Man with mask outside of the Vatican


Religious Responses to COVID-19 Project Shifts in Pace and Scope

By: Siobhan Cooney

October 27, 2022

Immediately following a hybrid event on the coronavirus pandemic on March 11, 2020, the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD), and the Joint Learning Initiative (JLI) launched a collaborative effort to track and analyze the distinctive religious dimensions of the unfolding crisis.

Since then, the Religious Responses to COVID-19 project has developed in real time with the ebbs and flows of the pandemic. Across nearly two and a half years of work, the project has created an array of articles and blogs, sent hundreds of highlight summaries via email, and cultivated a living resource repository.

As we slowly and unevenly move out of the pandemic, the scope of the project is shifting away from daily and weekly updates and towards an exploration of the long-term impacts of the pandemic and ways in which religious communities, working together, can address global health and related challenges.

“The Berkley Center looks forward to the next phase of the Religious Responses to COVID-19 project,” says Berkley Center Director Thomas Banchoff. “Our collaboration with WFDD and JLI advances our mission of building knowledge and advancing cooperation through research and dialogue.”

Combatting the Infodemic

Running parallel to the global COVID-19 crisis was the so-called “infodemic” of misinformation and disinformation related to the pandemic, which was cited as a challenge early on in the project.

Katherine Marshall, Berkley Center senior fellow and WFDD executive director, describes how this trend continued as vaccines and conspiracy theories came into play.

We were especially concerned with the information that seemed to come from religious sources, and with the potential of strong positive religiously-linked messages to counter them.

Building off of hard-learned lessons from previous global health crises, especially the 2014 to 2016 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, the partners hoped that the acquisition and production of quality knowledge would help better integrate religious and faith-based actors into the broader response.

To date, the project has produced 16 publications, including a faith and COVID-19 vaccines analysis matrix, various event summary documents, a retrospective feature for the project’s one-year anniversary, and a brief at the two-year mark. It also published 32 blog posts on topics ranging from caregiver loss to Catholic peacebuilding. Outside of the partnership, 10 articles about project efforts have been published by unaffiliated outlets and organizations, including pieces by Religion News Service and the World Council of Churches.

To circulate developments and other information about general pandemic trends, highlight summaries have been sent as email newsletters. As of October 12, 2022, 225 updates have reached a distribution list of almost 1,000, casting a wide net to an audience of scholars, policymakers, and communicators within both religious and non-religious circles.

Across the duration of the project, the updates have shifted from daily to weekly to keep pace with the ever-shifting contours of the pandemic. As announced by their transition update, highlights going forward will be released quarterly or on a case-by-case basis. The update also acknowledges significant parallel efforts and cooperation with several partner organizations, including Religions for Peace and the World Health Organization's EPI-WIN.

Giving a Voice to the Vulnerable

Another critical pillar of the Religious Responses to COVID-19 project has been the webinar series aimed at capturing the experiences of people living through the pandemic, giving particular attention to poorer communities as well as refugee and forced migrant populations in order to address issues of inequality.

In developing topics and finding subjects for these dialogues, Marshall describes the process of drawing from past research and connections when dealing with other historical pandemics, especially HIV/AIDS and malaria. “We drew on our various networks and worked from there in a fishbone pattern. We also had and have significant working relations with the World Health Organization,” she says.

Working intensively in many parts of the world, these 21 webinars have built bridges from global and national contexts to local communities. The final four webinars centered around the theme of “Looking Back to Look Forward,” concluding with a virtual event showcasing on-the-ground stories and case studies—shared by local faith actors—that included and also went beyond COVID-19 awareness and provision of health services.

Teaching the Pandemic at Georgetown

While the project took a very global approach, in terms of both geography and religious traditions, the pandemic also hit close to home in the Georgetown University community with many areas of impact and intersection.

For Katherine Marshall, the most significant experience of learning and exchange was three years of teaching a freshman seminar for students in the Walsh School of Foreign Service that focused on the COVID-19 pandemic. Like the Religious Responses to COVID-19 project, this course set out to position the coronavirus in the historical context of past pandemics as well as identify specific lessons from this particular crisis.

Students have been actively and creatively involved in the development and execution of the course, reflecting the ways their daily lives have been impacted by the social, political, and economic changes brought about by the pandemic.

With these personal experiences as a starting point, the seminars launched students into discussions of policy implications in an environment where trust and knowledge play critical roles. They extrapolated insights from core pandemic principles at the high school or university level, such as communicating, building trust, and deciding on lockdown measures, and applied them to leadership roles in various multilateral and national perspectives. Students in the fall 2022 seminar will be formulating their own policy messages to address pandemic preparedness.

Creating an Enduring Research Resource

Though the Religious Responses to COVID-19 project has adopted a new functional rhythm with less frequent updates, the resource repository will remain available for open access as the partners regularly maintain it.

Curated with support from the International Partnership on Religion and Sustainable Development (PaRD), the repository houses over 1,000 items, including those captured by the project team as well as outside submitters. Susanna Trotta, a JLI research associate, points to new insights uncovered as part of the repository work.

Coding the resources helped identify trends and thematic areas that had not been included before, such as the use of digital technologies as part of faith actors’ responses to the pandemic.

This resource repository is not merely a collection of facts and figures, but a celebration of diverse perspectives. Berkley Center Executive Director Michael Kessler emphasizes that “the impressive breadth and depth of the project’s outputs and scholarship are a testament to the significance of and need for continued work at the intersection of religion and health.”

Above all, this project was conceived to make information more accessible to development policymakers and practitioners and religious actors who seek to work together in the COVID-19 response, now and in the future. Although its cadence has shifted, the pandemic is clearly not over for many across the world, and the work is far from done.

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