Coronavirus: Overseas influence, desire to connect may be behind challenges with Auckland church - religious expert

Overseas influence and a desire to maintain community may be behind issues that have emerged with the church currently at the centre of Auckland's COVID-19 cluster, a religious historian says.

The Mt Roskill Evangelical Fellowship church was first mentioned in late August as being associated with five COVID-19 cases.

Since then, a number of cases confirmed in Auckland have been linked to the church and, on Wednesday, the Ministry of Health revealed a new "sub-group" connected to the church had developed after an infected person visited "a series of bereavement activities" infecting others.

It has been reported that members of the church have been sceptical of science around COVID-19. Police also had to break up a meeting of members on August 15, while Auckland was under lockdown. 

Religious historian Professor Peter Lineham told The AM Show that science was "often seen as being held by an elite which talks a different language [and] that is foreign and disconnected".

"For a lot of religious groups, especially those that nurture their background on American fundamentalism, they are hearing very, very loud messages that the world is not right and that the way you deal with it is not trusting the scientist. They have got us in this mess, the argument goes."

Prof Lineham said community is incredibly important to these churches, so being separated during lockdown would have been extremely difficult. 

"[It's] a very intimate community and a caring community. I suspect also not being able to hold services, some of the wisdom that might be fed through the pastor to redirect things, is now prone to just any ole rumours and ideas."

He said the August 15 bible study meeting was likely a "reflection of just the frustration that they wanted to connect". 

"The church is a substitute family and, especially in very strong fellowships, the lack of that link is incredibly difficult."

Those worshipping at independent churches were also likely more prone to being led astray, he said.

"Those that are in networks, there is quite a bit of pressure coming through the top lines of networks and denominations to say keep to the rules, keep to the rules. When you have to make up your mind yourself, then the forces and pressures are different."

With members of congregations not able to seek guidance from each other at meetings or to have regular contact with leaders, Prof Lineham said information found online - which can often be conspiratorial - becomes influential. 

"If the local flock can't meet, the international connections become more important so some of the conspiracy nonsense that is doing its rounds in the USA... what else is there to do than sit and read?" he said.

Prof Lineham mentioned Californian pastor John MacArthur as having a strong influence in New Zealand. MacArthur is currently in a legal stoush with Los Angeles authorities after his church defied local COVID-19 restrictions limiting indoor gatherings. 

"That is significant because that inspires a lot of people. MacArthur has a huge listening audience in New Zealand."

Professor David Murdoch, an infectious diseases expert, said more needed to be done to explain the science to people questioning the seriousness of COVID-19.

"It is a matter of education, as much as possible. I guess there has been a question of the missed information. I am not sure if that is true or not, but it does come back to explaining the science and explaining the reasons for these actions," he said.

"This is not unusual in health that we have to deal with this. You circle back to the evidence. What is your source of information? Is it a trusted source? Look at the evidence. It is fundamental, but it is important and we just have to keep doing that.

"It's the importance of good communication and public education."

He said the new sub-group of cases means the outbreak will take longer to contain, but at least the vast majority of cases are linked to each other. We need to get a sense of the new pocket of infections before moving down alert level settings, he said. 

On Wednesday, the Ministry of Health urged all members of the Mt Roskill Evangelical Fellowship to be retested, as while many people associated with it had been tested over the last 10 days, "we are still seeing cases emerge in this group". 

"We also ask anyone who may have had contact with members of the Fellowship to be tested, even if they have previously tested negative. People should be tested even if they have no symptoms," Dr Ashley Bloomfield, the Director-General of Health, said. 

All close contacts of people associated with the new sub-group are being isolated and tested.

Dr Bloomfield emphasised that our contact tracing system relies on people. 

"If you test positive for COVID-19 we need to know not only where you were, but who you were with." 

Police assistant commissioner Richard Chambers told Newshub that officers attended the church after 7pm on August 15. 

"At the location, Police spoke with church leaders and they were told that the group gathered must disperse. Those gathered followed these instructions and dispersed.

"Police also provided education on the alert level 3 restrictions that were in place at the time. Church leaders were verbally warned that any further gatherings in breach of restrictions could result in prosecution. 

"All staff that attended undertook all necessary precautions as per health guidelines, including the use of PPE."