Faith leaders use technology to combat COVID-19 in developing countries

World Vision’s global network of faith leaders are using WhatsApp to stop misinformation and co-ordinate community-level, context-specific responses to COVID-19.

The aid and development agency works closely with faith leaders, as they are often the most trusted and authoritative voices in the communities it serves.

World Vision Director of Faith and Development Esther Lehmann-Sow said this was the first time the network had mobilised on such a big scale.

“There are WhatsApp groups in countries right across Latin America, Asia, Africa, Middle East and Eastern Europe,” said Ms Lehmann-Sow.

World Vision Director of Faith and Development Esther Lehmann-Sow.

“These are moderated by mentors to ensure accurate and up-to-date information is conveyed,” she said.

“This approach has previously helped us increase awareness, improve uptake of recommended behaviour and decrease stigma around HIV and AIDS, Zika and Ebola.”

The WhatsApp groups are made up of about 8000 faith leaders who have attended World Vision’s behaviour change workshops.

“We work with faith leaders so they can use their influence on parents and local governments to adopt behaviours that protect and provide for children,” said Ms Lehmann-Sow.

In this case, faith leaders are playing a key role in our efforts to protect children from the potentially catastrophic secondary effects of COVID-19,” said said.

The groups operate like a telephone tree, with each participant taking what they have learnt and activating their own networks, helping the agency reach about 80,000 faith leaders.

Pastor Peter Kainwo from Bo in Sierra Leone said the system enables him to directly and indirectly reach every community in his country.

He said the faith leaders, who come from a variety of religious backgrounds, are committed to working with each other.

Pastor Peter and his district’s Chief Imam, Alhaji Mustapha Koker, began contingency planning before COVID-19 arrived in Sierra Leone.

“We began speaking to each other’s congregations and then moving our sermons to radio and television when we needed to isolate,” Pastor Peter said.

“But for many poor communities, they do not have access (to radio and television) so we bought megaphones and speakers, and with the blessing of authorities, started visiting villages, and educating them in this way,” he said.

“We have written jingles for the children so they can remember important messages.”

Pastor Peter and Imam Koker have also encouraged their networks to find accommodation for the homeless to self-isolate together, and ensure they have enough food and water to get them through Sierra Leone’s lockdown period.

Pastor Jonathan Mongello Apua from Democratic Republic of Congo said people are fearful of COVID-19.

“With Ebola, they could more easily understand how it was transmitted,” said Pastor Jonathan.

“Many could keep earning a living (no lockdown),” he said.

“My community is not rich, it is very, very poor.

“If you cannot work, if you have to isolate, you have no resource, your life is cut.”

Pastor Jonathan said they were also concerned about children’s education, so he and the other members of his WhatsApp group began working with teachers to broadcast lessons on the radio.

“Sometimes radios must be shared between households but if they make it loud, they can still social-distance,” said Pastor Jonathan.

Ms Lehmann-Sow said World Vision’s long history of working with churches meant the organisation had strong partnerships with local churches of diverse denominations and leaders of other faiths, based on a shared commitment to improve the well-being of all children.

“It is at times like this that our joint work makes a real difference for children,” she said.

World Vision has mobilised a response of at least USD$80 million. The response will target tens of millions of people across the world, with a special focus on 28 countries where communities are especially vulnerable.

 

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