Frontline Stories

Faith Leaders in Times of Pandemic


COVID-19 is wreaking havoc across the globe and affected everyone in one way or another. It tears people's lives apart, heaps stress and anxiety on children, especially those in the poor communities.

In many developing countries, when people are faced with conflicting information they often turn to faith leaders to find out ‘the truth’ and the ‘correct’ behaviour to adopt. From an understanding of vaccinations to safe hand-washing or burial practices, and now social distancing, faith leaders have shown time and again how invaluable their positions of trust are in shifting understanding and behaviour. Linking technical information to religious values and practices means people are much more likely to embrace change.

Faith leaders have an important role to play to stamp out misinformation. As with Ebola, in some of the countries where World Vision works, there is a lot of stigma associated with COVID-19, especially towards people who are infected or have recovered from the disease. They are being shunned, or – hard to believe – hearing that becoming sick with COVID-19 is a divine punishment for sin.

Therefore World Vision works closely with faith leaders who are often the most trusted and authoritative voices in the communities it serves. “There are WhatsApp groups in countries right across Latin America, Asia, Africa, Middle East and Eastern Europe. These are moderated by mentors to ensure accurate and up-to-date information is conveyed,” says World Vision’s Director of Faith and Development Esther Lehmann-Sow. “This approach has previously helped us increase awareness, improve uptake of recommended behaviour, and decrease stigma around HIV and AIDS, Zika and Ebola.”

The WhatsApp groups are made up of around 8,000 faith leaders who have attended World Vision’s behaviour change workshops. The groups operate much like a telephone tree and activating their own networks, helping the agency reach an estimated 80,000 faith leaders in total. This is the first time the network has mobilised on this scale, and in this way.

Pastor Peter from Sierra Leone is one of them. He believes the system enables him to directly and indirectly reach every community in his country. He says the faith leaders are committed to working alongside each other. “Doctrine divides us, but service unites us.”

Pastor Peter and his district’s Chief Imam, Alhaji Mustapha Koker, began contingency planning before COVID-19 even arrived in Sierra Leone. “We began speaking to each other’s congregations and then moving our sermons to radio and television when we needed to isolate. But for many poor communities, they do not have access (to radio and television) so we bought megaphones and speakers, and with the blessing of authorities, started visiting villages, and educating them in this way. We have written jingles for the children so they can remember important messages”.

Pastor Peter and Imam Koker have also encouraged their networks to find accommodation for the homeless to self-isolate together, and ensure they have enough food and water to get them through Sierra Leone’s lockdown period.

“The guidance from World Vision is preaching and counselling are not enough. We must demonstrate practical love.”

Pastor Jonathan, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo which is now also contending with fresh cases of Ebola, says people there are far more fearful of COVID-19. “With Ebola, they could more easily understand how it was transmitted. Many could keep earning a living. My community is not rich, it is very, very poor. If you cannot work, if you have to isolate, you have no resource, your life is cut.”

Pastor Jonathan adds many communities were particularly concerned about their children’s education, so he and the other members of his WhatsApp group began working with teachers to broadcast lessons on the radio. “Sometimes, radios must be shared between households but if they make it loud, they can still social-distance.”

World Vision has a long history of working with local churches and leaders of other faiths, based on a shared commitment to make a real difference for all children. During this pandemic, we have mobilised a global response to support communities that are especially vulnerable by the following:

• Training and equipping some of the global network of community health workers to help with home care for the sick
• Conducting health and information training over social media and local radio
• Ensuring community leaders and faith leaders are equipped with accurate information and implementing contingency plans
• Setting up handwashing stations in communities and refugee camps
• Distributing food, soap and PPE (including child-sized PPE) all over the world

Now, more than ever, our faith is a source of hope. The people who are living out their faith by responding to children’s needs throughout this crisis can restore the faith and belief we all need at this time.

Published on 2 Jul 2020

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