Panel examines joint efforts by faith groups, governments to fight COVID-19

By Mark Pattison | Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — It may be awkward for faith-based groups to work as partners with government agencies, but the effort now can bear much fruit in the future, said panelists at a worldwide webinar March 1, “Faith Engagement & COVID-19 — What Really Works?”

Dr. Mwai Makoka, program executive for health and healing for the World Council of Churches, asked participants to think of a toolbox.

“As partners we may have a different toolbox to fix our problems. The global pandemic cannot be addressed by one organization or one way of working,” Makoka said. “Religious actors, we are very strong, but we can’t fix everything. Political actors are very strong, but they cannot fix everything.”

He added, “Sometimes when our partner has a different toolbox, we feel we can’t work with them,” but he urged faith groups to first “see the tools which are there.”

“Sometime as faiths we have challenges … so we can only trust our own tools and only cooperate among ourselves and not have much inclination to build bridges,” Makoka said. But “you don’t complement like with like.” This underscores the need to work with government agencies to form “trusted partnerships we can lean on, we can leverage on, when the crisis comes.”

Steffie James conducted research with eight different faith-based organizations for a study released by the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities, in conjunction with its webinar, the U.S. co-sponsor of which was the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.

“There was a whole lot of different programs that people came up with in response to COVID,” James said, with the most adopted program being messaging with faith communities — cited by 27% of survey respondents.

A registered nurse at the Sarasota Memorial Urgent Care Center in Sarasota, Fla., administers the Regeneron monoclonal antibody for COVID-19 to a patient Sept. 23, 2021. (CNS photo/Shannon Stapleton, Reuters)

“Almost unanimously, there were both challenges and opportunities,” James added. “There was some concern about non-COVID funding dropping.”

As opposed to government, “faith-based funding … allows for quick fundraising and more flexibility, she said. But there were “more economic challenges that came in later during COVID.”

James took note of some of the lessons learned in the fight against the coronavirus.

Among them were balancing power and localization with reflection, learning and innovation; the value of partnerships and the need for preexisting, trusted partnerships and strengthening them; opportunities for new partnerships; the value of coordination; avenues for government partnerships with varying levels of coordination and shared goals; and misinformation spread within faith communities.

There was a “deep mistrust of Western ‘experts’ that required creative ways to counter misinformation,” James said. “You can’t take it for granted that WHO’s (the U.N.’s World Health Organization) advice will be taken.”

The pandemic, she said, “highlighted the need for a localized holistic approach that recognized communities’ own learning and resources.” While technology “facilitated a shift to shared, decentralized decision-making,” James added, there were “concerns about further marginalization through digital inequality.”

One recommendation in the report was to “find ways to listen deeply to marginalized voices” by supporting local advocacy forums and developing hubs to help access the internet.

Another recommendation was to “recognize the role of international and national faith actors as a bridge between most local faith communities.” A third recommendation was to “set up long-term structures for cross-sectoral engagement — not just ad hoc and at times of crisis.”

“It was easy to work with organizations where we had a relationship before,” said Nkatha Njeru, coordinator and CEO of the Africa Christian Health Associations Platform, based in Nairobi, Kenya.

“Some organizations have systems that will not allow activation in emergencies like this,” she added, “but when you have known each other for a long time … it is much easier.”

It is good for faith-based organizations to “see that they can be a complement to the government-led response. They have as much as government’s resources to also handle this,” said Dear Sinandang, communication and partnership manager for Humanitarian Forum Indonesia, who spoke wearing a mask. “We never know how this COVID will end,” she added.

A man dressed as Captain America is seen at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic for kids at Children’s National Primary Care in Washington Nov. 17, 2021. (CNS photo/Leah Millis, Reuters)

“It is our duty to continue that study (of) how we can really measure the effectiveness of our response,” Sinandang said. “Also (to learn) how green the response is. The issue has not been touched, mostly, in our response. This link with nature and with God cannot be separated.”

Robert Kanwagi, a social worker and public health professional for the Gavi Health System and Immunization Strengthening Team, praised Pope Francis for making repeated pronouncements over the need to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and was grateful for the Catholic missionary groups operating in some of the world’s poorest nations.

Gavi, with joint headquarters in Geneva and Washington, promotes the use of 17 different vaccines to prevent life-threatening illnesses. “The Catholic Church has advocated for equity in terms of distribution,” Kanwagi said.

“The faith communities are leading in vaccination,” he added, “voices right from global leaders right down the local leaders.”

The “local leaders” part has not been the experience of Muhammed Alhassan, registrar for the Da’wah Institute of the Islamic Education Trust in Nigeria.

“In the faith community, most faith actors are not pleased about the existence of the virus,” Alhassan said. People in the towns and villages “listen to these faith actors, these local scholars before anything else. If they do not believe in the virus, you have a big problem.”

He added, “When you have conversations with them, you realize that some of them do not seem to understand the nature of the disease. Even if you have the vaccine, they will tell you they have concerns about the nature of the vaccine.”

Most of the pro-vaccine information that comes from Muslim organizations is not readily available to townspeople, Alhassan said. “Youths on social media, some of them may not be able to differentiate between valuable information that information that is not so good.”

He suggested creating “a repository of fake news and misinformation.”

“Most of the arguments that are coming from the community were said many years ago with the polio vaccines,” Alhassan added. “If you have a repository, by the time anything new happened,” they could see the untruths being recycled anew. “Hopefully, this will help,” he said.

Despite the resistance, “the private sectors are coming together as a task force,” Alhassan noted. “With the Nigerian Center for Disease Control, we were also able to manage some special areas so that the incidence of COVID-19 is greatly reduced.”

Author: Catholic News Service

Catholic News Service is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ news and information service.

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