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What religious leaders can learn from Reverend Canon Wainaina’s COVID-19 experience and leadership

Religious leaders have a huge responsibility to their followers and congregation. Photo source: Reverend Canon Sammy Wainaina

By Atinuke Akande-Alegbe and Vivianne Ihekweazu (Lead writers)

Since the first confirmed case of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in Nigeria on the 27th of February, 2020, the political, economic and health establishment has focused on the response. It was clear that Nigeria like the rest of the African continent was about to face a major challenge. The rapid transmission of COVID-19 across the world and the rapidly rising death toll was an indication that the months ahead were going to be very tough. In the early morning hours of February 28, 2020, when the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) announced the first confirmed case of COVID-19 on its Twitter handle, comments started flooding in, ranging from disbelief, anger, humour, and the onset of conspiracy theorists who did not believe in the existence of COVID-19. A group of comments however stood out, as they were asking for something else; divine intervention:

“Over to you Lord”
“Ohh God please take control, this is not something we can bear”
“Allah ya kyaye”
“Jesus take control”
“Allah ya taimake mu”

Exactly 14 days after Nigeria reported its first confirmed case, Kenya joined other African countries in the battle against this novel virus, with it’s index case in Nairobi, the capital city. The country had been on a high state of alert since the outbreak in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. The reactions to the outbreak in Nairobi were very similar to Nigeria, and the same public health measures were put in place; hand washing, respiratory hygiene, physical distancing and the eventual lockdown of the country, as confirmed cases started to rise and the government tried to slow down the spread of the virus.

The role of religious leaders in fighting COVID-19
Religious establishments also had to adjust to the new reality, and many church services had to go online. This year, the holy month of Ramadan was like no other as mosques also had to move to online services. Religion plays an important role in Nigerian society and culture as it does in other African countries. As COVID-19 has spread, many conspiracy theories have persisted and grown, notably people not believing that COVID-19 is real and as a result not taking the necessary precautionary measures.

When looking for answers in times of hardship and adversity, people often turn to religion to provide them with strength and guidance. This is why hearing the voices of religious leaders at this time is quite important. During the recent Africa CDC webinar ‘Africa’s Leadership role in COVID-19 vaccine development and access”, Reverend Sammy Wainaina, the Provost at All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi spoke about his experience surviving COVID-19.

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He later shared his personal story with the Nigeria Health Watch team, explaining how he fought against the virus. He was keen to share his message with other religious leaders and the wider global community.

On Tuesday, 26th May 2020, I developed what I thought was a normal cold. The cold persisted even after taking drugs I bought from a chemist. Two days later, I felt worse and I had to visit the hospital. I got tested for COVID-19 and I was informed that my result was positive. I was admitted at Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi. My condition deteriorated and I was moved to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU).

While I was ill, I took advantage of my position and good reputation. I serve in a big Cathedral that has been around for over 100 years. The news of my illness went viral and people were like, “You mean Provost has COVID-19? Then I believe”. While on admission, I wrote about my condition, and it went viral. I told people that I had COVID-19, I was in the ICU but was doing well. I also asked people to take the disease seriously. Again, people said, “If Provost can say that, it must be true.” It was not just about me as a person. It was about the institution that I represent. The most important thing is that we have religious leaders of repute, who can speak and people will listen to.

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Religion has not always been in sync with science and has sometimes opposed it. The polio campaign in Kano, North East Nigeria took a step back in 2003 when religious leaders spread rumours that the polio vaccine was unsafe. This highlights the important role that religious leaders play in society and the trust their communities have in them. This view was echoed in the recent NOI Polls’ COVID-19 poll conducted in Nigeria in April 2020, where 28% of Nigerians felt they were immune from COVID-19 and 42% of this group, when probed, said the overaching reason for this belief was that they believed in God.

“I refused to be stigmatised” — Combating COVID-19 stigma
Stigma is an issue that many COVID-19 survivors in Nigeria and other African countries have had to deal with when sharing their experience. This stigma is often driven by fear and a lack of understanding about the virus, but also a lack of sensitivity towards others who have experienced a illness they have caught through no fault of their own. Reverend Wainaina explained how he was able to combat the fear of stigma.

There is a lot of stigma around COVID-19 but I refused to be stigmatised. I had the choice to be quiet, but that may have resulted in several rumours. There are many instances against stigmatisation in the Bible. For example, people who had leprosy were pushed out and made to live at the outskirts of communities. But Jesus went to these places and even healed them. Jesus brought people who should not even be at the table, to the table. One story is that of blind Bartimaeus, who was amongst a large crowd and whom nobody paid attention to. Jesus heard his cry and had people bring the man to him. Jesus did not just see a blind man, he saw a soul and a human being. Everybody needs to be treated as a human being. Jesus never stigmatised people. In fact, his mission was to liberate people. Everyone should be treated with dignity, irrespective of the disease they have.

One of the dangers that we are currently facing is that we spiritualise real issues — issues that should not be spiritualised. A disease is a disease and anyone can get a disease. I have heard people say, “In the name of Jesus, I can’t get COVID-19”. That is faith, but it can be misuse of faith. I have heard church leaders say, “Take me to a COVID-19 ward and I’ll pray for patients and they will be healed.” That is a misuse of the giftings that God has given us. We have spiritual giftings but we have the capacity as human beings to reason and know that this is not a spiritual matter. Yes, it requires prayers, however, the disease is real. If you expose yourself like I did without knowing, you can get it.

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“If you love your congregants enough, you will protect them” — The importance of leadership in a crisis
The influence of religious leaders can be positive, but it can sometimes be used in ways that go against evidence-based medical or scientific advice. As Reverend Wainaina pointed out, while having faith in itself is commendable, religious leaders also have a huge responsibility to their followers and congregation. There have been reports of religious leaders casting doubt about the virus to their congregations in Nigeria. Religious institutions were closed when lockdown measures were put in place, however with the easing of the lockdown, places of worship have been able to open in Nigeria, albeit with some restrictions put in place. Wainana reflected on his decision to protect his congregation from exposure to COVID-19.

If you love your congregation enough, you would take care of them. I have been in my house for over a month. I can’t go to my cathedral that I love and I have served for the last 10 years. Why? Because my church members can contract COVID-19 from me. If you love your congregants enough, you would protect and not expose them to the disease. Even as we talk about opening churches, we should be very careful and remember that church leaders can be epicentres of new infections because of our nature of interacting with people.

The cathedral has continued to be financially stable through the COVID-19 crisis. Members of the church are giving even more than they would have if they had gathered. If you had taught your congregants the right thing to do, the shutdown of your church would not be a big problem. The building may be absent, but the Church of Christ remains.

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I would not rush to open my cathedral even when the government announces that it is okay to do so. I will be careful because I love my congregants and I want to protect them. To religious leaders, please know that your voice is critical in transforming the society. As a religious leader, you should be able to bring change to your society. See yourself not only as an influencer amongst your followers, but as an influencer in your country. Also, if you do not have enough information, get it, so that when you speak, you speak from a point of knowledge.

“In Africa, religious leaders are influential”- Engaging gatekeepers key to tackling misinformation
And having the right knowledge is one way that religious leaders can protect their congregations from misinformation when it comes to health issues. Africa’s COVID-19 experience has been rife with conspiracy stories and fake news, but Wainana says this is not new to him in his experience as a religious leader.

Misinformation on health issues did not start with COVID-19. We have had some on vaccines. The Catholic Church in Kenya has been very opposed to some immunisation programs. They even claimed that vaccines have ‘family planning’ infused in them, which the government uses to control birth rates. The Catholic Church in Kenya is a big institution. The Catholic and Anglican churches in Kenya work very closely and they are the biggest denominations in Kenya. Imagine what happens when the church preaches such a message, there is a very little chance that the government can do anything about it.

In Africa, religious leaders are influential. We are also a very religious people. For a successful vaccine program, the government should engage gatekeepers in the community. The gatekeepers could be influential sheiks, Muslim or Christian leaders. These gatekeepers should be taken through a process to understand the importance of vaccines. Once we get the buy-in of all gatekeepers, it makes the government’s work easy because we will all speak with one voice. After that, speaking to our congregants becomes the easiest.

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The government also needs to be truthful because the moment the church detects that the government is lying, there will be a big problem. Engagement of religious leaders by the government should be constant and there should be a strong collaboration between both institutions.

The fight against the COVID-19 pandemic will require a collective effort, an all-of-society and all-of-community approach. Government and religious institutions will need to work together to held build trust in the society and provide clear guidance on the way forward. Community mobilisation with the support of religious institutions to train community leaders at the grassroots will be key. These leaders can then empower people with the knowledge and information to protect themselves, their communities and loved ones. The Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha met with the leaders of the Nigerian Interreligious Council (NIREC) and attended an interdenominational church service that they organised in the first week of July. He cautioned religious leaders to ensure that they did everything possible to protect the health and well being of their congregations.

“I was in the ICU and I almost lost my life” — Amplifying survivors’ voices is key to the fight
For some in leadership positions in Africa who have contracted the virus, there is sometimes an air of secrecy and silence, perhaps for fear that people will find out that they are ill. Wainana says that speaking up is one way of ensuring everyone knows that COVID-19 is not a hoax.

COVID-19 is real. Those who have survived the disease should speak up. We need their voices for others to know that it is real. Also, we need families to control their children. The family unit is the cornerstone on which the society is formed. For now, my children do not go to the city centre. I will not allow that, and I don’t need to enforce it because they already know the danger of going out. We should not neglect the role of family as the core center of value in the society. Older people need to speak to the young ones about the importance of preventing the disease so that they do not infect them.

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To all religious leaders, COVID-19 is real and I have experienced it. I was in the ICU and I almost lost my life. I could not breathe. I could not even turn to my side. It’s only by God’s grace that I survived. As a church leader, accept that you can get COVID-19 and don’t try to find out if you can contract it. I survived, you may not.
This interview was conducted via Zoom with Reverend Canon Sammy Wainaina. We at Nigeria Health Watch wish him a speedy recovery and the earliest return to his congregation at All Saints Cathedral, Nairobi, Kenya.

How has your religious leader worked to enlighten their followers about the coronavirus? What measures has your religious institution put in place to protect the faithful? Share with us on social media, @nighealthwatch on Twitter, and @nigeriahealthwatch on Facebook and Instagram. Use the hashtag #MyCOVID19NaijaStory

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