What’s Faith Got to Do With COVID-19?

By: Katherine Marshall Olivia Wilkinson

July 22, 2020

Disposable mask on church pew

In early March, three individuals, with the support of our organizations launched an effort to track how the world’s different religious communities and institutions were responding to the COVID-19 emergency. Katherine and Olivia (the two authors) and Dave Robinson had all followed the 2014-5 Ebola crisis intensively, seeking insights into what worked and what did not, and looking to lessons as to how religious dimensions could and should be more integrally part of the strategic framework for response. We had pursued similar reflections on other pandemics, especially HIV and AIDS, malaria, Tuberculosis, and Zika. Thus, with early reports making it clear religious bodies were deeply involved in COVID-19: we started to gather information in a resource repository; began to send out daily highlights; organized a webinar series to learn more about what was happening in different regions; and shared ideas in the form of blogs and articles. The tempo is shifting as the pandemic approaches the half year mark, and, while uncertainties lie ahead, useful insights have emerged.

What we know

More obviously and sooner than in earlier pandemics, the role of religious entities was noted in many quarters. The reasons were largely negative: the prominent role of a Korean Church and a Muslim missionary organization as “super spreaders” of the virus, for example. WHO began to focus early, through EPI-WIN, a department focusing on epidemics and information, on working with faith institutions to convey messages, and, with inputs from various organizations, issued guidelines for faith communities, as did CDC and other organizations. As lockdowns emerged as an important part of the COVID response, the issue of religious gatherings took on increasing importance, both for religious bodies and in terms of government/religion relationships. Different practices were at issue, most prominently handling of dead bodies and funerals and shifting gatherings away from in-person to online meetings. Religious responses to the growing crisis of hunger, stress, domestic violence, and discrimination were expected and generous responses to vulnerable groups were observed.

Much information is available, primarily news accounts and reports from religious bodies, and an emerging body of surveys (e.g the Pew Research Center) and academic commentary. Most information, however, is anecdotal and fragmentary. It clearly suggests most religious communities have responded positively to the crisis; following public health guidance and cooperating in crafting and disseminating information. A minority have gone against the guidance. The outliers are individuals and denominations that continue to gather in-person and create further super-spreader events, and convey false or distorted information. While most interfaith groups actively counter stigma and discrimination, some contribute to such behaviours. This majority/minority position regarding public health guidance is echoed around the world, but with notable context-specific differences based on a country’s religious and political dynamics.

What we don’t know

Data on religious adherence and behaviour is notoriously partial and often elusive, sometimes deliberately so (where religious identity is excluded from census questions, for example). And the numbers are huge (involving some 80 percent of the world’s population, in widely diverse communities and entities). Thus, the task of gathering comprehensive information about religious responses worldwide is next to impossible, and inadvisable. The word “countless” is invoked often to indicate the unending extent of the task, but more importantly the diversity of religious beliefs and practices means that large-scale data sets miss vital nuances happening at very local levels. Country and more local-level surveys can help provide more detailed pictures, and in-depth qualitative research will be needed in time. There are several research projects of which we are aware that have shifted focus to COVID response and faith, but they are the work of years, rather than months. It is simply too early in the response to have primary data. Some scattered data points (for example surveys about prayer trends during the pandemic) offer inklings of initial insights. There are unknowns also about the impact, spiritual, psychological, social, and financial, of the lockdowns and losses and grief. And looking to the future, we can only begin to surmise the long-term impact on, for example, faith-run education and health care and adherence to different communities. These aspects will provide researchers with questions for years to come. We hope that our repository of daily updates will provide some basis of information for such researchers.

​What’s especially important

An impetus for the project was awareness of lessons we learned from previous pandemics. Three stand out: the vital importance of community mechanisms in responding to health crises; the benefits of well-established and meaningful consultative mechanisms involving governments and religious bodies; and the benefits of effective work on preparedness. As with previous epidemics, faith communities are found in every aspect of the response. Where they deliver large shares of health, education, and social protection, their roles are vitally important. Positive responses to domestic violence and to the obvious effects of stress and mental health amidst the crisis are something to watch and understand better as they emerge as areas of special interest.

While many religiously linked entities, including large NGOs and some academic organizations, took careful note of the lessons learned from previous pandemics about faith engagement, there are significant gaps. A key lesson is religious actors are often not at policy making tables and operate in parallel to official responses rather than in coordination; they should be at the table, given their reach, trust, and experience. Focusing in on our area of work, there are some indications that international organizations and governments recognize the role of faith actors more fully, marking the continuation and growth of an awareness of faith in international development and humanitarian work. Yet consultations remain superficial and occur only after the crisis had started.

​What maybe is less so

Trying to separate out religious from non-religious community responses is not useful (though it is frustrating to see how often reviews of civil society responses simply exclude or ignore their religious dimensions). There is a blending in communities across the world, faith and non-faith, especially at the vital local level. That applies also to questions about what motivates people and where effective leadership comes into play. Key is to see religious identities, behaviour motivator, and institutions as integral parts of the broader context and environment, not isolated or essentialized factors.

Much is written about “faith versus science”. While some religious people and communities deliberately reject health and medical guidance, they are outliers and misdirect the debate towards one of opposition rather than an understanding that these are not mutually exclusive positions. The effort to see a tension and separation can be a red herring.

Historically, pandemics have marked turning points, followed often by significant social and religious transformations. It remains to be seen how the COVID-19 emergency will have similar transformational effects. Some studies have claimed the pandemic has prompted a “return to religion” in contexts where religious affiliation was fading – this is a claim seen after other crises, but with varying evidence of long-term effects. Again, it is too early to tell at a societal level and making predictions while the situation is still developing can lead to incorrect presumptions.

​Areas to watch

Religious relationships with governments are challenged and tested during the COVID-19 crisis and bear watching: will new tensions emerge, is it possible better understandings can be built? Longer term impacts of lockdowns and trauma on communities will likewise have unanticipated effects. Constructive roles of religious actors in the hoped-for efforts to reimagine, redesign, and “build back better”, notably by addressing inequalities in a more forthright manner, are much needed, as are their peacebuilding skills in addressing ongoing conflicts and new ones that are emerging.

Editor's Note: This post was originally published as a guest column in "COVID-19 Watch: Considering Curves," a blog prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, on July 22, 2020.

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