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COVID-19: Exploring Faith Dimensions
Holidays, Vaccines, and Mental Health

We are entering a season of many religious holidays, which last year were marked by initial stages of adaptations, such as virtual or physically distanced celebrations. See daily highlights from April 7, April 8, and April 14, 2020, for examples. This year, many are hosting celebrations that reflect the current times, like this Sikh community that decided to celebrate the upcoming holy festival of Vaisakhi with a vaccination clinic, or this mother in Boston, who decided to create a timely resource on Passover and COVID-19. A Pew Research poll recently found that 39% of American Christians say they plan to attend religious services in person on Easter Sunday, but many will attend only with virus-related precautions in place, such as masks and distancing. 
Vaccines are in the spotlight again this week, as countries race to protect vulnerable populations and (ideally) achieve herd immunity, but first they must secure vaccines. The role of faith actors was discussed at two recent webinars hosted by Georgetown University’s Berkley Center as part of the Religious Responses to COVID-19 project: Faith and COVID Vaccination Challenges: Global Initiatives and Looking Through Gender Lenses at COVID-19's Impact: Religious and Ethical Perspectives. The former was highlighted in an article that covered the interfaith vaccine confidence event, held at Washington National Cathedral in Washington, DC, on March 16. A significant step in the United States is the launch of the Faiths4Vaccines campaign, a multifaith movement composed of local and national religious leaders and medical professionals, who are working together to identify and resolve current gaps in vaccine mobilization, outreach, and uptake.
News is less hopeful in other parts of the world, though interreligious and religious initiatives to prepare the way for vaccine rollouts are ramping up. In Indonesia, current projections suggest it will take 10 years to reach the country’s goal of vaccinating 180 million of its 270 million people. In Tanzania, president John Magufuli died on March 17 after weeks of speculation that he had contracted COVID-19. Magufuli never instituted lockdowns or other public safety measures, and he rejected the COVID-19 vaccines, instead encouraging prayer as a remedy to the virus. However, the latest surge in COVID-19 deaths has left religious leaders and residents worried about their safety. Tanzanian pastor Joseph Mayala Mitinje has started preaching that Christians should understand that God often uses medicine to accomplish his healing. Rumors, conspiracy theories, and misinformation continue to drive vaccine hesitancy in many parts of the world, and religious leaders are sometimes culpable. The World Council of Churches acting general secretary, Rev. Dr. Ioan Sauca, recently issued a public statement encouraging religious leaders to build trust and combat misinformation. More positive news focuses on women religious across Africa, who are working across national boundaries to protect elderly sisters against the pandemic with grants to fund protective gear, medical supplies, specialized professional care, food, and other necessities. 

Many religious congregations have found it important to provide resources for individuals struggling with mental health challenges during the pandemic. Rev. Olu Brown, lead pastor at Impact Church, a United Methodist congregation in the Atlanta area, includes tips on managing stress during the pandemic in his online sermons and shares openly about seeing a therapist, saying, “I not only need the support of God, I need the support of God-credentialed people like therapists and counselors to talk me through, to walk me through.” The broader question of what religious practice and communities will look like post-pandemic remains uncertain, but Bishop Fintan Monahan of Killaloe and Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis agree that it will be forever changed in many ways.

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