Authorities at the monastery — renowned for its extensive system of catacombs dating from the 11th century — were initially slow to react to warnings that the virus was spreading.
“Everyone hurry to church, read the Psalms, the Gospel, embrace one another,” Metropolitan Pavel, the monastery’s head, instructed in a video in mid-March.
“The most terrible epidemic is the sin that destroys human nature,” he added.
Three weeks later, Pavel told Reuters that he originally did not appreciate the seriousness of the situation. The monastery has since introduced strict quarantine measures.
Still, Kyiv officials say more than 140 monks and others at the monastery have tested positive for the virus, and at least three have died. By comparison, Kyiv has registered more than 700 cases and 12 fatalities, and Ukraine as a whole has more than 4,660 cases and 125 deaths.
Ukrainian officials have responded with emergency measures at the monastery, posting police and national guard personnel at its entrances to seal it off to the public, conducting mass testing and disinfecting its grounds.
But commentators are asking whether the initial delay could now be helping to fuel the epidemic’s intensity at the monastery.
The worry that religious institutions might be helping to spread the coronavirus extends beyond the walls of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, especially as Ukraine — where more than two-thirds of the population belongs to the Orthodox Church — prepares to celebrate Orthodox Easter on Sunday.
Church authorities confirm that Pavel himself has been hospitalized, but they decline to comment on reports in the Ukrainian media that he had covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
“He’s in reasonable condition and had no complications. He has a number of other chronic conditions and was hospitalized for observation,” said Metropolitan Kliment Vecheria, a church spokesman. “I think that it’s possible that he will be released from the hospital soon.”
Ukraine is not alone. Places of worship around the world had resisted — or are still resisting — social distancing and other measures to slow the coronavirus’s spread.
Some Russian Orthodox churches allowed worshipers to continue traditions such as kissing icons weeks after the virus reached Russia. In South Korea, a now-closed messianic church helped to spark that country’s epidemic in February.
Ukraine’s various Orthodox branches say that access to the churches will be restricted and that worshipers can view Easter services on television or online, as was the case for Palm Sunday.
Opinion polls suggest that about 85 percent of population intends to stay home on Easter.
But fears remain that the virus could still circulate among crowds that gather outside the churches and that some Ukrainians will nevertheless gather for traditional family meals and picnics.
In a video address Tuesday, President Volodymyr Zelensky used the situation at the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra as an example of why it was crucial for Ukrainians to stay at home during the holiday. The timing of the lifting of Ukraine’s lockdown “will depend on our behavior during Easter, our discipline,” he said.
“This whole situation demonstrates that your nationality, gender or religion are not important to coronavirus,” Zelensky added. “It demonstrates that you cannot have a careless attitude toward the disease.”