In African communities, ‘there is no COVID-19 for a particular religion’
Using lessons learned from building health-competent faith communities and responding to the HIV and AIDS epidemic, African church leaders are doing their best to help their communities cope with the novel coronavirus.
They are relying, in part, on practical guides and community-friendly reflections developed by the World Council of Churches (WCC) Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy Programme.
In southern Africa, the response to COVID-19 is laden with shortages of food and clean water.
“First, there is the logistical challenge of accessing food for many in contexts that are densely populated. This is coming at a time when there have been shortages; the lockdown has made a bad situation worse,” said Prof. Ezra Chitando.
He is regional coordinator for Southern Africa for the WCC Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy programme.
"While there is an emphasis on hand-washing, there is a challenge of accessing clean water for many households in urban areas,” he said.
Chitando is also seeing a general anxiety regarding the future in areas such as jobs, security and health. “The absence of social security has rendered more people vulnerable,” he said. “There is the reality of gender-based violence in some households.”
Crossing faith lines to help all
The WCC’s role of providing information that is useful across faith lines has proven vital in COVID-19 response, Chitando observed.
“There are a number of motivations for developing resources at an interfaith level,” he said. “First, is the theological: different faiths are serving the same people of God. Second, is the practical: most of the challenges are shared, therefore the same common message often suffices. Third, is the economic: avoiding duplication results in a more efficient use of resources.”
Chitando believes that what Gideon Byamugisha said of HIV remains true of COVID-19: "There is no COVID-19 for a particular religion. It is for all of us." Byamugisha was the first known religious leader to declare he was HIV-positive.
In Harare, Zimbabwe, Chitando spoke with a female pastor in a densely populated suburb, who said she often used information from the WCC Thursdays in Black campaign for a world free from rape and violence.
“The information on the need for religious leaders to be on high alert for gender-based violence has equipped her to sensitize and empower couples in her congregations,” said Chitando.
This is also applies in Kenya and Uganda, reported Rev. Pauline Njiru, eastern Africa regional coordinator for the WCC Ecumenical HIV & AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy programme.
“Due to confinement, sexual and gender-based violence is on the rise and this is also worsened by dawn-to-dusk curfews in Kenya and Uganda, since in the curfew hours those violated may not at all access help,” she said.
Ending stigma before it starts
Yet in Kenya, every day Njiru sees what she describes as “acts of mercy” from people living out their faith. Just prior to the COVID-19 impact in the region, Kenya suffered from invasions of crop-destroying insects, then heavy rains that caused serious flooding.
“These sequences of events have left people utterly shocked,” she said. “Many people have lost their jobs and livelihoods due to partial lockdown; in some instances, the government is giving vulnerable communities food in-kind or through mobile money transfers.”
Churches are calling on their members to provide for those more vulnerable.
“Through church mechanisms in Uganda, our International Reference Group representative was instrumental in coordinating the diocese of Namirembe Mothers Union, and they went round the diocese distributing food in kind to the vulnerable,” said Njiru, yet “most clergy and church workers have lost their stipend since giving in church has gone down drastically.”
And most people cannot observe lockdown and safety measures as they live from hand to mouth, added Njiru.
“In some areas there is no water and people buy from vendors which is quite expensive, hence they may consider washing with running water a waste. Women continue to suffer more as they are mainly the ones who put food on the table.”
Applying lessons learned
Churches are also able to use WCC-developed materials that originally focused on HIV and AIDS, to end stigma related to COVID-19. “Stigma is slowly setting in, and has been meted on members of communities who have been quarantined and released, those who have been sick with COVID-19 and have recovered, and those whose relatives have died of the disease,” said Njiru.
“People from counties declared most at risk are also facing stigma. The government, as well as the churches, are doing their best to educate people that they need not stigmatize others.
“Some people are linking COVID-19 with sin, especially same-sex relationships which is considered a taboo in most parts of Africa - hence the disease is seen as a punishment from God,” said Njiru. “When disease is linked to sin in this manner -- as we learnt with HIV interventions -- people begin to employ the wrong measures to mitigate the disease. There is a continued need to keep exhorting faith communities to apply faith but to adhere faithfully to the public health guidelines as well.”
At the grassroots, level, people are showing both compassion and unity, Njiru said, and that is what give her hope.
“Three women joined together to cook for police officers manning a lockdown area barrier that prevented people from crossing between less affected areas and Nairobi,” she said. “The women saw that the roadblock was in an isolated place where there are not even canteens. Every day --from their personal savings -- for two weeks now, the women have provided the officers with food and drinking water. The women say they will continue until the end of the lockdown. That, for me, was profound -- a small action with a big impact! There are all kinds of acts of mercy and people living out their faith practically in different ways."