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COVID-19: Exploring Faith Dimensions
Religious Engagement on COVID-19 and Global Finance, Celebration Seasons

Amidst the many online gatherings last week where religious and COVID-19 responses intersected, we spotlight three categories: the IMF/World Bank/G20/G7 meetings, a Harvard-led symposium on child sexual abuse, and various events promoting COVID-19 vaccinations and addressing vaccine hesitancy and misinformation.
What are termed the “spring meetings” set and advance global agendas, with debt, financial support for poorer countries, and vaccine equity at the center this year. Religious engagement took several forms, with the long-standing focus on debt relief and restructuring at the center. Pope Francis’ letter addressed to meeting participants pressed for deep post-pandemic reforms in economic and financial systems. As always with such large gatherings, assessments of their impact and direction are mixed, but overall concern highlights the worrying prospect of diverging recovery among countries and regions and the harsh impact on poverty. There is satisfaction at some debt relief proposals but disappointment that measures (systemic approaches to restructuring in particular) did not go further, and mounting concern about inequities in vaccination programs, with most countries still far behind goals and uncertainties on timetables for vaccinating even the most vulnerable communities. There is a patchy consensus (appreciated by some, including WHO, but by no means all) that active engagement of religious actors needs to be integrated in responses, both to build trust and communicate messages and to counter mistrust and misinformation. Mark Lowcock and Masood Ahmed’s pessimistic preview of the meetings in the Financial Times (largely reflecting what was later announced) concluded that: “maintaining the weak response we’ve seen so far would be a moral failure, and one lacking foresight. Aside from the obvious risk of leaving the virus free to circulate, it opens up the possibility of secondary crises — hunger, conflict and displacement — spilling over into the lives of everyone, everywhere.”
Harvard’s Human Flourishing Program assembled a global coalition of institutions and leaders to focus over three days on faith engagement (positive and negative) with child sexual abuse, focused in part on increases linked to COVID-19 emergencies. A keynote by Reverend Dr. Denis Mukwege (2018 Nobel Peace Prize laureate) linked conflict, faith, abuse, and hope. Contributing organizations included Religions for Peace, Arigatou International, Catholic University, and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University.
Intensive interreligious and religious gatherings in the United States include the Faiths4Vaccines multifaith movement, which frames and communicates positive messages on vaccination, and a National Muslim Task Force. Among similar coalitions in other world regions, the National Muslims COVID-19 Response Committee in Kenya created specific guidance for Muslims.
Other news and events described continuing tensions (including legal challenges) on restrictions on religious gatherings; in the United States, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of an appeal against restrictions on grounds of requiring equal treatment of religious and secular entities. In Bangladesh, reports indicate that madrasas have refused to shut down, notwithstanding government restrictions. A report on the EU-supported AHA project on South Asia (particularly Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh) focused on a townhall on hate speech. Misinformation remains a prominent issue, especially around COVID-19 vaccinations, with religious aspects often a focus. In the United States, reports of high vaccine hesitations among white evangelicals and Christian nationalists more broadly sparked considerable debate.
Reflective pieces on possible changes in religious adherence and rituals (including volunteering, communal prayer, and other practices) continue to appear, some prompted by the recent Gallup poll reporting on declining trends in the United States. Questions center on possible lasting impacts (positive and less so) of the pandemic. Celebrations of religious holidays (notably Easter, Ramadan, Vaisakhi, and numerous others) focused attention on the COVID-19 impact, looking back to the previous year and to the uncertain prospects lying ahead.

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