Public Services

Covid-19 and the Need for Governments to Work with Religious Leaders

Commentary23rd April 2020

Today, TBI has launched Covid-19: A Guide for Governments Working with Religious Leaders to Support Public Health Measures, available here. It is also available in French and Portuguese. It forms part of a series of resources for governments to use in their response to Covid-19.

In dealing with Covid-19, governments around the world face very different circumstances and some incredibly tough decisions. In the absence of an effective vaccine, social distancing has become the principal policy mechanism for suppressing the spread of the virus. Governments must find culturally appropriate and sustainable ways to implement measures recommended by the World Health Organisation and other medical and scientific agencies in order to prevent and contain the pandemic.   

These challenges are particularly acute in poorer countries. With no state social security or other safeguards, some of the more restrictive forms of social distancing are likely to lead not just to loss of income and livelihood but to starvation and destitution. These effects are likely to be most severe across minority and marginalised groups and in impoverished residential areas dominated by multi-occupancy dwellings. This not only increases the likelihood of opposition to more restrictive measures but may even lead in some cases to increased civil unrest.  This in turn may be further exacerbated by overly zealous imposition of restrictions by police or other security actors. It is because of the difficulties faced by governments under these circumstances that we published Covid 19: A Framework for Government Decision Making in a Crisis and Covid 19: Social Distancing in African Contexts.

But to implement these policies, governments need trust and reach into local communities. We believe that there is an urgent need for governments to engage with Faith Based Organisations (FBOs) and religious actors to improve public-health outcomes within local communities during the pandemic. Religious leaders and FBOs, including women’s and youth faith groups and leaders, are among the most trusted and significant influencers of individual and community attitudes and behaviours. Many are organised at a national level with chapters, branches and representatives at sub-national and community level that correlate with different levels of national, sub-national and local government.

Not only are religious leaders and congregations part of every community, but they are also sometimes the dominant non-state provider of welfare and health-care services. Faith communities are an important part of dealing with the effects of the pandemic, from distributing food aid and connecting people with essential community services to helping enormously with people’s mental and spiritual wellbeing. They have considerable potential to support public-health efforts to counter Covid-19, particularly in those communities less well-served by health agencies. This is evidenced in our interventions in tackling Ebola in Liberia (2014) and Malaria in Sierra Leone (2010).  

Religious gatherings have been a source for spreading Covid-19.  While many FBOs and religious actors, both men and women, are supportive of, and are implementing, government measures to contain the spread of Covid-19 in the public space and in the home, some religious actors continue to advocate pre-crisis religious practices or make claims of immunity, all of which increase the risks of contagion. Others may simply not trust the government or may not wish to be associated with government programmes.    

To help governments navigate some of these complex issues, our guide recommends that they should build trust to effectively engage religious leaders through six approaches:

  1. Sensitising government, health and security actors to implement government policy in a way that reflects an understanding of, and sensitivity to, religious practices and teaching in respect of all religious and minority groups.

  2. Collaborating for mutual benefit with religious leaders able to represent the interests of all religious and minority groups by integrating them into crisis management structures and planning processes from national to local community level.

  3. Amplifying key health messages that are appropriate to local religious teaching and practices, drawing on the expertise and reach of religious leaders.

  4. Resourcing FBOs and religious leaders with the health knowledge to educate their congregations on the reasons behind government policy with a focus on social distancing and, when available, the importance of accessing treatment. 

  5. Countering misinformation and conspiracy theories about the pandemic, particularly those that are religiously motivated, that would risk the spread of Covid-19 by working closely with religious leaders.

  6. Empowering FBOs and religious leaders to be autonomous but constructive in supporting government policy to suppress the spread of Covid19.  Governments should avoid criminalising dissident religious leaders; instead, governments should seek to integrate them into the national effort.

The guide argues that this approach strengthens the potential to mobilise support for public-health interventions in the following ways:

  • Religious leaders at national, regional and local levels can help advise on policy and public messaging in a way that will make this messaging more likely to succeed across mainstream, minority and marginalised groups. During the Ebola crisis, religious leaders played a key role in changing burial practices which spread contagion.[_] In Nigeria, the Christian Association of Nigeria and Muslim groups, State Government and religious leaders agreed to enforce Covid-19 social distancing in places of worship.[_]

  • Establish trust and support for social distancing and other containment measures. Religious leaders are well-placed to model responsible compliance with health guidelines and they are uniquely placed to explain that there is no conflict between scientific advice on the one hand and religious beliefs and practice on the other. Churches, mosques, synagogues and temples have closed around the world. Weddings and funeral services have been limited to very small numbers, while observing social distancing. The Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions all have teachings about avoiding travel to and from places of contagious illnesses, and of maintaining a distance from contagious people. Religious authorities are helping to disseminate positive messages in countering the spread of coronavirus. In Egypt, Al-Azhar and the Ministry of Islamic Endowments published guidelines on the closure of mosques. Al-Azhar issued a fatwa that all mosques in the country may be closed during the pandemic due to the primary Islamic obligation of saving lives.[_]

  • Take a pragmatic approach to large-scale religious festivals that carry high risk of transmission and may need targeted government action, such as managed closure and reopening of places of worship, as well as national and international travel restrictions. In several countries around the world (for example Iran, Pakistan, France, USA), clusters of initial Covid-19 cases came from large religious gatherings. Major festivals include Passover, Easter, Ramadan and the Hajj, which may be cancelled for the first time in centuries. The Hajj is due around the same time as the original date of the Tokyo Olympics, which have been postponed by a year. The Saudi government will have to make a difficult decision around arrangements for the Hajj, which usually attracts about 2 million people from all over the world, as well as half a million people from within the kingdom.

  • Issue positive and where necessary scripturally justified messaging to counter misinformation that promotes practices that put communities or individuals at risk of infection or denies them access to treatment. Some priests, imams and rabbis from as far apart as Brazil, Nigeria, Kenya, Pakistan, Israel, Iran, Arab states and elsewhere have declared that Covid-19 is a divine punishment upon non-believers and that people of their own faith are immune from the disease. Some have also claimed that Covid-19 is a hoax, designed to stop the faithful from observing worship and other religious practices. Harmful consequences of such messages include that WHO guidelines will not be followed, leading to the further spread of Covid-19 through religious gatherings. During the Ebola crisis, more than 70 religious leaders were publicly vaccinated in the DRC to demonstrate that rumours against the vaccine were false. Catholic bishops mobilised grassroots groups to address misunderstandings surrounding Ebola, the vaccine and stigma.[_] 

  • Provide non-state welfare to support sustainable social distancing, including nutrition and Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH). FBOs and religious leaders are often well-placed to provide practical, spiritual and psychosocial support to individuals and communities in crisis, especially to the vulnerable, including post-treatment individuals who need to be reintegrated into the community. Samaritan’s Purse has built two emergency field hospitals equipped with respiratory units in New York and Lombardy. It has staffed the hospitals with disaster-response specialists, working as contractors for the organisation. Churches continue to support health agencies as blood-donation facilities: Blood donors have their temperature checked before entering the building and follow social-distancing measures. A pastor in Lagos, who was initially sceptical about the danger of coronavirus and made unhelpful public statements, has now reconsidered and donated eleven ICU beds with ventilators, as well as a large amount of essential medical equipment, to a local hospital.[_]

It is our hope that the guide and other materials that will be published in association with it will prove useful to government policymakers.


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