WHILE much focus has rightly been given to health-care workers and government support in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic, in many parts of the developing world religious communities play an essential — and often overlooked — part in tackling such a crisis.
Faith leaders are often the most trusted messengers, and church networks are most embedded with communities on the ground. From tackling the stigma of HIV to communicating best practice to contain the Ebola virus, religious leaders can be an important part of the health-care solution.
The Covid-19 pandemic has placed people around the world in unfamiliar and troubled waters. Here, in Kenya, there is a dusk-to-dawn curfew, and, in some other countries, total lockdown has been declared. Everything seems to be in crisis, and the economy grinds to a halt.
Here are seven ways in which religious leaders can make a positive difference during this emergency:
- Fight fake news. Religious leaders should interact extensively with what is being said about the pandemic. Where possible, they can reach out to experts, such as humanitarian agencies like Christian Aid and those trained in virology or infectious diseases, so that they have the facts. They can then communicate these to people from an informed point of view. Religious leaders should not be tempted to spiritualise this matter, such as gathering people for services without caution, in the belief that God will protect them. In some cases, it is in these churches that the virus has spread as people congregated.
- Be beacons of hope. At a time when everyone is scared, religious leaders need to encourage people in their jurisdictions not to despair. They can do this through social media such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and YouTube; or even by sending short text messages of hope and encouragement. Religious leaders need to inspire the spirit of hope in a scenario in which everything seems to have failed.
- Support state machinery in curbing the spread of the virus. Religious leaders can encourage people to obey the directives and guidance given by the state and other players, which seeks to contain the virus. Taking the example of the curfew in Kenya, or the lockdown in South Africa, people should be encouraged to see these directives as for their good and safety, not as a punishment. On the other hand, recognising how unprepared and unable our health systems are, faith leaders need to challenge their governments about the need to invest in essential services to reduce the vulnerability of people in times such as this. Universal health-care is a right that they should demand.
- Encourage people to be prepared for the worst as they hope for the best. Because no one knows the duration of this pandemic, faith leaders should encourage people to get themselves ready for any eventuality. Although our countries may have been unprepared or slow to respond, people should be encouraged to adjust for tough times ahead. We have seen how fragile the global economy is; this is a time to reflect on what we really need rather than what we want in life, and make the choice to live simply.
- Encourage love and compassion. There might be people or families who have more than they need in terms of food and other commodities. Religious leaders can encourage communities to be concerned and care for one another. As the Bible teaches in James 1.27: “I encourage my congregations to practise true religion by reaching out to the disadvantaged of society; the widows, the orphans, the poor, and in attending to the needs of people, ensure no one is left behind.” Indeed, special attention needs to be given to those on the periphery of society. With their influence and community networks, faith leaders can mobilise resources and identify those who have been most affected, and ensure that relief supplies go where they are needed.
- Help to reduce stigma. In Kenya, as in other parts of the developing world, there have been incidents of people from the city visiting their villages and being chased away. This is because it is feared that they have the virus and might spread it in the village. Religious leaders can encourage people to be more caring and considerate. They should urge people to address any challenge with love. We must, however, note and support the recent government directives instructing everyone to remain where they are, so that the chances of spreading the virus are reduced.
- Build and encourage harmonious relationships. As people stay at home, where they may be cramped in close quarters, there lies the danger of an increase in domestic conflict. Church leaders must be conscious of this and intentionally reach out with messages that foster smooth relationships during this time of crisis. This can also be done through social media or TV talk shows, while still calling for social distancing. Beyond this, faith leaders need to prepare themselves, and volunteers, to provide the requisite psycho-social support, besides directing the more challenging cases to trained counsellors.
Religious leaders have a crucial part to play in curbing the spread of Covid-19 and helping to manage it. It is vital that they are engaged and equipped to do so. Government agencies and international aid donors should recognise that faith communities are a crucial resource, which they ignore at their peril.
The Ven. Dominic Ole Santeto is the Archdeacon and Vicar General of the diocese of Kericho, in Kenya. He is also the team leader of the Anglican Church of Kenya’s Trans-Mara Rural Development Programme, which is a partner organisation of Christian Aid.