Religious communities and actors can and have shown to be sources of guidance and support, sharing the responsibilities of care and acting as a support network to vulnerable groups during the COVID-19 pandemic. In many contexts, faith actors have played an important role through creative and practical approaches to alleviate the impact of COVID-19 measures and effects on vulnerable populations.
PaRD’s contribution to Geneva peace week 2020 was a dialogue with local and international religious actors who are each addressing the challenges COVID-19 has had on their community. This podcast is a collaboration with Islamic Relief Worldwide, World Vision International, Side by Side and World Evangelical Alliance, who lead PaRD’s work-streams on Health, Gender, Environment, Water and Climate Action, and Peace.
It will take you to Delhi, Birmingham, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, and Thailand, to see what faith leaders and representatives of faith groups have done in the response to COVID-19 … what were some of the successes and challenges that they faced, and what stories of hope emerged from their experiences.
Interview with Rev. Siyani Zimba, who is a Senior Pastor at Tabernacle of Power and Praise Ministries International in Lusaka Zambia, he is currently working for World Vision in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as a Channels of Hope Specialist on Ebola and COVID-19 response.
Reverend Siyani, can you tell me why do you think it is important to engage with Faith leaders, in the wake of an emergency such as COVID-19, particularly in rural and fragile contexts like you see in the Congo?
Rev Siyani: The role of faith leaders in these health emergencies is very, very, very vital because the faith leaders are the ones that have the general public, they have the people, the faith leaders have the respect of the communities. The faith leader’s voice is normally heard much more than any other voices. And in a place like … DRC and other places I have worked especially in rural areas, where I have worked, faith leaders are very much respected. The respect they carry in the community is such that When they say something, the people hear [them]. And when you look at the misinformation that normally is spread during pandemics, if this information gets into the hands of the faith leaders, it becomes very destructive. So when you get the faith leaders with the right information, you get the faith leaders down to their level and make them understand the situation and give them the correct messaging, the messages are more acceptable than when medical personnel go out there and when government people would go out there with messages. So, it is very critical to mobilize faith leaders, because they have a voice.
So why do you think that is so important for faith leaders, particularly in developing contexts, to receive accurate public health information and training on how to communicate it in their communities?
Rev Siyani: As long as faith leaders … religious communities think it is not a physical thing, then it gets out of hand because they think, all they need is to pray, lay hands on the people and the people are going to recover and all those things come in. But the acceptability that it is a disease, that is physical and needs physical attention, physical distancing and medical teams to come in … that acceptability has been there [with COVID] just like it was in Ebola. Maybe, because of Ebola, it has been easier now to accept COVID than the difficulties that we had.
Ensuring faith leaders have access to health education and training sounds like it’s been really important to ensure both accurate information is shared and in dispelling myths. But what are some of the barriers you have faced in trying to reach more faith leaders?
Rev Siyani: The funding sources have not just seriously established to target faith communities. It is an important issue to consider, because faith communities have the people, faith communities gather people, faith communities are listened to. And so, if these resources, I’ll say…funding for masks, funding for hygiene, are directed to the faith communities, I am certain that we shall make more inroads in preventing and eradicating COVID.
So, what is it like working in a fragile context like DRC where there is often instability and conflict and who does this affect what you do?
Rev Siyani: The fragile contexts have a lot of phases: Number one: Difficult to reach – for you to go to a certain place, you need military escort, which attracts a lot of attention, negative attention for that matter. Secondly, these places don’t have internet, so you cannot have an online meeting with them and do awareness with them online. And so, there are conflicts that are happening within these places…and so you may manage to get to a place or plan to get to your place…. but when you reach there or before you reach there, you are told: “Sorry, you can’t go because there are some tensions, there are some conflicts”. So this has seriously impacted on the reach – to reach out to the people who really [are in] need.
So what do you do in these situations?
Rev Siyani: We have trained religious leaders from various communities – [we] managed to bring them to town, where they can come. Because if I went into the village I stand out, my profile is high because I’m a foreigner, they greet me, my language comes out and they know: “You are not part of us.” So, I cannot dare [to go there]. We have trained religious leaders who have come and gone back to [the villages] to speak among their own. And many of them have succeeded to hold meetings, they have succeeded to hold workshops and they have succeeded to give out this awareness messaging. It is slow, but we are getting there.
Why do you think that it is important for interfaith communities to work together?
Rev Siyani: They bring about a neutral platform where everybody feels safe. When that environment is created, it is amazing how Muslims and Christians can work together. In the last workshop I’ve had, we even had someone from the Bahai’ faith. So, there is that acceptability because there is a common identity. We all identify ourselves with what is happening, with the pandemic. We accept whether you are a Muslim or a Christian, or a Bahai’ or a Hindu, you are affected by the Coronavirus in the same manner. There is no difference. And to protect, you get the protection in the same way without any difference. Amazingly, that has been experienced here.
If you were going to try and convince someone why it is important to invest in faith leaders what would you say?
Rev Siyani: That if we trained people correctly, gave them the correct information, have them catch the passion, give them a touch, a light, they’re able to light the world, despite the circumstances that might be life threatening. To me, that is a story of hope.