• The Impact of COVID-19 on National Cultural Traditions

    The Impact of COVID-19 on National Cultural Traditions

    Israel: Purim

    In March of 2020, Purim celebrations in Israel launched the first wave of COVID-19 cases, sending the country into lockdown. This year, Israel repeats history as they commemorate this historical celebration event in violation of health regulations, threatening the launch of a new wave of infections.

    The Purim, or Feast of Lots, is marked in the Book of Esther in the Jewish Bible and Christian Old Testament as the commemoration of the Jewish survival from the suppression of their Persian rulers. The traditional celebrations of this event include the donation of food to charity and a carnival atmosphere that includes parties, clubbing, parades, and costumes. The city of Tel Aviv is historically known to lend its largest plaza, Kikar Hamedina, for its celebration; in 2017, the event attracted 100,000 people to the plaza. 

    This year, however, strong government restrictions were put in place to avoid crowds, due to concerns that the start of vaccination in the country could result in people taking health regulations less seriously A joint statement from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Health Ministry announced a lockdown from 20:30 to 5:00, the closing of non-essential businesses during these hours, and the ban of parties. 

    Despite these efforts street parties still took place and ultra-Orthodox Jews still held large-scale prayer celebrations. The beliefs and traditions of the Haredim revolve around their community, with mass weddings and funerals, group prayers, and large families, leading them to repeatedly break health safety regulations. As such, the coronavirus outbreak has shed light on the “underlying tensions” between the government and the community’s religious leaders. 

    Additionally, the ban on the entry of cars and busses into Jerusalem did not stop hundreds of people from walking into the city for the banned street parties, not wearing masks or socially distancing. The police reported confiscating speakers and attempting to disperse crowds, only starting arrests hours later. The violations of health regulations from both secular and non-secular areas in Israel threatens the country’s vaccination campaign, as seen through the continuous rise of Israel’s virus transmission rate.  

    Brazil: Carnaval 

    In 2020, 2.1 million tourists from all over the world visited Rio de Janeiro for the famous Carnaval celebrations. The main attractions included the parade at the Sambódromo and street parties and parades. 136,000 tickets to the Sambódromo were sold for the parade, excluding 15 thousand free ones, and an estimated 7 million people went to the streets to dance and celebrate. 

    Historically, Carnaval has been celebrated even amid the two world wars and the country’s military dictatorships. It is clear then why despite its cancellation by the government, large-scale parties and celebrations of Carnaval still took place in February of this year. Crowded private celebrations and street parties took place, with masks nowhere in sight. However, the scale was considerably smaller than in previous years. 

    2021 is the third time the celebration of Carnaval has been canceled or postponed since its introduction by Portuguese colonizers in the 16th century. In both 1892 and 1912, the government attempted to postpone Carnaval, to no avail. The first time was an attempt to control the spread of yellow fever, and the second time was due to the death of the Minister of Foreign Relations José Maria da Silva Paranhos Júnior. On both dates, there were two celebrations, one held on the original date in February, and another one during the government set date.

    As of March 24, 2021, Brazil has its highest rate of infection and deaths since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and is sitting at 278,000 total deaths, second in the world behind the United States. The country’s vaccine rollout has been slow and ineffective, and at the present rate, it will take Brazil four years to vaccinate the whole population. This is in large part due to President Jair Bolsonaro’s downplaying of the pandemic and promotion of proven ineffective methods of prevention and treatment such as chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine. Even with these alarming numbers, Carnaval seems to be an unwavering force against health regulations and political and economic instability

    Around the World: Dia de Los Muertos – Day of the Dead

    The Day of the Dead is a celebration that honors the dead and celebrates the life of those whom we’ve lost. It is certainly of great importance in the time of COVID-19, a pandemic that has claimed the life of 2.66 million people throughout the world as of March 2021. The Day of the Dead is traditionally celebrated on the first two days of November and is a product of Spanish colonial influence that with time became a Mexican custom, although it is now celebrated throughout the world. 

    The implementation of indigenous traditions and beliefs into the Day of the Dead was accelerated as Mexico became independent and gained freedom of worship. Some traditions surrounding this widespread cultural celebration include the construction of altars, making offerings to the dead, cleaning graves, parades, and sharing stories. Family members take the person’s favorite foods, drinks, and toys to their altar or graves to remember and honor their life. So beautiful is this tradition that UNESCO added it to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2008. 

    The health regulations put in place due to COVID-19 have severely impacted this cultural celebration as a result of social distancing and quarantine measures. Latin America’s rate of infection and death due to the pandemic is amongst the highest in the world. As of March 23, 2021, Mexico has 4.35 daily confirmed deaths per million people. This number is comparable to the United States (2.84) and Argentina (2.49). 

    Consequently, many families are unable to attend funerals or even properly bury their family members in a culturally inclusive way, putting their mental well-being at risk. International Human Rights courts and tribunals as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross are working towards supporting dignified burials and spiritual ceremonies while following sanitary measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

    Moving Forward

    Restructuring routines and having to find new ways to meaningfully connect with one another are some of the many challenges infection prevention measures impose on us today. In face of these adversities, we must then come up with ways to celebrate our communities and our history in ways that do not jeopardize our safety or health. Large-scale cultural events, including those not mentioned in this article, represent the uniting between individuals for a common cause, history, or belief. How can we channel feelings of belonging and unity away from actions that endanger the health of others, to actions that ensure the effective control and end of the coronavirus pandemic all while maintaining meaningful connections with our community? 

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    Luiza Teixeira

    Luiza Teixeira

    Luiza is originally from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and is a second-year Arts student at the University of British Columbia. Her main interests include international relations, human rights, and colonial legacies. In her free time, she loves going on runs, trying new restaurants, and making Spotify playlists.

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