Faith communities and our leaders can play a vital role in grappling with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are often the most relevant, and trusted networks and messengers. Their presence is constant and uninterrupted, even in remote communities.

Faith communities working with the broader society, health care workers and governments, can help accelerate the return to a world free of this crippling pandemic. Current recommendations are for the cancellation of any meetings in many places. Below are some of the questions faced and answers from two World Council of Churches (WCC) medical practitioners, Dr Mwai Makoka and Dr Manoj Kurian.

Learn more about their work: https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/covid-19/resources

Why should we mobilise?

The world faces many other challenges and other more lethal epidemics, but there are clear reasons we should act, without delay. The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is spreading unabated and within four months is bringing the most wealthy and powerful nations to their knees. The pandemic is a historic societal disrupter. There is no proven treatment or preventative vaccine, so overcoming the infection hinges on preventing its spread. If the pandemic is not slowed, it can overwhelm us.

Who are at most risk?

The disease’s death rate is estimated to be 3.4 per cent, yet it can be more catastrophic among the most vulnerable, whom the Gospel mandates us to protect. They include:

  • The aged - especially those above 65 years of age.
  • Those with underlying conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and lung disease.
  • Those with compromised immune systems, such as those with HIV or chemotherapy recipients.
  • Displaced or financially marginalized communities, and those living in cramped conditions, with paucity in water supplies and conditions to maintain personal hygiene and social distance.
  • People living where there are high levels of air pollution.

    What happens to health systems during the pandemic?

    Due to its rapid spread, the pandemic can overwhelm an existing health system.

    Many who require attention, such as persons who have a cardiac arrest or those  in road traffic accidents may not receive attention in time if health personnel and resources can only work on the pandemic.

    Attention is also taken away from persons who need long-term health care.

      What is the effect on the economy?

      The pandemic’s spread is triggering the world’s worst financial slowdown in decades. If it rages on unabated, many businesses and services will shut down. Also, more than 60 per cent of the world's employed are in the informal economy. Informal economy workers are more vulnerable to impoverishment, hunger and disease, as they lack social safety nets and support systems if they lose their livelihood.

      What can we, as faith communities do?

      We can promote accurate and reliable information. We depend on evidence-based information on prevention, care and supportive treatment. So, let’s alert the faith communities of this. We know how to contain this pandemic, and the prevention efforts hinge on minimizing person-to-person and object-to-person transmission. Still, there is a plethora of wrong or inaccurate information that spreads fear and ignorance. Such fear and panic can promote essential item hoarding and panic buying. Faith communities and our leaders must speak up, to counter irrational fear, to promote truth, dignity, love and fortitude.

      What about 'stigma and discrimination'?

      Identifying the sources of threats is a natural reaction. But extending thoughts on dangers uniformly to one who is different, or from a vulnerable community and to exclude and discriminate them is against our values and teachings. In most affected countries, the transmission of the coronavirus is already occurring locally - and not from imported cases. Experience in dealing with HIV and Ebola has shown that stigma and discrimination is against human dignity, against the will of God and fuels a pandemic.

      How can we accompany?

      Despite the need for social distancing, this is a time to connect, especially with those in need, to build innovative relationships with our neighbours. We can continue to provide as much spiritual, emotional, and material support as we can, and continue to check in with and support our neighbours, asking what they need.

      It is important to identify who needs accompaniment:

      • Health workers and people providing critical services, and those who work under sustained stress.
      • Those quarantined who may experience substantial, long-lasting psychological impacts.
      • Lonely people and senior citizens who may be more vulnerable to the sense of panic caused by the pandemic.

        How can we promote safe gatherings?

        It is vital to keep contact with local civic and health authorities, to follow their directives on the limits on how many can gather for religious services. As of now, most countries have banned mass gatherings or restricted gathering to a maximum of 100 or less. In some countries only five people are allowed to meet and in some there is a total ban on meetings. These restrictions mean that normal church services cannot be held until the pandemic has abated.

        As a praying community what can we do when we meet?

        • Greet others with respect and dignity but avoid physical contact.
        • Provide adequate space (two metres or six feet) between each other, and open larger spaces with proper ventilation; or organize multiple worship services to reduce crowds where allowed.
        • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces where we worship, especially those shared, using regular household cleaning spray or wipes.
        • Encourage those who feel sick to temporarily stay away from gatherings and send messages for intercession prayer and support.

          What can we do when safe gatherings are no longer possible or when an increasing number of at-risk persons are unable to attend services?

          • If facilities and technological access are available to congregation members, increase online prayer services and fellowship. (Face-book live, Youtube Live, Zoom, Skype are examples of useful tools.)
          • Strengthen radio and television stations as communication channels of the Gospel and accompaniment.
          • Record and broadcast encouraging and inspirational messages from respected faith leaders, online and by other media. 
          • Use messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, WeChat, to maximized group and one to one peer support.

          What are the key acts of prayer?

          • If facilities and technological access are available to congregation members, increase online prayer services and fellowship. (Face-book live, Youtube Live, Zoom, Skype are examples of useful tools.)
          • Strengthen radio and television stations as communication channels of the Gospel and accompaniment.
          • Record and broadcast encouraging and inspirational messages from respected faith leaders, online and by other media.
          • Use messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, WeChat, to maximized group and one to one peer support.
          • What advice is there for other religious practices?
          • When sharing holy or blessed water- use separate containers, ensuring that the person handling the water takes all precautions and uses clean utensils. Avoid common containers where people dip their fingers.
          • Avoid sharing of meals and food or communal meals.
          • Venerate and pay respect to holy objects/ relics/ icons, without physical contact.
          • Consider rescheduling pilgrimages.
          • Ensure pilgrimage sites are cleaned and maintained and ensure the flow of faithful to lessen pilgrims’ vulnerability.

          Let us reflect on why humanity has got here and contemplate our future. Let such reflections transform our actions and preparedness for future crises.

          Can you summarize your advice?

          Let us depend on reliable and evidence-based information on prevention, care and supportive treatment and let us follow them.

          We know how to contain this pandemic. We have the faith that God will give us the grace and strength to work together with the health providers, scientists, officials and wider society to overcome this crisis.

          Let us also discover the risk that our congregations and communities face and reduce their vulnerability to the disease.

          Geneva 21 March, 2020