Stigma and misinformation around diseases such as coronavirus, Ebola and HIV can cause a huge amount of harm. But church leaders can play an important role in changing the narrative – while helping to save lives. Read on to see how.
Tearfund works with more than 15,000 churches across 50 countries, reaching around 7.5 million people every year. We have seen faith leaders and communities make remarkable contributions in response to epidemics such as HIV and the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. And now, with coronavirus.
During the Ebola outbreak, strict control measures were put in place to try to reduce the spread of the disease.
However, some of these measures, such as rules around isolation and burial, were difficult for people to accept. ‘The [government] response team did not understand how we live here,’ says Sikuli, a church leader in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). ‘They arrived in villages in biohazard suits, looking like members of armed groups and frightening the population.
‘The team did not build a dialogue, taking into account local cultural values. In Butembo, the rumours were that the Ebola response teams were the origin of the outbreak, rather than the solution. [Church leaders] worked hard to change this false belief.’
Tearfund worked with a network of evangelical churches to bring together people from different parts of the community in a workshop. This provided them with the opportunity to discuss why there was resistance to the measures being put in place. They were then encouraged to propose actions to reduce stigma and help prevent the spread of the disease.
Today, important messages about how to prevent, identify and respond to Ebola are being shared much more widely, using clear language that everyone can understand.
A UN staff member said, ‘There was a lot of Ebola denial and it was difficult to get health staff into the area to assist… Because people trust [religious leaders], when they started participating in the revised burial practices, resistance ended. The participation of religious leaders was a game-changer.’