A masked woman prays with her hands facing upward in a worship setting

Religion in the COVID-19 Pandemic: A One-Year Retrospective

By: Henry Brill

March 11, 2021

How do religious communities contribute—both positively and less so—to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic? For the last year, the Religious Responses to COVID-19 project has addressed this critical question through groundbreaking research, commentary, and dialogue involving faith actors and development leaders.

The date is March 11, 2020. The headlines are focused almost exclusively on questions surrounding the emergent COVID-19 pandemic, and governments worldwide start to issue calls for lockdown measures to slow the spread of the new virus. A rapidly mobilized consultation on faith dimensions of the pandemic is convened at the Berkley Center, hours before Georgetown University shifts to virtual operation. 

A preliminary discussion on faith engagement in the pandemic, the meeting was the starting point of the Religious Responses to COVID-19 project, a collaboration between the Berkley Center, Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities (JLI), and World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD). For the past year, the project has explored the diverse—and all-too-often overlooked—ways in which religious communities and faith-inspired organizations around the world are responding to the pandemic. 

Even though past health crises have highlighted the central role of faith engagement in health delivery and policymaking, religious and faith-inspired actors are often poorly integrated in traditional health systems. Project leaders Katherine Marshall, senior fellow at the Berkley Center and WFDD executive director, and Dr. Olivia Wilkinson, director of research at JLI, are working to chart more productive relationships between religious and global health communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their colleague David Robinson, former senior advisor for operations at World Vision, was part of the initial effort, drawing on his experience in West Africa during the Ebola epidemic from 2014 to 2015.

“The project is looking to the best in religious and faith-inspired responses to help ensure the world does not forget those who suffer,” Marshall and Wilkinson say. “When engaged in effective ways, faith actors are an important gift not only to pandemic response but also to countless aspects of development and health care provision.” 

Bridging Religion and Development

Bridging religion and development is no easy task, and especially so during the COVID-19 pandemic—a truly global crisis touching different religions, cultures, and locales. The overabundance of coronavirus-related information on digital and social media, termed the “infodemic” by health experts, also complicates response efforts. The initial consultation hosted by the project team highlighted, from the very start, both information overload, as well as misinformation or disinformation, as key challenges to faith engagement in the COVID-19 pandemic. In order to best collaborate, faith actors and development practitioners need access to accurate, up-to-date information focused on specific communities.

As a critical first step, in March 2020 the project team launched an online platform to track religious responses to the pandemic. The platform organizes information—from guidance on vaccination to messaging on social distancing in worship settings—in order to foster greater collaboration between development and faith actors. A continually updated repository, the platform currently features over 120 pages of links to resources covering a wide range of traditions and regions worldwide. 

As a critical first step, in March 2020 the project team launched an online platform to track religious responses to the pandemic.

“The repository provides information on the wide varieties of religious responses and engagements, so that they are not overlooked in broader pandemic responses,” Marshall says. “It also serves as a resource for researchers who will study and document the pandemic to draw lessons that will apply to future health crises.” 

Started in the early days of the pandemic as a central location for news reports, commentary pieces, and other articles related to faith engagement, the platform continues to be an important avenue for project research.

The COVID-19 Crisis: Taking Stock of Religious Responses. Marshall and Wilkinson led a public event in April 2020 exploring early examples of faith engagement in the pandemic. The event built off the "Faith and COVID-19: Resource Repository."

“The platform has now advanced to be a repository that we regularly update with sources spanning the course of this last year,” says Wilkinson. “We hope to re-organize it somewhat, add to it to make it even more comprehensive and cover more languages, and move it to a more user-friendly website.”

The platform has now advanced to be a repository that we regularly update with sources spanning the course of this last year.

A four-person team now manages the repository and monitoring efforts, alongside other project activities such as public outreach and stakeholder engagement. Collaborating with Marshall and Wilkinson, Ruth Gopin and Sarah Thompson—managers at the Berkley Center and WFDD, respectively—review news items and academic publications related to faith engagement in the pandemic. Ellen Goodwin, a Ph.D. candidate at SOAS, University of London, also contributed in the early stages of the repository.

Much of the information comes from faith and development actors engaged in on-the-ground work who send updates to a central and regularly monitored email address. Team members rotate the task of drafting regular updates that distill new trends in religious engagement for an audience of health policymakers, development practitioners, and faith actors. The email updates, which started on a daily basis but shifted to a weekly format in June 2020, reach a dedicated list of nearly 1,000 stakeholders.

Organizing information on religious responses to the pandemic helped to lay the groundwork for another critical component of the project: dialogue between faith and development actors.

Young Women of Faith and Transformative Leadership in COVID-19 Response. This event, co-sponsored with high-level partners such as UN Women, brought together female faith leaders from around the world for an intergenerational conversation on transformative leadership in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the past year, the project has hosted 11 public-facing meetings and two private consultations bringing together religious leaders, representatives of faith-based organizations, and development practitioners to discuss pandemic-related issues. Topics of discussion have ranged from female faith leadership to adaptations to Muslim practice during Ramadan to Buddhist facets of responses in Sri Lanka

“Setting out to map the responses of global faith-inspired actors is a heroic venture, and a reality is that written documentation will have many gaps,” says Marshall. “The webinars seek both to reach people whose voices may not be heard and to document their experiences.”

The webinars seek both to reach people whose voices may not be heard and to document their experiences.

Alongside other public outputs, including 30 blog posts and over a dozen publications to date, the event series helps to fill critical gaps in our knowledge and understanding of religious responses to COVID-19 worldwide by delving into specific examples of faith engagement in the pandemic.

“In the absence of immediately available research, we can hear about the direct experiences of people by holding webinars and bringing them together in discussions to draw out some of the nuances of those experiences,” Wilkinson explains. “Webinars also serve as another engagement mechanism for people to connect with the project overall and a way for us, those involved in the project on a daily basis, to connect with users of the project outputs.” 

Marshall and Wilkinson have also distilled findings for a broader audience through commentary in leading publications, including Devex; The Conversation; the World Politics Review; and From Poverty to Power, a publication hosted by Oxfam.

Faith and COVID-19 on the Global Stage

As one of the first concerted efforts to bring together the best of religion and the best of development, the Religious Responses to COVID-19 project is grounded in continuing efforts to take a collaborative approach, working with high-level global organizations to help solve problems at the intersection of faith and the pandemic. 

“The project’s early start has allowed us to work in partnership with a number of institutions, including the World Health Organization, the World Bank, USAID, KAICIID, UNICEF, Ahimsa Foundation, and PaRD,” Marshall and Wilkinson say. “The collaborative spirit is welcomed and is making it possible to adapt and share ideas and information.”

The collaborative spirit is welcomed and is making it possible to adapt and share ideas and information.

One international stage where the project has played an important role is the G20 Interfaith Forum, a platform where networks of religiously linked institutions and initiatives engage on global agendas. Marshall plays a key role in planning the annual forum as vice president of the G20 Interfaith Association.

Professor Cole Durham and Marshall at the 2019 G20 Interfaith Forum.
Professor Cole Durham and Marshall at the 2019 G20 Interfaith Forum.

“The G20 has significant responsibilities for global crises—indeed, it was established precisely for that purpose,” Marshall says. “The Religious Responses to COVID-19 project, working closely with the G20 Interfaith Forum, brings religious voices and experience to these efforts.”

Faith engagement in the COVID-19 pandemic was a key topic of conversation at the 2020 G20 Interfaith Forum, hosted by Saudi Arabia. Marshall and Wilkinson shared project findings at the “North America Regional Consultation,” held in advance of the forum. Wilkinson also hosted a session at the consultation, focused on government interaction with religious communities during the pandemic. 

“At the G20 Interfaith Forum, government-faith engagement is a particular interest area, and I think there are many examples that can be analyzed for good strategies,” says Wilkinson. “The North America panel explored how inequalities within society are being reflected within different faith communities.”

G20 Interfaith Forum: North America Regional Consultation - Opening Session. This event featured a keynote address from human rights activist General (ret.) Roméo Dallaire, who reflected on his humanitarian work during the Rwandan genocide.

Later, at the main forum held in October 2020, Marshall moderated a panel discussion on “Responses to COVID-19: Priorities and Accountability,” which brought together faith leaders—including representatives of Buddhist, Christian, and Jewish communities—and development actors to reflect on COVID-19 response with a focus on vulnerable populations. 

“The panel was focused on the critical issues of trust and accountability, which are vital for effective responses to the COVID-19 crisis,” says Marshall. “Main takeaways pointed to the opportunities and responsibilities for religious actors to respond to the crisis, both by monitoring spending and keeping a sharp focus on how vulnerable groups are faring.”

Engagement with the G20 Interfaith Forum is just one example of how Marshall and Wilkinson are working to bring faith voices to important policymaking tables. The pair has also collaborated with high-level development organizations such as USAID, where they presented project findings at the “Evidence Summit on Strategic Religious Engagement” in October 2020. As part of the project, Marshall and Wilkinson are also working closely with UN agencies on issues surrounding faith engagement in COVID-19 response, ranging from guidance on social distancing to vaccination messaging adapted to the needs of specific religious communities.

Marshall and Wilkinson are also working closely with UN agencies on issues surrounding faith engagement in COVID-19 response. 

“The project is a basis for us to call attention to key issues with the international agencies, encourage them to collaborate on faith engagement, and help them keep up-to-date on the latest news related to faith and COVID-19,” says Wilkinson. 

Collaboration with UN agencies such as UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) has allowed the project to play a part in sparking critical discussions at the intersection of faith and the pandemic, according to Wilkinson. 

“Various of the UN advisors are signed up for the weekly emails and regularly join our sessions,” she explains. “For example, some key people from UNICEF and WHO came to the vaccination session we held in December, which really started some of the faith and vaccination conversations now happening.”

Vaccination and Looking to the Future

Now the project is turning attention to the critical issue of the day: COVID-19 vaccination.

Man in scrubs flicking a needle syringe

Challenging equity issues—including allocation of limited vaccines and significant vaccine hesitancy—could complicate the road to a post-pandemic world.

Masked priest delivers Communion

Religious communities and leaders can play significant roles in addressing these challenges, according to the project team.

“A first critical challenge is to assure that priority goes to those who need it most, that the gravity of wealth not determine vaccination rollout plans,” says Marshall. “Religious actors are witnesses and goads to leaders to follow through on their verbal commitment to vaccine equity.” 

Religious actors are witnesses and goads to leaders to follow through on their verbal commitment to vaccine equity.

Just days after the first vaccine doses were administered in the United States, the project convened a closed-door session to consider “Religious Responses and Engagement on COVID-19 Vaccines,” featuring a host of faith and development actors who joined together for dialogue in December 2020. The consultation was later complemented by a public event held in February 2021 that focused on the lived experiences of U.S. faith communities, as the vaccine became more widely available in the United States. Panelists provided reflections on COVID-19 vaccination experience in the Catholic and Latter-day Saint communities, as well as interreligious engagement on vaccine distribution. Later this month, Marshall and Wilkinson will also lead a public event exploring global perspectives at the nexus of faith and COVID-19 vaccination.

COVID Vaccination Challenges: Ethical Imperatives and Local Realities. Panelists reflect on the roles faith leaders and communities can play to encourage vaccine equity at the local level.

“Religious actors have much to offer for vaccination logistics: delivery of care, procurement, mobilization of communities, and offering physical infrastructure,” according to Marshall. “And because misinformation and distrust are often cast in religious terms, faith actors can help persuade people to be vaccinated with well-adapted messages.” 

A masked health worker draws up a COVID-19 vaccine.
A masked health worker draws up a COVID-19 vaccine.

To facilitate better collaboration between faith and development actors, Marshall and Wilkinson recently developed the “Faith and COVID-19 Vaccines Analysis Matrix,” a first-of-its-kind resource. The guide is broken up into two parts: one provides priority questions for health and development practitioners; the other for faith actors. Since so much of faith engagement in vaccination depends on context, the questions aim to move beyond generic guidance and toward a more nuanced approach to dialogue between faith and development actors.

“The questions prompt people to think about what, who, where, and how faith engagement can become part of the vaccine rollout,” explains Wilkinson. “Framing questions are more useful because they can be applied to a specific situation and help people find contextually specific solutions, rather than generic global guidance that is potentially not relevant.”

The questions prompt people to think about what, who, where, and how faith engagement can become part of the vaccine rollout.

A resource meant to support faith and development actors who are planning and implementing vaccine rollout right now, the vaccination matrix can also support longer-term collaboration. 

“The guide translates broad ideas and admonitions into tangible terms that can translate to action,” says Marshall. “The hope is that it will help to ensure that good intentions will lead to practical partnerships and build new relationships.” 

As the project continues to support research and programming focused on faith engagement in COVID-19 vaccination worldwide, Marshall and Wilkinson are keeping an eye toward the future.

Masked nuns walking outdoors

What lessons can we take away from the current pandemic? How can faith actors help to build back better, to create a post-pandemic world that is more equitable?

“COVID-19 has spurred an interest in faith engagement from major health and development actors,” says Wilkinson. “There is a need to think carefully about coordination on faith engagement, but also how to put faith engagement into practice at the national and regional levels.”

The need to think more carefully about faith engagement in global health policymaking and response is especially critical because the COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated underlying issues that involve many religious dimensions, according to Marshall. 

“The patterns we identified early on, drawing from experience of other pandemics and disease responses, have offered a reasonable framework,” she explains. “However, some issues—such as religious-government relationships—have taken on new dimensions because of the nature of COVID-19 as a disease and its unprecedented global reach.” 

From domestic violence to the freedom of religion or belief to secular-religious dynamics in humanitarian response, the pandemic has underscored how faith issues intersect with other global trends in diverse—and often highly complicated—ways. 

The pandemic has underscored how faith issues intersect with other global trends in diverse—and often highly complicated—ways.

One key lesson, according to Wilkinson, is that “we should not essentialize religion—it is always part of other dynamics, to a greater or lesser extent.”

As the project enters its second year, Marshall and Wilkinson will continue working together to foster a nuanced understanding of the complex and varied roles of religious and faith-based actors in the COVID-19 pandemic. With efforts to rebuild a post-pandemic world underway, the work of dialogue between development and faith actors remains as critical as ever.


Katherine Marshall

October 27, 2020

Katherine Marshall joined Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia to discuss her journey to the Berkley Center and to provide an overview of the Religious Responses to COVID-19 research project, co-sponsored by the center.