Secular-religious dynamics in Covid-19 response

Published on 9 September 2020

Olivia Wilkinson

From the very beginning of the pandemic, we have heard about the effects of Covid-19 or associated restrictions on religious communities. Purim was one of the earliest events disrupted for many congregations this year. It soon became clear, from Shincheonji Church in Korea through to Tablighi Jamaat events in India, that religious gatherings may pose a risk for the spread of the virus, but also grab media headlines as super-spreader events.

As the world heard about these events, Katherine Marshall, Dave Robinson and I started to collect news articles towards what is currently a 100+ page repository of reporting on religions and Covid-19, in a collaborative project between the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities, World Faiths Development Dialogue, and the Berkley Centre at Georgetown University.

I was fascinated to see so much reporting on religions in the initial weeks and months of the pandemic. We are not particularly used to seeing religion as such an interest area in health crises. The very fact that there have been a glut of articles on religious responses to the pandemic, not to mention articles in humanitarian and development specific media outlets such as Devex, is in itself notable. But I was equally cautious to see how religions’ roles would be reported, noting that religious literacy in journalism can be weak (with notable exceptions, of course).

This lack of religious literacy has also been noted as a weakness of humanitarian and development work, and the same concern with journalistic reporting also plays out with the design and implementation of a humanitarian response to crises. Why would reporting, or equally humanitarian and development organisations’ responses, suffer from a lack of religious literacy during Covid-19?

Fully acknowledging that religions can indeed be both problematic to a response (continuing to gather together, ignoring public health advice, using other types of remedies/avoiding medical treatment, religiously-propagated misinformation, etc.) and that other actors (even within the same congregations/denominations/traditions) can be pivotal supports to a response (legitimising public health information to faith communities, providing frontline medical and social supports, etc.), the case should be made that faith engagement is unavoidable in response to a public health crisis.

Yet debate on religions and humanitarianism remains rare. Despite researchers, such as myself, those at CREID, and a small group of others around the world, who are increasingly investigating religions’ roles in humanitarian response, this discussion is not widespread in the humanitarian system. Indeed, some argue that secularism dominates in the humanitarian system, leading to this lack of discussion.

This rarity of the debate has led to oversights that can change the course of humanitarian response, most notably in the Ebola response of 2014-2015, where religious and community leaders were not initially engaged but then played a game-changing role in reducing transmissions. This was particularly around adapting burial procedures so that they changed from events that spread the disease to events that protected the deceased’s family and friends while still allowing for appropriate rites of passage to take place.

When thinking about this in relation to religious inequalities, we must also consider how secular-religious dynamics can be part of the biases and misunderstandings that breed inequalities and effect humanitarian responses, such as the Covid-19 response of major humanitarian organisations worldwide.

In early 2020, before Covid-19 became a pandemic, I published a monograph “Secular-Religious Dynamics in Humanitarian Response.” In the book, I argue that secularity in the humanitarian system is one bias (of many, of which others are even more dominant and interrelated – see recent discussions on racism in humanitarianism for example) that can make aid inappropriate, irrelevant, and ineffective.

As I explain in the book, secularity has influenced modern humanitarian response:

‘…secularity in the humanitarian system is summarised as a belief in the oneness of humanity in this world (as separate from divinely created human oneness) and morality created within the immanent frame of this world, an understanding of modernity in that modern ways of operating will focus on the technical and material, the marginalization and privatisation of religion to the extent that the secular is the default, and the ability to wield secularity as a part of humanitarian power dynamics, including the ability to instrumentalise religions.’

Recent research from Nora Kahlaf-Elledge, Associate Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, has added to the understanding that a drive to modernisation as influenced by secularity has also served to marginalise religions in distinctly Orientalist and neocolonial ways in humanitarian and development work.

Secular humanitarian actors believe they are impartial and neutral; in fact, a secular position (if unacknowledged/unexamined) could lead to bias. My research in humanitarian assistance after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 demonstrated that international, secular humanitarian actors believed they were more impartial than their local, faith-based counterparts because they would not discriminate based on faith, which was preferable for humanitarian response.

But, when this was posed to people receiving assistance from both types of actors, they countered that the local, faith-based actors were more impartial because they knew the local communities and gave assistance based on this intimate knowledge of the context. Likewise, there was no evidence of discrimination based on faith from these actors. A secular bias viewed international humanitarian methods as superior, but the people receiving assistance preferred local, faith-based methods that prioritised relationships and dedicated accompaniment of communities.

Ultimately, these effects of secularity can lead humanitarian responses to underestimate or ignore the influences of other religious inequalities, for example, but also the full diversity of people’s beliefs and practices as they relate to humanitarian response.

In the Covid-19 response, secularity in the humanitarian system could lead to biased responses that see religions and their practices as an impediment to “correct/principled” humanitarian response and, therefore, bypass engagement with faith actors when this could, in fact, be an important area of collaboration and partnership.

This is not to say that faith engagement will be straightforward. With Katherine and Dave, we have written elsewhere about some of the obstacles to faith engagement in public health emergencies and suggestions of how to overcome them. Likewise, there are many international faith based organisations (FBOs) already and regularly working with local faith actors and other organisations, particularly those involved in social and behaviour change interventions, such as UNICEF, recognising the need to work together with local faith actors.

The issue will require further attention to help to understand secular-religious dynamics in the Covid-19 humanitarian response. To this end, we continue with efforts to understand and research the role of local faith actors in the Covid-19 response and welcome and support efforts from CREID to discuss religious inequalities in relation to the response.

This blog is part of the Religious Inequalities and the Impact of Covid-19 series, commissioned by the Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development (CREID).

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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