Sarah Thompson is a Project Manager for Bangladesh at WFDD. She has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Gender Studies from Roanoke College and a master’s degree in International Development with Migration from the University of Kent's Brussels School of International Studies. Prior to joining the WFDD team, Sarah worked in the education and NGO space in both China and Cambodia and recently at Georgetown’s Institute for Reproductive Health focusing on family planning interventions in Nepal. Sarah has a strong interest in the intersection of religion, development, and gender equity in South Asia.
We are now roughly eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic and there is growing evidence about the current health and economic crisis, viewed through a faith lens. In March 2020, a collaborative project between World Faith Development Dialogue, the Berkley Centre at Georgetown University, and the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local communities started a 100 + page repository that collected news articles reporting on faith and COVID-19. At its inception, we saw little formal coverage on the linkages between pandemics and faith. Months in, as more government and humanitarian actors are seeing the value in engaging faith communities in a COVID-19 response (and risks of failing to do so), we are seeing more comprehensive and diverse coverage and findings along these lines.
In September, a policy brief titled “Religious Leaders’ Perspectives on Corona-Preliminary Findings” was prepared by the Research Programme on Religious Communities and Sustainable Development, a program based in the Faculty of Theology at Humboldt University in Germany. The brief reported results from a first-ever virtual survey that comprehensively explored the relief efforts of religious leaders worldwide as well as their theological views on the pandemic. The survey began in June and is still ongoing. Notably, the brief highlighted how religious leaders overwhelmingly support preventive measures and mandates from governments. This is an important finding to reiterate as many news outlets routinely report on ways in which religious leaders and their communities disregard public health measures.
At the time the report was issued (the project continues), 215 religious leaders’ answers from 27 countries were recorded, mostly from Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Of the respondents, 58% were Christian, 20% Muslim, 9% Buddhist and 13% hailed from other traditions. Most survey applicants hailed from Europe. In regions where government handling of the pandemic was not efficient, faith leaders felt the demand to fill the void. Many echoed the sentiment that the post-pandemic world must “build back better” by advancing economic equality, social justice, and ecological sustainability.
Faith leaders responded that their communities were suffering primarily due to the economic challenges caused by government restrictions to curb the spread of the virus. The European respondents listed psychosocial challenges like loneliness as high as on the list but in the Middle East and Africa they listed unemployment and challenges linked to poverty as of higher priority. This clearly shows how economic and social suffering related to the pandemic vary by region. About 90% of European respondents said they thought their government handled the outbreak well as compared to 50% in the Middle East and Africa. Most leaders reported preaching or praying for COVID-19 relief and all aided in the distribution of food and monetary support to their communities.
Key takeaways from the brief emphasized that government and development actors should be aware of the willingness of faith leaders to use their influence to reinforce public health measures. This data suggests that the majority of leaders promote prevention measures among their followers and communities. The brief also recommended more research on context-specific coping strategies supported by various religious communities, for example, formal and informal financial aid mechanisms within an Islamic context. It also pointed to the potential for integration of local and national faith leaders into sector coordination mechanisms on basic needs, cash assistance, and mutual learning, urging that these topics be explored in the future.
Efforts by government officials, development organizations, and secular actors to engage with and understand the role of faith actors in combating COVID-19 needs to be further studied if we are to advance more efficient and helpful humanitarian responses to the pandemic. It is crucial to look to past examples of positive and effective responses in combatting outbreaks, such as the role of faith leaders in the Ebola response of 2014. Faith leaders of various affiliations played distinctive and integral roles across various sectors in response to the widespread devastation in their communities. By engaging and collaborating with faith leaders and their communities early on, global aid organizations can systematically and swiftly react to pandemic challenges in ways that are culturally sensitive and impactful.