Intersecting Faith and Science in Public Health Emergencies

By Andile Tshuma 

Faith and science often exist in parallels, however the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the need for strong communication pillars between the worlds of faith and science.

With conspiracy theories growing, it became very important for scientists to engage religious leaders on the threats of fake news and how misinformation can potentially harm communities. 

The pandemic has brought to the forefront multiple issues involving science, belief, and society. Widespread narratives have revolved around the role of religion and belief in affecting people’s attitudes towards, and adoption of, positive health-seeking behaviours on both local and global levels.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant disruption in the continuity of health services. The biggest disruptions were seen in  routine immunisations, facility-based services for non-communicable diseases, antenatal care, family planning and contraception, as well as HIV/Aids and TB care and treatment services.

Any pandemic can disorganise the life of wider society. One of the manifestations of social activity is religious life. Despite progressing secularisation, both religion, churches, and denominational associations have an impact on individual and communal ethical choices. 

To stir the conversation of faith and science, the 10th biennial conference of Africa Christian Health Associations Platform (ACHAP)  was held in Kigali, Rwanda in July 2022 under the theme ‘Christian health associations in pandemics: the case of COVID-19’. 

The thematic areas covered by the conference were pandemic preparedness, pandemic response and recovery, communication and advocacy, and collaboration and partnership.

Zimbabwe Association of Church Hospitals’ (ZACH) Dr Chidzewere Nzou. Photo: Supplied/Andile Tshuma

Zimbabwe Association of Church Hospitals’ (ZACH) Dr Chidzewere Nzou gave a sterling presentation on faith in pandemics at the conference. His talk was on how faith-based organisations (FBOs) are strategically important as they take up a substantial share of health facilities.

Nzou also spoke about the need to intersect faith and science, to bring together faith leaders and science leaders at the same table in order to present a coherent message to communities that shows unity of purpose in the face of public health emergencies. 

“ZACH is a member of ACHAP, this was a very important conference for ACHAP as it came at a time when the world was struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic. Remember that the previous two or so years, we couldn’t gather because of the COVID-19 related restrictions at the time, due to possible risks of infections. This was important to us as it brings all Christian health associations in Africa [to] one table so that we can learn good practices from each other, exchange ideas, form consortiums that will help to deal with future pandemics as well as COVID-19 as we are not sure of how much longer we will have to live with it. I was invited as a speaker on behalf of ZACH,” he said.

Nzou said his task was to ignite conversations on the juxtaposition of faith and science, as faith is often a forgotten yet critical element in the crafting of emergency public health responses. 

“My talk was on our work and linking faith and healing and how we are doing it with our work, within the context of pandemics.  I spoke about how faith is involved in pandemic preparedness and response. It was also about how [the] health workforce thrive in pandemics. We have 135 hospitals under our body so it was an opportunity for ZACH and for me to share how we were managing our health care workers during the pandemic, and most importantly how faith is handled during pandemics. Faith is often left behind during planning for pandemic responses yet it is such an important stakeholder, so my talk was based on that,” said Nzou.

He called for church leaders to take responsibility to fight misinformation in the church and to ensure that they were a voice of reason. 

Adding to this, he spoke of an information vacuum, and said faith and science were detached in Zimbabwe, which often made it difficult to reach out to some religious sectors that are reluctant to make use of mainstream public health services. 

“There is a gap between faith and science. Faith is on one end, and science is on the other end. There is a need for the two to merge so that we get the right and correct as well as relevant messages to the community. Faith leaders should also take the lead and encourage their congregants to seek health services, and in this case, to embrace and take COVID-19 vaccines for their health and that of others,” he said. 

The Zimbabwe Christian Alliance Executive Director, Reverend Useni Sibanda, said upon realising the public health threat that the pandemic posed, their first response was to engage community leaders outside of the church, and to then bring in faith leaders and the health sector together.

He said the message was to allow science to lead, and to pray for ‘revelations and protection’.

The Reverend led the Interfaith COVID-19 dialogues, which became a starting point for the intersection of faith and science in community health interventions on the pandemic. 

“This was by far the hardest time as far as public health emergencies are concerned. It was so large scale, it caught us all by surprise. As the religious sector, we had to come in and lead, and to also ensure that there was a very open line of communication which was very important to kill off any rumours or public mistrust. It was also a tough time dealing with all the misinformation that was coming through to church groups in the very early instances where localised information was still scarce,” said Sibanda.

Health authorities had a torrid time penetrating some religious communities with health messaging on COVID-19 and vaccination in Zimbabwe. 

Bulawayo Provincial medical director Maphios Siamuchembu in an interview with the HJN, said efforts to roll out the COVID-19 vaccination programme at some churches had been met with challenges as some religious leaders had proved to be stumbling blocks, swaying congregants against vaccination.

“We have had challenges with vaccine hesitancy that is fueled by religious beliefs. Reaching out to the apostolic sects has been one of our major challenges yet they constitute a really significant chunk of the city’s population,” Siamuchembu said.

He said the health ministry and city health department had been working with some religious leaders under the interfaith COVID-19 dialogues.

Some of the engagements were led by churches under the Zimbabwe Christian Alliance, who Siamuchembu said had made it easier to encourage religious groupings to vaccinate.

Siamuchembu said the interfaith dialogues had made it easier to make some inroads into churches subscribing to the umbrella body, and said more work was needed to engage with other churches.

The medical director called on religious leaders to use their influence to encourage congregants to let science lead in public health emergencies. 

“Religious leaders are very powerful and have so much influence over their congregation they lead. Therefore, we invite them to partner with us to ensure that their church members are vaccinated. 

“Unfortunately, it has been difficult with the apostolic sect because outside of COVID-19 vaccination, they just do not subscribe to the formal public health system and reaching out may take a while,” Siamuchembu said.

The doctor said although the country’s COVID-19 restrictions have been relaxed, it would be important to keep the communication channels such as Interfaith dialogues open so that health communication becomes a pillar within churches, in the event of future pandemics.