In an online webinar, the UN chief joined religious leaders on Tuesday 12 May for a discussion on how they can assist in limiting the damage caused by COVID-19. As the pandemic circles the globe, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged religious leaders to contest “inaccurate and harmful messages” that fuel division amongst the international community.

He warned communities to be wary of those peddling misinformation, particularly by “extremists and radical groups” that seek to feed on people’s fear and erode trust between people of faith. 

Recognising shared vulnerabilities, the webinar was organised by Morocco’s UN Ambassador Omar Hilale and was attended by Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders to promote inter-religious harmony and to educate the faithful.

Indeed, spiritual leaders can have a positive influence in setting community values, attitudes and social norms as millions globally have had to celebrate Passover, Easter and Ramadan under lockdown like never before.

Religious leaders can play “a pivotal role” in their communities and beyond “to deliver solutions to not only address the pandemic but (also) to (aid in) recover(y),” said Guterres.

As nations strive to safeguard their communities, religious leaders pose significant influence in guiding and informing the public of health care measures such as physical distancing and good hygiene as well as ensuring that worship, religious ceremonies and burial practices “comply with these measures.”

Illustration: President of the UN General Assembly Tijjani Mohammad Bande recognises religious leaders have a role to play to educate and promote international solidarity. Source: UN Photo, Evan Schneider.

General Assembly President Tijjani Muhammad-Bande of Nigeria highlighted the unique role of faith, stating that it can give “hope to the hopeless” and in times of anxiety, faith “can be a significant source of comfort and community resilience.”

As COVID-19 related restrictions have closed churches, synagogues and mosques worldwide, many religious leaders have swiftly adapted by taking worship online.

There is also grave concern for the spread of the disease in conflict areas such as Yemen, which is grappling with the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. 

The United Nations had expressed fears that the virus could be spreading undetected across the country alongside the challenges of acute malnourishment as well as inadequate testing capabilities and personal protective equipment for health workers.

One of the last countries in the world to declare its first infection, the embattled war-torn country of Yemen has since reported numerous cases of the disease. 

Recognising the importance of flattening the curve, our heroes are indeed our frontline workers that make every effort to slow down the rate of infection. Similar to wartime, our medical practitioners (including nurses, paramedics, medical technicians and cleaning staff) need the world to be united behind them in their work.

With no clear timeline for the end of this pandemic, the UN Secretary-General cited that responsibility falls on the shoulders of all leadership, including faith leaders to promote unity and “solidarity”.