Beheadings and immolations: an investigation into the real impact of COVID-19 on witches

By Carys Hopkins

Published Sep 3, 2021 at 09:42 AM

Reading time: 8 minutes

While most of the world was focused on COVID-19 infection statistics, in the last two years, the pandemic brought a surge in other surprising occurrences—witch trials and witch hunts. Yes, you read that right, more and more people are literally seeking out potential witches and killing them. Fear has plagued communities, mainly in the Global South (a term that refers to countries in South America, Africa as well as Asia), and pushed them to hunt down the people they believe caused the pandemic. As I delved deeper into reports, wickedness was apparent. 

Presently, the term ‘witch’ is difficult to isolate into a single definition given its recent influence in pop culture along with the variations that exist between independent ones. The word can conjure up the image of a wicked old woman, a powerful seducer, a healer or even a Satan worshiper. It is a transient term, one that—when used to describe a woman—is usually meant in a spiteful and derogatory way.

In order to make my quest into the many ways COVID-19 has impacted witches all around the world as clear and simple as possible, for this article in particular, we’ll define the term ‘witch’ as someone who practices witchcraft in order to achieve their means, be it for the good or the bad. But before we get into it, let’s first have a look at witchcraft’s evolution through history and how our perception of it has fluctuated over time.

From the mother of witchcraft to #witchtok

At the beginning of the CE (Common Era), Druidism, which is often seen as the ‘mother of the witchcraft’ we know today, was eradicated and demonised. In 57 CE, the Romans killed Druids at Ynys Môn (in Wales), where they lived and practised their learned spirituality. At this point in time, the Romans were polytheistic—they believed in more than one god—and so their fear of the Druids was largely unknown.

Religion in the later centuries of Europe shifted to Christianity (adopted by the Romans), Catholicism and Protestantism. Due to Christianity now being the established religion within the patriarchy, it spread through the conquered lands within The Holy Roman Empire. Those that openly followed a pagan religion—such as Druidism—faced persecution from the state as well as their peers. Religions, such as Christianity, claimed to be the most effective deterrent to the evil of paganism and witchcraft.

Colonialism provided a vehicle for patriarchal standards—based upon gender, socioeconomic status, capitalism and race—to be spread into colonised countries. European witch trials ravaged the undesirables in communities across Europe during the 1500s up until the 1700s. It also spread into the colonised regions of North, Central and South America as well as the continent of Africa—particularly in places such as Nigeria and South Africa where slave trade was most prominent. This left historically colonised countries with an enforced and newly ingrained attitude that witchcraft is inherently evil and must be persecuted.

Before colonisation, most (of the then later colonised) countries had their own beliefs and practices in witchcraft, and for the most part, it was a positive aspect of people’s culture. Much like in my own culture, those practising witchcraft were seen as learned figures within the community, such as the traditional medicine men in Africa. However, this no longer seems to be the case in the modern context.

My personal experience as a UK-based witch

As a white cis-gendered woman living in the UK, being a self-proclaimed witch has never been much of a problem. But for others, such as women living in specific parts of the world, people with disabilities, people with albinism, or the elderly, sadly, the same cannot be said.

I have always felt a certain connection and understanding to spirituality—having grown up with my dad instilling that my certain spirituality is due to Welsh people inheriting it, as we are descended from ‘Derwyddon’ (Druids). Due to the Roman invasion and attempts to eradicate Celtic traditions, we heavily rely on verbal histories and stories to learn more about our ancestors.

Growing up in Wales, my experience is far different from those in the Global South, and even of those living in other parts of the UK. I have been surrounded by the acceptance and goodness that the spiritual world provides us with. The fear of violence or ostracisation from society doesn’t come into play in my mind when I publicly identify as a witch.

I read stories from The Mabinogion—a Welsh book of myths and legends—and other ‘supernatural’ tales throughout my childhood. Witches ensure traditions of our past are upheld by encouraging the community to participate in harvest and springtime festivals, Calan Gaeaf (similar to what is celebrated as Halloween around the world), Dydd Santes Dwynwen (considered to be the Welsh equivalent to Valentine’s Day), along with many others which celebrate both the spiritual world and our ancestors.

Remaining stone circles are still being used by people identifying as witches, often to make offerings to ancestors and reconnect with their spirituality. A Welsh witch who I spoke to explained how she heads to the stone circles in Gwynedd a couple of times a year to celebrate the solstice and reconnect with the spiritual realm. “It’s a very personal experience, but I always go with my closest friends who also identify as witches,” she added.

A short walk (less than 5 minutes) from my front door is a perfect arrangement of trees that converge into a circle surrounding a large body of water. We aptly call it ‘The witches circle’. I often feel a connection to the spiritual realm and a surge of energy when I visit the spot.

Sadly, my situation is one of the most privileged examples of what a witch’s lifestyle can look like. In other countries like Africa, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and India (among many others), those being labelled as witches will most certainly suffer the price of what prejudice centuries of witch hunts have left behind.

The modern war on witches

The violence marginalised people face in some parts of Africa due to suspected witchcraft is shockingly evident. In 2014, seven people were attacked with machetes and burned alive in Tanzania due to accusations of witchcraft—all of whom were over the age of 40, but of mixed genders. It is believed that red, bloodshot eyes (which is actually a result of open-fires) among the elderly is a clear sign that someone is a witch. It was suspected by a local human rights group that this was the reason those individuals were murdered. Physical attributes that have become associated with witchcraft are what have led to the malicious targeting of such groups.

For example, people with albinism often face a list of abuses such as being ostracised, mutilated, kidnapped and even killed. Tanzania has one of the highest rates of albinism in Africa, which can easily be linked to its high rate of violence. According to the Office of United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), people with albinism are viewed as ‘supernatural’. Because of this view, they are targeted by not only fearful groups of individuals, but also by those looking to sell their body parts to witch doctors for prices as high as $75,000 (about £54,500). All in the belief that it will bring the person good fortune.

Between 2014 and 2019, 150 people with albinism were killed in Tanzania, Mozambique and Malawi, with 76 of them being killed in Tanzania alone. However, it is still largely unreported and so the correct figure is assumed to be much higher.

In Saudi Arabia, witchcraft remains punishable by death. Accused ‘witches’ are often said to be using witchcraft to disrupt society or to cause misfortune upon their chosen victim. In many cases, it appears to be a cloak for gender-based violence, ableism and racism. Much like some parts of Africa, witchcraft continues to be associated with a person’s physicality and appearance.

The case for racism is even more apparent in a 2007 case where an Egyptian man was accused of sorcery and was beheaded without proper trial. Similarly, in September 2011, a Sudanese man was executed for ‘casting spells’.

A study conducted by Al-Jadid in 2013 found that ableism is prevalent in Saudi Arabia due to regulations set by the government. The belief that those with disabilities are caused by witchcraft, or they themselves are witches is the reason these individuals face many barriers in their lives. Jinn possession—the belief that an evil spirit is possessing a person—is often favoured as the cause of epilepsy. Sent to faith healers rather than doctors, individuals with disabilities are at best subjected to physical abuses, at worst detained and executed without legal support or understanding of why they were persecuted in the first place.

Such is the case of Mounir Adam, a mentally disabled teenager, who was originally arrested in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and later executed in 2016, after being held on terrorism charges for four years. The country’s anti-witchcraft unit (established in 2009), teaches people within the unit how to identify and destroy sorcerers. There is currently no official definition of a witch in Saudi Arabia, so the unit heavily relies on calls from concerned residents that often target foreigners due to differences in practices and other arbitrary nonsensical methods—regularly leading to false arrests.

In some parts of India, those suspected of witchcraft face arbitrary killings that usually involve beheadings or immolations. Witch hunts that took place between 2000 and 2015 have also been found to result in 2,064 deaths in the country. This is an incredibly high figure, but then again, the real number is suspected to be much higher. This is because witch-hunting is not officially recognised as a motive for murder. In recent years however, there has been an effort from people in India to use science-based education to help move away from past traditions and beliefs on witchcraft.

How witches have been made the scapegoat for the COVID-19 pandemic

With restrictions in travel and most people staying at home, or at the least within the immediacy of their neighbourhoods, a spotlight has been cast on the violence that marginalised groups of individuals face. “We are already seeing that the impact of COVID-19 on women and girls is profound. Women are disproportionately affected by lockdowns and this is resulting in a reduced access to health services,” said Doctor Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization’s (WHO) Regional Director for Africa in a press release.

Added pressures to seek out the individuals ‘responsible’ for the current pandemic has seen an increase in violent extremities. During the first three weeks of lockdown in South Africa, the government’s Gender-based Violence and Femicide Command Centre recorded over 120,000 victims. Again, there is a recurring theme of underreporting and not registering any deaths or bodily harm associated with witchcraft, which makes it difficult to illustrate the real picture. This is why organisations such as the UN need to step up and support the marginalised groups that are being persecuted for witchcraft.

In May 2021, a young boy with albinism was murdered in Tanzania, with his body mutilated in order to be sold on to witch doctors. Such doctors believe people with albinism can transmit their magical powers onto the person using what they create, such as a potion.

Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said: “There are reports of persons with albinism being branded ‘corona’ and ‘COVID-19’ in some countries…labeling them as scapegoats of the pandemic.” This explicitly tells us that the UN is well aware of the influence the current global pandemic is having on witch hunts. And so it begs the question, what exactly are they doing about it?

While there is some information on violence in some parts of Africa for 2019 to the present (2021). There are currently no up-to-date official statistics from 2019 to the present (2021) for those killed due to witchcraft in India. However, reporting is on the rise and the suspected figures are said to have drastically increased. In August 2020, one province in India recorded its twelfth witch death of the year, with the woman being beaten to death.

Women and people with disabilities are the ones primarily facing the accusations of causing the COVID-19 pandemic. In one province in India in July 2020, a woman was beheaded after being accused of being a witch. The woman was thought to have made another villager’s son ill with a terrible cough and cold-like symptoms. The local deputy superintendent of police, Arvind Kumar Singh, told Gulf News that “the youth had died from some ailments but Tuddu [the boy’s father] believed he died since the woman had cast a black magic spell.”

In October 2020, a young disabled girl was brutally raped, murdered and beheaded in the Banaskantha district of Gujarat. It is thought her death was part of a ritual killing to ward off suspected black magic. Similarly, in October 2020, a man and a woman were beheaded and then set on fire because of a ‘suspicion’ that they caused another person’s illness through witchcraft. The situation in India has become so dire that marginalised groups are bearing the brunt of other people’s fears.

Colonialism has blazed the trail of witch hunts throughout the world. The atrocities committed are unjust and unlawful and yet somewhat understandable—given the history. People around the world are suffering grievous violence due to suspicions of witchcraft supposedly responsible for the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as any other misfortunes.

While the UN has collected information and tried to implement educational strategies as a means to help reduce witchcraft-related violence in specific areas, evidence suggests that stronger actions are needed now more than ever. There must be a collective effort to end the violation of human rights laws against women, people with disabilities, people with albinism and more now.

This fear of the unknown combined with archaic religious ideals, colonialism, patriarchal standards, ableism and discrimination have bubbled away to create a deadly poison.

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