Faith leaders in Sierra Leone and Liberia played an “essential role” in stemming the spread of the Ebola virus, according to a new report, but the delay in involving them in the response cost lives.
Keeping the Faith, a joint report by CAFOD, Christian Aid, Tearfund and Islamic Relief, shows that Christian and Muslim leaders were able to deliver health messages in parts of the two countries that governments and NGOs could not reach. As trusted sources of information, they quashed rumours about the disease – such as that the disease was man-made and being spread deliberately – and encouraged communities to accept life-saving advice from health workers. They also played a crucial role in counselling survivors and challenging stigma.
But many of those interviewed believe that faith leaders should have been involved far sooner. According to a senior member of the Ebola Task Force in Kenema District in Sierra Leone, the country “would have saved more lives and more money had religious leaders been engaged at an earlier stage of the disease outbreak.”
With 26 new cases of Ebola reported across the region last week alone, the report stresses that governments and humanitarian organisations must continue to engage with faith leaders in the response and recovery. It also argues that the international community should involve faith leaders earlier during future health crises.
Keeping the Faith is published one year since the Sierra Leone government declared a state of emergency, launching a series of measures as the spread of Ebola spiralled out of control. It shows that some preventative measures – such as imposing new burial practices – were initially ineffective, because they went against cultural values and religious practices.
Traditional burials, involving mourners touching or washing the highly infectious body, played a major role in the spread of Ebola. In May 2014, 363 deaths were traced back to attendance at a single funeral in Sierra Leone. But many communities were outraged by authorities removing and cremating bodies or burying them in unmarked mass graves. As a result, “many of those with Ebola chose to remain with their families and burials were undertaken in secret. As a consequence the disease continued to spread,” according to the report.
In Sierra Leone it was not until late 2014 that there was a concerted effort to involve faith leaders in the response. Imams and clergy identified passages in the Quran and the Bible to give a religious context to new burial practices, showing that they were acceptable according to their faiths. From October 2014, families were allowed to attend burials once again, and to invite an imam or minister to pray at a safe distance.
A UN staff member in Sierra Leone said: “When [faith leaders] started participating in the revised burial practices, people knew they could trust it and resistance ended. The participation of faith leaders was a game changer.”
CAFOD Director Chris Bain said: “In Sierra Leone and Liberia, priests and imams have shared the same health messages as the government and health workers, but because they are often closer to the people their messages were listened to and accepted. It is vital that we learn lessons from the delay in involving them. In many parts of the world, local churches and mosques are the first places people turn to when disaster strikes – and the international humanitarian system is simply not good enough at working with them.”
Imran Madden, Head of the Humanitarian Department at Islamic Relief Worldwide, said: “Many of those who led the fight against Ebola were faith leaders, Christians and Muslims, who rose to the challenge of their generation. Building on the deep-rooted trust placed in them by the community, they went door to door, village to village to give messages on behaviour change. Their engagement marked the turning point in the fight against this terrible disease and this research explores their role and the many lessons we can learn for future disaster responses.”
Alpha Sankoh, Programme Manager for Christian Aid’s Ebola Emergency Response, said: “Faith leaders have played a critical role in fighting this deadly outbreak. Here in Sierra Leone, faith leaders supported by Christian Aid have promoted safe, dignified burials, counselled the bereaved and those in quarantine, spoken out against stigmatisation of survivors and educated communities on preventing and controlling the spread of the virus. This distinctive contribution is something that demands wider recognition: if faith leaders are sidelined during future humanitarian crises, it is the most vulnerable individuals who could end up paying the price.”
Rev Jonathan Titus-Williams, CEO of Tearfund partner the Evangelical Fellowship of Sierra Leone, said: “During the Ebola crisis, I, along with other faith leaders, was able to provide congregations with critical information about staying safe from Ebola. At first we faced many challenges, but we soon learnt the best way to respond. We now have a role caring for orphans, challenging stigma and seeking to build bridges, bringing communities back together. We are restoring hope.”
Keeping the Faith is being published in advance of the World Humanitarian Summit, which will be held in Istanbul in May 2016.