The importance of faith leaders in the fight against the pandemic

A 2020 study by Afrobarometer revealed that across 34 countries in Africa, faith leaders are more widely trusted than any other public leaders. According to another survey by Pew Research Center, American adults who regularly attend religious services said they would trust their clergy’s advice on vaccines. Faith leaders, in general, command great respect and authority across most parts of the world. Their social standing in the community uniquely positions them to play a pivotal role during a pandemic or disaster.

Faith leaders have certainly embraced conspiracy theories and spread misinformation that contributed to the community transmission of viruses. In several cases, faith communities ignored national directives to hold large religious gatherings. Such practices, for instance, were linked to the spread of Covid-19 in India.

On the flip side, Faith leaders have also been able to address misinformation and influence health behavior change across different levels with a high degree of success. During the biggest Ebola outbreak in history, interfaith leaders were instrumental in delivering health messages in parts of West Africa that governments and NGOs could not reach. As credible sources of information, they worked actively on quashing rumors regarding Ebola and encouraged communities to listen to government directives and the health workers.

In Muslim-majority Bangladesh, interfaith leaders have once again played an important part in educating their communities, debunking misinformation, and encouraging the uptake of health services – this time during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2021, BRAC, a leading global development organization based in Bangladesh engaged interfaith leaders in the capital of Bangladesh through a community-based COVID-19 response project (Community Support Team Dhaka). It partnered with faith-based organizations such as Islamic Foundation Bangladesh (IFB) and Bangladesh Baptist Church Fellowship (BBCF) to orient their directors on COVID-19 best practices and jointly curb the transmission. Subsequently, BRAC provided online training via Zoom to IFB field supervisors and BBCF pastors including a dedicated session to address common queries, and rumors associated with COVID-19. Through this collaboration, the organization was eventually able to reach 3450 faith leaders with awareness messages, 860,000 reusable masks and 350,000 leaflets (for distribution in the community). This initiative has impacted 21 million people across 136 wards in Dhaka City.

Leor P. Sarkar, General Secretary of BBCF acknowledged that faith leaders have a great role to play during a pandemic. “COVID-19 vaccine misinformation has been rife, and even several senior leaders within our organization were initially skeptical about the effectiveness of the vaccines”, said Leor. Baptist churches were proactive in adopting COVID-19-compliant protocols to navigate the impact of the pandemic. During the second and third waves of COVID-19 in the country, the churches opted to broadcast church services via live streams and discourage congregations. BBCF has used verses from the Holy Bible to influence health behaviors among its community members. 1 Corinthians 14:15 (“I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind and understanding”) seems one of the most appropriate to Leor Sarkar in the current context. 

Ven. Bhikkhu Sunandapriya, General Secretary of the Bangladesh Buddhist Federation, welcomed the initiative to train monks on COVID-19 preventive measures via online platforms. According to Sunandapriya, online meetings have become the norm among monks across all monasteries in the city amidst the pandemic. He remarked that keeping such training concise is key to effectively conveying vital health messages.

The organization additionally engaged interfaith leaders to develop short video content for social media with key messages on handwashing, social distancing, mask-wearing, and vaccination. One of these videos features Gazi Sanaullah, an Islamic Scholar and public speaker who urges viewers to keep in mind that good health is a blessing from the Almighty and that keeping oneself healthy is a moral responsibility. Sanaullah acknowledged that imams across the city are now more active on social media, and the reach of easily digestible content with key health messages can be maximized through them. He additionally called for a gathering of prominent preachers to have a dialogue on misinformation, distrust and stigma contributing to vaccine misinformation and exacerbated health issues. Indeed, in a country with many religious associations of various sizes, a common platform consisting of interfaith leaders can give out convincing health messages (for example, urging people to take recommended doses of vaccines while debunking related myths) to reach the masses in quick time.

In developing countries, especially during pandemics or disasters – faith leaders have traditionally played the role of torch bearers who can guide communities with the truth. Faith is already an integral aspect of people’s lives and is more important as the public health crisis persists. As such, there lies a great opportunity to build the capacity of faith leaders across the country and engage them in their communities with accurate and potentially life-saving information. 

About Author: Monzur Morshed Patwary is a Senior Programme Manager at BRAC. He is currently pursuing the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship at Emory University-Rollins School of Public Health.