Religious leaders and organizations have long played a fundamental role in a community, especially during a time of crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic is yet another instance where religious leaders have supported their communities in terms of providing physical resources, spiritual guidance and information sharing – to name a few. These elements contribute to building community resilience against the pandemic and its associated consequences. In Kenya, religious leaders and faith-based organizations have been diligently working on several initiatives to spread factual information about the virus, implement support mechanisms and resources as well as adjust religious practices to comply with health guidelines.
As part of the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers #SociallyDistantTownHall, the Network invited three religious actors from Kenya to discuss their religious and interreligious approaches for combating the virus with the broader Peacemakers Network.
The National Muslim COVID-19 Response Committee has exemplified the role religious actors have in managing control and prevention of the pandemic within Kenya. The Committee is comprised of a consortium of more than 30 organizations and institutions, each with complementary specialties to create a cohesive, community-based pandemic response. While the committee is well-established, there are still hindrances in the Committee’s response. Professor Mohamed Karama, Chair of the National Muslim COVID-19 Response Committee emphasized the issues of: resource mobilization, ensuring adequate physical and mental care for first responders, combating the dissemination of online and offline hate speech and misinformation as well as the underlying economic implications.
Under the umbrella of the Muslim National COVID-19 Response Committee, a group of physiologists and mental health professionals quickly recognized their need and role in supporting individuals and communities to help build mental resistance. As highlighted in one of the challenges by Professor Karama, the pandemic and its implications has caused a plethora of emotions and stress on individuals.
The Muslim Psychologist and Councillor Association (MPCA) is a group of 40 psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors and volunteers who offer mental health and psycho-social support to religious and traditional communities in order to mitigate the anticipated mental health crisis by dealing with the immediate distress caused by the pandemic. Each of the volunteers are trained in Psychological First Aid (PFA) and are available 24/7 through a toll free hotline.
As explained by Psychologist Riziki Ahmed, Chairperson of MPCA, the Association addresses the unique needs of the Muslim community through complementing the government and Ministry of Health efforts in fighting the pandemic while including culturally sensitive measures for the Muslim community. Additionally, the MPCA has been conducting PFA trainings for religious leaders, Imams and elders to increase their capacity in supporting local communities. While MPCA has already served over 300 people within Nairobi and Mombasa, there are still challenges faced by the organization. Kenya has witnessed a steep increase in COVID-19 infections. As such, this group will soon be limited to how many individuals they can assist in the day. There is a strong need to properly train and provide guidance for PFA volunteers. Additionally, there is a need for debriefing and learning exchanges for frontline workers and media personnel.
As highlighted, religious groups and individuals are working to develop and implement initiatives to safeguard populations. We are now seeing an increase of interreligious dialogue and collaboration in topics surrounding religious practices and congregations. Many leaders have been following guidance measures by the World Health Organization on compliance with physical distancing and sanitation guidelines in places of worship in order to prevent these locations from becoming primary transmission points.
At the local level, the Interfaith Council on the National Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic has been developing guidelines for reopening places of worship as well as hosting celebrations and other religious ceremonies, including religious funerals. As previously noted, it is vital to safeguard the health and safety of congregants. The Council recommends four phases towards reopening in-person congregation. This begins with phase one – a time when infections is on the rise, to phase four, where there are not any COVID-19 cases in the community.
Religious leaders play an important role in supporting their congregants and community. During this time of crisis religious and traditional leaders can (1) support their members to adapt to the “new normal” of congregational worship and other religious ceremonies, (2) counter all forms of misinformation, stigmas and hate speech and (3) support dialogue with youth and leaders to create lasting solutions to common challenges. An all of society approach is necessary to effectively combat the pandemic and continue to build resilient and peaceful communities.
29 July 2020