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COVID-19 Pandemic and Interreligious Sacred Space in Hospital ICU Room

  March 1st 2022

Written by Jekonia Tarigan

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, many scholars have studied the disease's relation to and influence of social and religious life. However, there is limited study in regards to the interreligious encounters within hospitals, especially in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) rooms where people who are infected by the coronavirus struggle between life and death. Dr. Izak YM Lattu, based on his own experience as a COVID-19 survivor, offers an autoethnographic study which explores new social spaces for interreligious engagements through interreligious prayer within the ICU department. Lattu is an Assistant Professor of Sociology of Interreligious Engagement at the Masters and Doctoral program in Sociology of Religion, Universitas Kristen Satya Wacana (UKSW) and a regular visiting lecturer of interreligious dialogue at the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies (CRCS), Universitas Gadjah Mada. Lattu presented his autoethnographic research at the Wednesday Forum, a weekly discussion hosted by the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS) and CRCS, on February 22, 2022.

On March 16, 2020, Lattu became infected by the coronavirus after he returned from his trip to New York. He began to feel ill after arriving in Jakarta. At that time, the spread of COVID-19 in Indonesia was still in the very early stages. Medical workers still had very little knowledge of how to combat the virus. Of the 500 people first infected nationwide, more than 75% died. Many issues and hoaxes developed and spread about this virus. Lattu remembers that one of the hoaxes claimed that only infidels (kafir) could be infected. According to Lattu, an autoethnographic approach is different from an autobiography, because autobiographies are only focused on the story of people that write the narrative. Autoethnography focuses on the researcher’s experience supported by participant observation and other people's stories. Through his autoethnographic research, Lattu found that COVID-19 treatment has created a leap space akin to Henri Lefebvre's concept of a third space. [i]  The third space is a space where people find extraordinary openness and experience living beyond structure and imagination or real and imagined places. Therefore, in this autoethnographic research Lattu explores how the space of the ICU room is conceived, perceived, and lived in and how the anteroom (the room between the hallway and patient's room) became sacred space. Prayers from medical workers to patients or among medical workers shaped the sense of interreligious space. Lattu employs the concept of space and prayer from sociology of religion perspectives to understand how an ICU room, including the anteroom, serves as an interreligious sphere.

According to Lattu, before COVID-19, hospitals tended to be places of money production. Many times patients need to pay a high price for good service. If they utilize the public health insurance, BPJS (Badan Penyelenggara Jaminan Sosial Kesehatan), they will often experience poor service. The hospital room class distinctions in Indonesian hospitals, from third class until VVIP, leads to further disparities in service. Unfortunately, the concept of class in the hospital system derives from the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) period.

When the concept of hospital was developed in Indonesia, it was developed to meet the health needs of Western employees. Indigenous Indonesians were hospitalized in the lowest class. This class system, now based on socioeconomic status, continues in Indonesian hospitals. However, when COVID-19 came, the isolation of infected persons into COVID-specific wards resulted in changes to this system. Lattu observed in the ICU room a wealthy person hospitalized alongside a poor person. Therefore, Lattu argues that COVID-19 also helped to remove class distinctions when it came to those infected.

Hospital policy makers explained that only the best medical workers could serve in COVID-19. This argument supports Lattu's observation in the ICU room where he witnessed medical doctors demonstrate deep care, empathy, and encouragement. Moreover, according to Lattu, medical workers served beyond their basic duty which was only to serve patients’ physical needs. Instead, nurses and medical doctors served the spiritual needs of their patients as they prayed for those suffering from respiratory problems. Nurses and medical doctors in the ICU room did not problematize patients’ social or spiritual backgrounds.

Lattu argues that the anteroom or access area between the lobby and the bed area became a sacred space. Here, doctors and nurses of different faiths prayed together. They not only prayed for their patients but also for their own safety in advance of entering the ICU room. Risking potential death to serve their patients, Lattu refers to the anteroom as an "ante-sacred'sphere", changing from merely an architectural structure to a sacred space for interreligious prayer.

Furthermore, Lattu shared that one of the nurses who impressed him was Ns. Suniah. She is Muslim and continually prayed for Lattu, a Christian, when he was in ICU room. Even when Lattu had woken from his coma, Suniah continued to ask for Lattu's permission to pray for him. During this critical moment, any prayer was welcomed because religious leaders, whether, ulama, pastor or bhikhu were not permitted into the ICU rooms. For Lattu, Suniah not only played the role of nurse, but also became a priest as she prayed over him. Suniah's prayers were offered in inclusive language rather than using Islamic terms. Lattu called her veiled prayer a 'pendoa berjilbab'. The hospital, for Lattu, became a place for people with different religious backgrounds to encounter God together.

It is clear that people who are suffering, worried, stressed, anxious, and afraid will need prayer. In the ICU room, people who are infected by COVID-19, depend on ventilators and medical workers and their prayers. In this critical situation, patients and medical workers are fully aware of the difference of religious backgrounds, but patients give consent for medical workers as agents to assist their spiritual edification. However, there is an awareness, too, both from medical workers and patients to use common language and universal prayers without attacking the prayer of another’s religion. Lattu appreciated when medical workers were willing to pray for him, because, for Lattu, medical workers became agents that mediated relations between patients and the divine. Finally, Lattu sees that relations in the ICU room reflect everyday relationships where social mutual engagements may be developed against elite strategies that divide people according to religious background.