How can African faith leaders can help tackle vaccine inequity and hesitancy and racial inequity? Photo by: RF._.studio from Pexels

African faith leaders have three roles when it comes to supporting communities amid COVID-19, said Dr. Francis Kuria, secretary-general of the African Council of Religious Leaders-Religions for Peace and executive director of Inter-Religious Council of Kenya.

“Number one is to defeat fear around COVID-19 and the stigmatization … Number two is to provide accurate information that will help prevent infection and [encourage] those who are infected to seek assistance … Number three is to provide support,” Kuria said.  

African Council of Religious Leaders- Religions for Peace

ACRL-RfP, established in 2002, is a coalition of faith organizations, faith communities, and religious leaders based in Africa — including groups of Christians, Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, Baha'i, and Indigenous faith — and a network of 31 national inter-religious councils. Learn about how ACRL-RfP is supporting global multi-religious responses to COVID-19 here.

Across the region, faith communities are helping to provide accurate information to their congregations and resources to support people who have been negatively affected by COVID-19, he added.

As vaccine rollout continues, Kuria said faith leaders also have a role to play in tackling vaccine hesitancy and inequity. While regulators have approved several new COVID-19 vaccines, thus far, deployment has been unequal between higher- and lower-income countries.

“This is an advocacy issue that the senior religious leaders are faced with,” he said.

Speaking to Devex, Kuria explained how African faith leaders can help tackle vaccine inequity and hesitancy and racial inequity.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

As new vaccines are approved, in what ways is ACRL-RfP supporting vaccine equity and supporting its networks to do the same?

First of all, there was a bit of hesitancy, and still, there is concern among some populations. The first job we did was to ensure that we dealt with the information and hesitancy to vaccinate. We held our Faith and Science Conference to give an opportunity for our theologians to interact with scientists from Africa and come up with the guidance that will help their communities deal with it.

“The COVAX entity and arrangement is good, but we believe that African governments must help themselves invest in the vaccination of their citizens.”

— Dr. Francis Kuria, secretary-general, African Council of Religious Leaders-Religions for Peace

But as far as vaccine equity is concerned, this is a situation which is very difficult. A few countries cannot actually access the vaccines necessary to vaccinate the population because some countries are taking more vaccines than they need.

During the conference, the co-chair of ACRL spoke strongly about the need for equity and for the developing world to be able to release vaccines to the countries in need, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, that have no access to medicines. And they are also encouraging our governments to invest in vaccinations.

They should not only rely on donations. They should go out there and seek funding. The COVAX entity and arrangement is good, but we believe that African governments must help themselves invest in the vaccination of their citizens.

Beyond crisis response, what do faith networks bring to preparedness and ongoing community support initiatives?

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The social assets of faith communities are very important in every situation. Where you have an emergency, where you have people affected by a disease or a calamity, the social assets of communities stand ready to give comfort to people afflicted. Community centers, networks, health facilities, and home care that the faith communities [provide] are key in ensuring that communities are taking care of these people.

Because of the socio-economic impact of COVID-19, a lot of families have been negatively affected and we have seen massive resources and fundraising by religious communities to assist families affected. Faith networks — such as RfP’s multireligious fund — encourage multi-faith dialogue and actions for the continued provision of spiritual assistance to children, families, persons with disability, the aging population, and those in need of care.

In Kenya, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, a lot of resources have been put together to assist families affected by the loss of jobs.

After COVID-19 do you think there will be more opportunities to increase partnerships between secular and faith-based actors?

That will depend. Generally, African economies have improved slightly. A lot of development agencies, partners, and governments are reducing the amount of resources available for development work. We have seen a move towards trade, not aid, and it's a good thing. But at this time, in a pandemic like this, we’re hopeful that foreign governments who give assistance realize that this is not the time to cut back.

Last year, a global movement around racial injustice was sparked, and the development sector began to reckon with injustices and inequities within the field. How are faith networks uniquely positioned to address racial, post-colonial, and other inequities?

Part of our Focus on: Faith and Development

This series illuminates the role faith actors and their communities play in strengthening global development outcomes.

These are very difficult situations because even in most of Africa, colonization came with religion. Many communities say — even in Kenya — that the white man came with the Bible in one hand and a gun in the other hand.

They enslaved our communities while actually bringing religion at the same time, so there is a contradiction. One of the things that needs to happen is that religious groups and organizations need to have an open dialogue about the role they might have played in slavery, in colonialization, in other injustices, and [give] comfort for some of the atrocities that were committed against the people of Africa.

Devex, with support from our partner GHR Foundation, is exploring the intersection between faith and development. Visit the Focus on: Faith and Development page for more. Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of GHR Foundation.

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