Regional Forum on Religion and Covid-19 (Southern Africa)
On the 22nd of August, religious leaders, multilateral representatives, academics and government representatives from Southern Africa met at the University of Pretoria to discuss lessons learnt from the region's response to the Covid-19 pandemic. This Regional Forum on Religion and Covid-19 in Southern Africa focused on understanding the role of religious actors in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, the role of information and resource availability and the general impact of decisions made by the government on the development of communities. The event was built on a partnership between SDSN South Africa, Humboldt University, World Vision, the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Pretoria, the International Network for Religious Communities and Sustainable Development, PaRD and the GIZ.
Some of the dialogues that took place include:
Participants shared in many different ways how those who needed help the most during and following the pandemic were and often continue to be the ones who find themselves excluded. Lack of access to data and technology meant that the poorest of the poor felt themselves further severed as community contact was disrupted.
The failure to offer indigenous traditions a voice at the table emerged strongly throughout the day. With reference to preventative measures such as vaccines, a choice was never offered. One participant explained, “Whenever there is a sickness in our community, our first step of action is to use indigenous remedies, but with COVID 19 we were never given this option, we were forced to take vaccines”. Further to this, it arose that government consultation included certain religious fraternities, while excluding others, most notably the traditional African religions. Participants described significant inter-religious and inter-denominational collaboration during this period in order to prioritise assisting the community during this difficult time, with issues addressed ranging from bereavement rituals, psychosocial support, and providing food.
The pandemic had and continues to have detrimental effects on the economy. Costs of living increased substantially while income did not, and unemployment increased at an unprecedented rate. This of course impacted religious organisations who did their best by continuing service to the community amidst a significant lowering of income and difficulty keeping up with monthly municipal expenses for buildings they were not allowed to use during lockdown. Religious leaders applauded members for being able to share the little that they did have, however. As one participant put it, “When you know poverty you know the value of sharing, people with very little often share the most”.
Despite appreciation for how non-pharmaceutical interventions instilled greater awareness regarding personal hygiene among the community, there is a concern that extended lockdowns failed to produce the intended results while generally setting back development progress by many years and leaving communities in dire straits following the pandemic.
One outcome of the Regional Forum was to develop policy recommendations as well as the scope for current actions to address responses to both future pandemics and the continuing detrimental socio-economic impact of COVID-19 on communities in the present. Representatives from different religions and denominations agreed that interfaith collaboration to increase development impact was the most crucial learning of the pandemic. Further to this, leaders strategized about formalising inclusive forums in order to ensure that traditional religions would be included in future consultations with Government.
The policy findings and policy recommendations will serve as a basis for improving cooperation between local religious communities as development actors, governments and funding agencies. Furthermore, the greater insight generated by the two-year dialogue will inform planning for further workstreams in Southern Africa regarding Religious Communities and Sustainable Development.