The coronavirus pandemic, which has now claimed over 276,000 lives in the United States, and 1.5 million around the world, continues to be a major health threat. And ISKCON temples have not been immune to the challenge.
In addition to the sad passing of some senior ISKCON leaders and congregational members, whole temples have been closed for a period of time to protect the community and other visitors. These have included ISKCON’s international headquarters in Mayapur, India, and the New Vrajamandala farm in Spain.
While cases have been reported among devotees and temples in other parts of the world, it now appears that temples in the U.S., following the pattern of the high rate of infection across America, are seeing infections – and temple closures at new, higher rates.
Just in the past two weeks, in the United States alone, temples in Denver, Colorado; Dallas, Texas; New Vrindaban, West Virginia; Washington D.C.; and San Diego, California all chose to close for a period of time to assure the safety of the community. The temple in Farmington Hills, a suburb of Detroit, also remains closed after shutting its doors in October.
At ISKCON of D.C., one member of the resident community tested positive for COVID-19 about two weeks ago. To ensure devotees’ health, the member and their family immediately began a complete quarantine, isolating themselves from all other resident devotees. The temple property and buildings were completely closed to the public, and no visitors, volunteers, or non-resident pujaris were allowed on the premises. Meanwhile all resident devotees were tested for COVID-19. Resident devotees continued to serve the Deities throughout the temple lockdown, and anyone who had previously visited the temple was requested to self-monitor their health for 14 days and to get tested if applicable.
The ISKCON of D.C. temple has since reopened and continues to strictly maintain precautions in line with the standards established by the state of Maryland, such as masks indoors and outdoors, limited numbers, social distancing and prasadam in to-go boxes to take home. There is a focus on online programs such as Zoom classes and virtual Japa circles.
A similar situation took place in New Vrindaban, with one member of the greater New Vrindaban community (not a temple resident) testing positive around one week ago and then isolating along with their family. Temple management took the same measures as ISKCON of D.C., closing the temple property and buildings to the public and the community until further notice. All resident devotees were required to test for COVID-19, and community members were also requested to take a COVID test and quarantine until receiving results. At the time of writing, no further devotees were showing symptoms, and all who had been tested had received negative results. The temple will not reopen until all community and resident devotees have tested negative. Meanwhile the resident ashram devotees will continue to serve the Deities throughout the temple lockdown.
Regarding ISKCON Dallas, ISKCON News was told that “seven or eight devotees” tested positive and immediately went into quarantine, while anyone who had come into recent contact with them was also tested. Previously the temple had been open for darshan of the Deities for just two hours a day, three days a week; these darshans were closed down and will remain so until further notice. Online programs continue, while Kalachandji’s restaurant remains open for pick-up only.
At ISKCON Farmington Hills, Michigan in October, all seven temple residents tested positive, and the temple was completely closed. None of the residents had to be hospitalized, and they continued their Deity services as well as online programs. Heightened cleaning procedures were instituted and continue to this day, along with all the standard COVID precautions that devotees have followed strictly throughout. All residents have now recovered, although the temple remains in lockdown until conditions in the local area improve.
Throughout the U.S., all temples are abiding by the policies established by their state governments (in the U.S. there are no national policies at this time) and thus are requiring residents and community members to wear masks, social distance, and sanitize hands.
Despite these efforts Krishna members, like other Americans, have tested positive, and many have become quite ill, although following the statistical patterns, many who test positive never show symptoms of the disease.
According to NBC News, “The U.S. reported 2,777 coronavirus-related deaths on Wednesday [Dec 2] alone,” the single-worst daily death toll since the pandemic began, and “nearly 205,000 new cases of COVID-19 on the same day.” Meanwhile, the COVID Tracking Project reported that 100,000 people were hospitalized across the country, also an all-time high.The Centers for Disease Control head warned that this winter may be the “most difficult time” in U.S. public health history.
In this environment Nila Madhava Das (Dr. Neeraj Verma), requests all devotees to stay safe and not to take COVID-19 lightly. Serving both as the temple president at ISKCON Baltimore and a practicing anesthesiologist, Nila Madhava was part of the COVID-19 team at Sinai Hospital and Northwest Hospital in Maryland, USA, during the first wave of coronavirus cases on the East Coast of the USA.
“Even if someone recovers from COVID it can leave permanent sequelae (conditions that are a consequence of coronavirus) like partially damaged lungs, severe fatigue for months and behavioral problems,” he says. “Approximately forty per cent of cases are asymptomatic carriers of this virus. So please don’t let your guard down. Keep your mask covering your face and nose at all times. Use a disposable triple ply mask if possible. Six feet distance should be maintained, especially when meeting others. And use hand sanitizer whenever going to places frequented by the public.”
Nila Madhava explains that this is a critical time, since most hospitals in the United States and some other countries are overwhelmed with COVID patients, and many don’t even have beds available – so one could be refused hospitalization. Thus, he emphasizes that prevention is more important than cure.
For those who do contract COVID-19, he says that recognition of symptoms and early treatment is essential.
Post COVID treatment is also important not to neglect, as according to Nila Madhava the battle is only half won once a patient is out of the hospital. Those with severe symptoms, he says, may need aggressive pulmonary rehabilitation, or else they could be affected for life with damaged lungs and shortness of breath. Fatigue, an integral part of severe COVID-19, can last for three months and should be treated with good sleep, energy drinks and healthy prasadam. Finally devotees who have had severe COVID-19 should be cared for with love and patience as they can suffer from behavioral problems such as depression and personality changes.
“The good part is that now we understand COVID better and have medicines to treat it and to prevent complications and death,” Nila Madhava explains. “But it is very important to get treatment early. If you feel short of breath don’t take it lightly – have a discussion with a health provider in your vicinity before it is too late for proper treatment.”
Fortunately, the light is at the end of the tunnel. According to the United States government’s Operation Warp Speed, 100 million Americans could be vaccinated against the coronavirus by February. (Although healthy adults under the age of 65 and children may have to wait until late spring or even the summer.)
“So for all devotees around the world, our request is please be careful for the next several months, especially this month when cases are skyrocketing,” Nila Madhava cautions. “Srila Prabhupada said we should take care of this body so that we can serve Krishna. And for that reason we need to stay healthy.”
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