What are the lessons learnt from former epidemics? How can religious actors with their response to COVID-19 be more visible for others? Those were some of the main questions posed during the first PaRD-webinar on the COVID-19 Pandemic.
The topic of the webinar was “COVID-19 Pandemic: Challenges for religious/faith actors and communities? Responses from the field and global partners“ on April 29th. Prof. Dr Mohammed Abu-Nimer (International Dialogue Centre KAICIID) facilitated the session. The speakers were: Dr Katherine Marshall (WFDD, Berkley Centre, Georgetown University), Dr Olivia Wilkinson (Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities), Mr. Jørgen Thomsen (Dan Church Aid/ ACT Alliance), Rev. Kyoichi Sugino (Religions for Peace), Ms. Mercy Niwe (The World Bank Group).
Pandemics throughout history as well as more recent ones like AIDS, Zika and Ebola have all involved a lot the religious communities, Dr Katherine Marshall stated. She observed similarities with respect to the current COVID crisis, for instance the issue of how to safely bury infected bodies had already emerged during the Ebola epidemic. According to Dr Marshall, faith shouldn’t be understood as opposed to science, since religion is an integral part of society. For instance, many religious people work in the public health systems. Religious communities themselves should help to promote faith and trust in the advice of public health officials. Furthermore, religious leaders can contribute to information sharing and understanding of this pandemic and to the formulation of messages. To make their own engagement more visible, religious communities should draw more heavily on the stories of how they are responding. “It is also vital that all the different sectors work together if we’re going to see the end of this pandemic”, Dr Marshall said. This included also a multifaith response.
Joint Learning Initiative’s Resource Repository on COVID-19
Regarding research, COVID-19 is probably to be the most reported, monitored and tracked pandemic ever, Dr Olivia Wilkinson from the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities (JLI) stated. The COVID-19 response of FBOs and religious communities has seen unprecedented high recognition in news reports compared to past epidemics and humanitarian crises. To provide an overview on the news reports, official statements and guidance materials, JLI has launched a “Resource Repository”. Everyone is invited to submit relevant data to JLI via email@example.com. In addition, JLI has started a joint research together with UNICEF and Religions for Peace International on guidance documents. For this “Global Multi-Religious Faith-in-Action Covid-19 Initiative”, they reviewed more than 150 documents from previous work on faith and Ebola, HIV, WASH and gender as well as new faith and COVID information.
Dan Church Aid/ACT Alliance on a comprehensive humanitarian response
Don’t underestimate the role of local faith actors in COVID-19. That was the key message of Mr. Jørgen Thomsen from Dan Church Aid/ACT Alliance. In spite of the large engagement of faith actors in this crisis, Thomsen generally observes a sense of “self-censorship” in how they articulate their work, sticking to rather traditional humanitarian contributions and services rather than presenting to donors the comprehensive humanitarian response they perform which also includes sustaining communities’ resilience and protecting human rights that are challenged by Covid-19, from gender rights, over civic space to FoRB.
Nevertheless, it is important to articulate the full potential of local faith actors to donors in humanitarian logic and format, Thomsen said. And to bring the contribution of local faith actors to the policy level: To overcome a remarkable ”invisibility and underfunding of local faith actors”, Thomsen invited the UN body and the responsible institutions for coordinating humanitarian assistance to take local actors and local faith actors into consideration. More concretely: Local faith actors should be considered in the Global Humanitarian Response Plan for Covid-19 (OCHAS). PaRD is ideally positioned for that dialogue.
Religions for Peace on the new Multi-religious Humanitarian Fund
To support multi-religious collaborative efforts around the COVID-19 pandemic, Religions for Peace has launched the “Multi-religious Humanitarian Fund”, that Rev. Kyoichi Sugino, Religions for Peace Deputy Secretary General presented in the webinar. Its aim is to stimulate creative interventions by Interreligious Councils (IRCs) and multi-religious networks to provide life-saving messages, support the most vulnerable, counter stigma and discrimination, and offer spiritual and emotional care and support for children, the elderly, refugees and those experiencing disruption and distress. “We all know that interreligious approach is critically important in this time of great need for solidarity and hope for the future”, Rev. Sugino said.
Religions for Peace invited all of the attendees to partner with them in strengthening interreligious response. Rev. Sugino concluded with examples of initiatives of the Interreligious Councils, e.g. from Sierra Leone: Built on its experience in interreligious action to respond to HIV/AIDS and Ebola, IRC Sierra Leone is working on the preventive and life-saving messages, adaptations of practices and gatherings, countering false information and stigma.
The World Bank Group is building an evidence body on FBO’s COVID-19 response
The World Bank wants to assist the poorest countries to strengthen their pandemic response in health care systems and therefore, mid-March, an initial 14 billion US-Dollars package was approved. Over the next 15 months it will provide another 160 billion US-Dollars.
To better understand and get an overview on faith communities’ engagement, the The World Bank’s Global Faith Engagement section has initiated an evidence body. The team around Mercy Niwe has collected information from key FBOS on their COVID-19 response to inform the World Bank country offices. The findings so far: Faith communities are already working strongly in the area of food security, health, education and social protection and contributed to flatten the curve in the past months.
Niwe invited all other donor countries and bilateral agencies to use this platform to educate internally organizations on what the FBOs are doing to ensure coordination and collaboration. One of the FBOs that came to meet with the World Bank recently, said: “This is not only a war against a pandemic, but a test for our humanity.”
Conclusion of Prof Mohammed Abu-Nimer on stereotypes and the need for more Research
Prof Mohammed Abu-Nimer concluded that the overall picture is positive regarding the role of religions in the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite some cases of religious leaders that have been obstructing and not following the government restrictions, these individual cases shouldn’t be used for stereotyping. It was important to highlight that religions have the capacity to reach out better than many external actors by localizing the responses.
The lessons from the history of religious and faith-based communities dealing with diseases, wars, crises, humanitarian tragic events should be taken into consideration, Prof. Abu-Nimer stated. The JLI documentation was a great start and it was a very good sign that the field of religion and development have quickly moved into documenting the experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic. “I’m really looking forward to the research that will come out of this”, he said.
According to Prof. Mohammed Abu-Nimer, there should be more emphasis on the multireligious response to the pandemic rather than looking at single religion’s actions. The social cohesion and the fabric of the society during such a huge pandemic were threatened in many ways. “The multireligious responses and interfaith gatherings are a powerful tool to continue and send a message to prevent a deeper division within the society”, he said. Finally, Prof. Abu-Nimer asked how the role of religious and faith-based organizations in this context can continue to be taken into consideration by the policy makers and donors. This is, where PaRD can be an added value to communicate faith-based community’s agenda, voices and concerns to the respective partners.
Written by Claudia Zeisel, PaRD Secretariat