There are some remedies worse than the disease (Publilius Syrus)
As a result of the global Covid-19 pandemic and efforts to contain it, many countries are facing recession and rising poverty. There is both interdependency and tension between what is needed to save lives now and what is needed to build a stable and prosperous world in the future. Violent extremism threatens this future through its narratives of grievance, ideology and victimised identity. Wherever possible responses to the pandemic must avoid feeding these narratives.
For the last five years, the Institute’s Supporting Leaders programme has partnered with local organisations in Nigeria and Kenya to empower 361 religious actors to reach over 17,000 local community members to counter extremist narratives and build community social cohesion. An Insights Forum held in November 2020 in Nairobi convened 173 policymakers and practitioners to help demonstrate the impact of working with religious actors to tackle violent extremism and build peaceful societies as part of Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE) strategies across sub-Saharan Africa. An essay collection published today offers reflections on issues arising at the Forum as well as on the implications for P/CVE policy and programming following the outbreak of Covid-19.
As of 25 June 2020, well over nine million cases of Covid-19 had been diagnosed around the world leading to over 400 thousand deaths, according to Worldometers. The developed world has been most severely affected but for the developing world, already facing numerous life-threatening conditions and poor health infrastructure, many experts fear that the worst is yet to come. Governments around the world have responded to the crisis by implementing policies and measures to help contain the pandemic.
Our briefing, Beyond the Lockdown, What Should African Governments Do Next?, highlighted the need to engage with citizens and communities to mobilise the population to change behaviours. Our Guide for Governments Working with Religious Leaders to Support Public Health Measures also argued that societal behavioural change is needed in order to comply with social-distancing and other government-imposed measures necessary to contain the pandemic. It recognised the critical role which religious leaders play in influencing individual and community understanding, attitudes and behaviours.
Anecdotal reports from across our networks of religious leaders in response to this Guide suggest a number of trends. While governments are working closely with national Faith-Based Organisations (FBOs), messaging can struggle to reach some local communities. Compliance appears to be very mixed and waning; it is difficult to observe hand-washing rules when there is no clean water; it is difficult to observe social-distancing rules when you need food from the market or you need to drive a taxi to get food for your family. One religious leader reported that his congregation would rather die of Covid-19 than of hunger. Our networks also report increasing levels of domestic violence against women for reasons linked to lockdowns, as cited in a recent report from UN Women.
Individuals are reluctant to attend clinic for fear of being stigmatised with the ‘Covid’ label and some of those testing positive refuse to accept the diagnosis. Overly zealous imposition of curfews and lockdowns by security forces is in some cases leading to increased levels of violence. This risks further undermining trust in government institutions and reinforcing extremist narratives of discrimination and marginalisation. One religious leader in Kenya told us that some community members saw Covid-19 as a ‘game of hide and seek’ in which they fear the police more than they fear the virus. Conspiracy theories typical of some of those identified in the Institute’s Snapshot series abound. These include the ideas that Covid-19 is a punishment from God, that it does not exist, that it has been ‘manufactured by Western organisations’ to reduce population numbers and that it is being politicised for financial gain. Those taking the virus seriously are turning increasingly to traditional remedies.
On the positive side, our networks report that religious leaders seem to be retaining community trust. TV and radio remain the primary means of mass communication. Religious leaders have been mostly forward-leaning in implementing social-distancing measures, such as the closure of local places of worship. Congregants from local churches and mosques and local FBOs have distributed food and face-masks to those most in need as well as providing PPE and other equipment to local hospitals.
Civil society organisations are worried that international and national resources might necessarily be diverted from broader development efforts and P/CVE programming to help address Covid-19. Meanwhile, as widely reported, extremist organisations like Boko Haram have taken the opportunity to launch attacks while security forces are otherwise committed to imposing curfews and lock-downs. The narratives of the violent extremists seek to further their aims by exploiting fear and division. An audio message from Boko Haram responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, claimed that the virus was a ploy to prohibit Muslims practising their faith. The reality is that over time we will either eradicate Covid-19, or learn to live with it, but the ideologies and narratives which drive violent extremism will evolve and endure.
Many important lessons were learned from the Ebola crisis but the Covid-19 pandemic is on an unprecedented scale. For governments in Africa, old lessons may need to be relearned and for governments around the world new lessons drawn. Drawing on what we are hearing from our networks, for example, policies which support joint TV and radio broadcasts by teams of health experts and religious leaders would help ensure accurate messaging and help increase trust in government and health service providers. There is a need for a coalition of organisations to commission the necessary research to draw these lessons and communication mechanisms together.
The Institute has flagged the increasingly apparent need for radical change to the global architecture for international cooperation highlighted by the Covid-19 response. Whatever this global architecture will look like, and as noted recently by the World Economic Forum, there will be an enduring need for international organisations and governments to mobilise civil society by engaging with religious and other key community leaders to build a better post-pandemic world.