Faith leaders have key role in stopping spread of COVID-19, UNICEF says

Buddhist monks wear face shields and masks to protect themselves from COVID-19 while collecting alms in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo by: Chalinee Thirasupa / Reuters

WASHINGTON — Faith-based rituals and practices are an important piece of daily life in many places around the world, but ceremonies such as prayer services and burials can be dangerous during the pandemic.

“Faith is all around a lot of contact: the rituals, the practices,” said Kerida McDonald, a senior adviser for communications for development at UNICEF. “In the trajectory of the transmission, we saw that in countries like in Pakistan, like in India — a lot of places where they were not stopping the mass gatherings … this was shown to be where the infection rates were much, much higher. It was scientific.”

In partnership with Religions for Peace, UNICEF developed guidance for faith leaders on how to adapt religious rituals and practices to maintain as much normalcy as possible, while stopping large gatherings from becoming superspreader events.

“Our role was to make sure that we could bring this to a more community, lay-person language because the WHO [guidance] was very, very technical.”

Kerida McDonald, senior adviser, communications for development at UNICEF

The documents were produced as part of the Faith and Positive Change for Children, Families and Communities Initiative, which began in 2018 and aims to strengthen UNICEF’s partnerships with faith-based communities.

The initiative was formally launched last year, but as it became clear that COVID-19 would disrupt nearly every aspect of life around the world, UNICEF and Religions for Peace recognized a need to include pandemic-related resources. The initiative seeks to mobilize Religions for Peace’s country-level inter-religious councils — which are comprised of religious leaders, women of faith, and youth networks — in COVID-19 preparedness and response efforts.

The goal was to create a template of religious ritual adaptations that could be applicable for different faiths and in different contexts, so each country didn’t have to come up with its own plan during the pandemic. Faith is already a key aspect of many people’s lives, and is all the more important as the public health emergency continues, said Deepika Singh, director of programs at Religions for Peace.

“There is a need to have that connection and not being able to go to the houses of worship, being able to be there together, it’s difficult. Particularly during challenging times,” Singh said.

To stop the spread of the virus during religious ceremonies and practices, the guidance document recommends the adoption of hygiene and sanitization practices and explains how to address resistance and mistrust to these changes. It recognizes that for an unknown amount of time, religious meetings will have to stop or change, but that faith leaders should attempt to keep some aspects of the ceremony, such as wording, the same if possible.

Gatherings should respect social distancing guidelines, take place outside when possible, and include sanitization measures. They should not include hugging, handshakes or kissing, dipping hands into communal ceremonial water, or eating religious foods from communal containers, according to the guidance. It also encourages the use of technology where possible, to live-stream services or create podcasts of religious material.

Lessons were drawn from the Ebola epidemics in Africa over the past several years, where burial practices were adapted to ensure those rituals did not spread the disease further. Both Christian and Muslim faith leaders used passages from religious texts to show that modified burial rituals were still spiritually acceptable.

The COVID-19 guidance recommends following World Health Organization guidelines and ensuring that people in contact with a body are wearing personal protective equipment. Only people closest to the deceased should attend funerals, which should be socially distant, it says.

“So much now is about people’s behavior and practice … everything is about what you’re able to influence people to do or not do,” McDonald said. “Our role was to make sure that we could bring this to a more community, lay-person language because the WHO [guidance] was very, very technical.”

In the guidance documents, there are specific sections for each of the world’s five major religions — Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism — demonstrating relevant passages for religious texts that can be used by faith leaders to buoy the importance of practices such as hand-washing and social distancing.

Working directly with faith leaders through existing networks will help spread awareness of the guidance, although McDonald warns that they do not always respond positively to messages requesting they adapt rituals and practices in the name of public health. Some leaders have suggested faith and religious beliefs can provide protection against COVID-19, which can encourage followers not to take quarantine and social distancing measures seriously.

“In some cases, it hasn’t worked and it has gone badly,” McDonald said. “Faith leaders themselves are saying ‘trust in the Lord, trust in God, trust in Allah, he will take us through this. You can have your best scientists or whatever in the world, but it’s God that rules and decides our destiny.’ And so that’s where there has been a lot of challenge when you have this kind of approach.”

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