other by chanting Hare Krishna it’s going to stop us from getting this virus – we have seen numerous cases of devotees being affected by it and sadly passing away. So we have to follow all precautions and directives from our governments. There is no question of us thinking that this is insignificant, or some kind of conspiracy theory. That would be a crazy path to follow.”
“This is a time to get real, and act like intelligent, coherent, well-balanced citizens, both for society in general, and to keep members of our ISKCON society safe and well,” Praghosa continues. “Srila Prabhupada signed all his letters “Your ever well-wisher” and “I hope this meets you in good health, because without our health, we cannot engage in Krishna conscious activity or be active preachers.”
He adds that with the crisis bringing everyone’s mortality into razor-sharp focus throughout the world, there are opportunities for devotees to try to help people by giving them Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s message. But this should be done in a safe way, using the many technological tools that allow us to connect with people while practicing social distancing.
With Professor Jonathan Van-Tam – leader of the Health Protection Research Group at Nottingham University – predicting that lockdown measures will last at least “several months,” devotees will have to get used to following recommendations for a long time.
In the meantime, Praghosa appeals to the worldwide ISKCON community, “Please do not be harsh on the devotees in the UK yatra. They didn’t deliberately do something they shouldn’t have done. They thought they were following everything they had to follow. So please wish them the best, pray for them, and hope that they all fully recover.”
By: Madhava Smullen for ISKCON News on April 3, 2020
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