Known by its Spanish term “Translacion”, the annual procession in Manila is considered one of the greatest shows of Catholic devotion in the world, attracting over a million people.
But that has all changed this year due to COVID-19, which has so far infected more than 500,000 Filipinos and claimed the lives of nearly 10,000 more.
Worshipers, dressed mostly in red and brown shirts, gathered before dawn on Saturday to spot the statue as it was rolled on a metal float around Manila.
This is a recipe for a super diffusing event and a huge push. Then a move to a stricter lockdown in the next two weeks. We need to think about our COVID crisis. God is omnipresent. God will surely understand if we stay at home. Be careful. https://t.co/bTQrrhLbye
– Tony Leachon MD (@DrTonyLeachon) January 9, 2021
This year, authorities banned pilgrims from attending the religious gathering barefoot – a tradition in previous years. Worshipers are also prohibited from carrying backpacks and are only allowed to carry transparent water bottles.
Inside Quiapo Church, only 400 people were allowed to attend the hourly service at a time, and they are required to wear masks and face shields.
Social distancing violations
At 6 a.m. local time on Saturday (10 p.m. GMT Friday), reports indicate that at least 20,000 people have gathered in the Quiapo neighborhood. The crowd grew to over 22,000 over the day.
The police set up barricades around the church, where the religious icon is kept, to prevent people from getting too close to the procession.
But news website ABS-CBN later reported that social distancing protocols were not being followed properly as the crowd began to come closer to get the image of Christ.
Dr Tony Leachon, former president of the Philippine College of Physicians, said violations of health restrictions could be “a recipe for a widespread event and a huge outbreak” of Covid cases.
“God will surely understand if we stay at home.”
Pilgrims believe that touching the image of the Black Nazarene, or simply being in his presence, can heal the sick or bring good fortune.
The charred statue is believed to have survived a fire in the 17th century on its way to the Philippines, which became the stronghold of Catholicism in Asia for 400 years as a Spanish colony.
Critics said the procession, which typically takes around 20 hours, is a mix of superstition and unnecessary risk for participants.
But Church officials say the practice is a vibrant expression of faith in a predominantly Christian nation of more than 105 million people.