Coby Vail obtained a master's degree from Georgetown's Global Human Development Program in 2021, focusing on refugees and migration, monitoring and evaluation, and the intersection of religion and development. At the Berkley Center, Coby worked as a Global Refugee and Migration Fellow under the direction of Senior Fellow Katherine Marshall, researching religious dimensions of the global refugee and migration crisis.
On March 12, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) became the largest religious organization in the United States to suspend worship services and public gatherings of its members. Previous localized cancellations in Europe and East Asia were extended globally for an indefinite period. Over the next two weeks, the faith closed the remainder of its 161 temples, places of worship separate from Sunday meetinghouses where religious rites and marriages occur. The suspension of religious weddings was a serious disruption for LDS communal life with many couples forced to choose between postponing their weddings or opting for a civil wedding.
The LDS Church also made significant decisions affecting its missionaries. At the end of 2019, a total of 67,021 LDS missionaries were scattered across the globe. Young members of the LDS Church between the ages of 18 and 26 choose to proselytize for 18 to 24 months in what many consider a rite of passage. In March, the LDS Church chartered numerous flights to return thousands of missionaries to their home nations with instructions to self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. Leaders instructed missionaries remaining in their positions to shelter in place, and the LDS Church asked members to follow the advice of local leaders, abide by social distancing guidelines, and practice hygiene and preventative measures. Finally, the LDS Church switched its semi-annual April General Conference, usually attended in-person by 21,000 visitors and church officials from around the globe, to electronic transmission.
It is worth noting that the current president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Russel M. Nelson, considered a prophet by members, is a former heart surgeon. Nelson has relied upon his background as a physician and surgeon in messages to the faith’s members to encourage support for medical professionals, scientists, and officials combatting the spread of COVID-19. In addition, the LDS Church’s swift reaction to COVID-19 owes much to its hierarchal and centralized nature which allows it to rapidly distribute information to its global membership on topics as diverse as personal protective equipment (PPE) and social distancing to home and family preparedness and ministering to those in crisis.
In Utah, home to the LDS Church’s headquarters, the faith launched Project Protect in partnership with regional health care providers, Intermountain Healthcare and University of Utah Health. The project aims to enlist 50,000 volunteers over the course of 5 weeks to sew 5 million medical-grade face masks. Project partners purchase parts and supplies, disinfect completed masks, and distribute to care providers while volunteers pick up supplies and sew according to the provided pattern. The effort is billed as the largest volunteer effort in Utah since the 2002 Winter Olympics. Excess masks will be donated to other health care providers outside the region.
Through early April, the LDS Church also funded COVID-19 projects in 57 different countries. Funds came from the coffers of church headquarters and individual member contributions. The church’s operational humanitarian arm, Latter-day Saint Charities carried out the projects along with volunteer support from individual congregations in the United States and elsewhere. This response reflects the traditional focus of Latter-day Saints on charitable giving, and its financial strength that owes in part to strong traditions of tithing. The LDS Church draws a sharp distinction between its missionary (evangelizing) work and its charitable activities, as the latter are explicitly directed to all people and not to LDS Church members.
The majority of the direct financial contributions, both in terms of the number of beneficiaries and amount funded, has been in North America, where approximately 350,000 people benefited through programs focused on PPE purchases, emergency response, hygiene kits, and blood donations. These donations took place through existing partnerships with the American Red Cross as well as in response to requests by civic and medical institutions across the United States.
Perhaps one of the most significant donations was to Moms Against Poverty (MAP) for its relief efforts in Iran. Iran has been one of the worst impacted countries by COVID-19, and public health challenges there have been compounded by the international sanctions regime which restrict most of Iran’s imports, including its ability to import life-saving medical equipment and supplies. Many organizations have been wary to pursue humanitarian work in Iran due to the risk it might pose to their financial accounts. The Latter-day Saint Church’s donation to MAP will go towards the purchase of PPE in various provinces across Iran.
Other notable COVID-19 projects included medications and PPE through nonprofit partner MedGlobal in Majdal Anjar, a city on the Lebanese-Syrian border that is home to a large population of Syrian refugees.
Another significant region for Latter-day Saint projects is Latin American and the Caribbean, where Latter-day Saints have a long and established presence. COVID-19 projects in the region are concentrated to present in Guatemala and the Dominican Republic. Most projects in the region took place in partnership with ministries of health or social assistance, although a project in El Salvador was initiated with the Presidency of El Salvador.
After North America, the most significant financial support has gone to Sub-Saharan Africa, specifically to an existing partner, Save the Children. This has supported COVID-19 global response projects in Rwanda, Tanzania, and Sudan. Sub-Saharan Africa is the fastest growing membership region for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Latter-day Saint Charities, the faith’s humanitarian arm, has supported a range of projects in Sudan for a number of years. Reflecting broad church relationships in Africa, in early 2020, the first visit by a senior Latter-day Saint religious leader to Sudan took place and included a wide array of meetings with Sudanese religious and humanitarian leaders.
In Europe, support was focused on well-known hot spots in Spain and Italy as well as following COVID-19’s spread across Eastern Europe. Projects are focused on medical, sanitation, and PPE supplies for medical workers. Projects in Athens, Greece; Pristina, Kosovo; Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina; and Beograd, Serbia focused on supporting homeless individuals, the disabled, elderly, and refugees, respectively. Most projects are facilitated through humanitarian support couples assigned by the Latter-day Saint Church to different locations across Europe.
In Asia, the most significant support has taken place in Cambodia in support of multiple hospitals and the ministry of health, to facilitate the purchase of medical equipment and supplies.