An Interfaith Dialogue on Religious Responses to COVID-19 in Bangladesh

By: Sarah Thompson

June 5, 2020

Male madrasa students standing together in Bangladesh

The COVID-19 crisis threatens to unravel substantial elements of the development progress Bangladesh has made over the last decade. Without overstating negative prospects, it is important to take into account the devastating social and economic repercussions that the present pandemic is having on one of the world’s most densely populated countries. Many faith-inspired organizations are responding in myriad ways and have a pulse on the situation on the ground. An important question is thus how faith-inspired development actors view their roles in this unique crisis and how they are responding to the social and economic threats and challenges.

On May 20, 2020, a much-needed discussion took place during a webinar, as part of an ongoing series sponsored by BRAC University’s Centre for Peace and Justice in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The topic was “The Role of Faith-Inspired Organizations in Bangladesh’s COVID-19 Crisis Response,” with panelists from Islamic Relief Bangladesh, Caritas Bangladesh, Muslim Aid, and World Faiths Development Dialogue. During the hour-long discussion, participants echoed a shared conviction that it is crucial for interfaith partners to work together at the frontlines and that their work be fully embedded in larger national and secular organizational strategies to provide relief for communities who are suffering.

Among the many issues highlighted during the webinar, 10 key themes and take-aways resonated with the panelists:

  1. The need for active collaboration between various faith groups at the local and national levels. Engagement should be substantial and go beyond the surface level.
  2. Secular and mainstream development aid organizations need to engage with religious groups to reach vulnerable groups and foster trust and respect. Secular and mainstream organizations should interact with grassroots religious leaders on a continual basis to have more impact.
  3. COVID-19 has exacerbated the plight of high-risk groups like the urban poor, elderly, refugees, homeless, persecuted minorities, and internally displaced persons. The situation of the Rohingya in the camps was especially highlighted.
  4. The financial impact on charities and faith-inspired organizations is immense. Many are losing the capacity to raise funds and distribute them due to lack of donations and outside funding.
  5. Historically, crises tend to inflame pre-existing ethnic and religious tensions and have the power to further stoke new fears and discrimination among conflicting groups.
  6. Universal values and socially cohesive education are more important than ever for rebuilding a nation post-coronavirus. 
  7. Official public health messaging like increased hand washing and physical distancing is not applicable in many densely populated areas with little infrastructure, and there is a need for altered messaging. Faith-inspired organizations can help communicate that need to larger institutions.
  8. The message that faith and science can coexist peacefully needs to be actively and creatively fostered.
  9. Religious leaders and scholars have the platform to disseminate public health messaging and guidance to their communities while also working to counter misinformation.
  10. The long-term social and psychological effects of the crisis on youth due to school closures are slowly being realized. Support and comfort for youth during this time is paramount.

Faith-inspired organizations can and historically have come together to make tremendous positive contributions to various humanitarian crises in Bangladesh, and more broadly towards the achievement of key social development goals. Many who work for and with faith-inspired NGOs are aware that it is crucial to engage faith leaders from early stages in crisis situations. Doing so presents important opportunities, while failure can aggravate longstanding tensions and risk losing the trust and respect of the people in their communities. Optimistically, the positive reputation and large reach of religious actors in local communities can strengthen national efforts to tackle the pandemic and related economic and social fallout. 

A collaborative effort of faith communities, civil society, and government is much needed. Efforts of the government and large aid organizations to engage with faith communities and organizations could play a central role in addressing tensions and conflict within communities and in mitigating social threats through effective communication and outreach.

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