Religion, Faith and COVID-19: How faith inspired organizations handled the pandemic amongst their strategies and plans for the year
An Interview by Berkley Center of Georgetown University, Washington DC.
Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs had recognized the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement of Sri Lanka as a leading international faith inspired organization standing out for their response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Sri Lanka.
To delve into the how’s and what’s as well as the challenges faced and new challenges coming up, they invited Sarvodaya’s President, Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne for a zoom webinar interview with viewers invited to login to listen and ask questions.
|Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne went into detail about the situation in Sri Lanka and about Sarvodaya’s contribution towards handling the pandemic in a sensitive manner so as to address all ethnic, racial, religious, economic and gender sub-issues that cropped up as a consequence of it.
Katherine Marshall, A Senior Fellow with Berkley Center, facilitated the interview and guided the conversation to cover various aspects such as interactions and working with government offices and religious leaders, future of education, impact on child and domestic abuse and actions to be taken, religious impact on communities, and ethnic disparity created newly so soon after resolving the past ethnic issues.
Sarvodaya and the Sri Lankan Government
Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne explained how Sarvodaya works with the various entities of the Sri Lankan Government in both, formal and informal levels. He pointed out how essential it was that they work together towards a common goal and how the relationship was reciprocal in that, Sarvodaya needs assistance from various government entities in local community level, district level, and municipality levels to address health, agriculture, education etc, Sarvodaya also gives their inputs and data to facilitate the government offices to report and plan ahead as well.
Once of the major areas of work currently is the Right to Information act which Sarvodaya is taking special interest in, to benefit the most rural and remote communities of Sri Lanka.
Sarvodaya and Religion
|Dr. Vinya admitted that religious extremism is very much present in Sri Lanka and that the pandemic caused for social stigma towards certain ethnic and religious sectors in various communities. However, he also pointed out how responsibly most religious leaders acted, by advising their devotees to act prudently by staying home especially during their highest form of religious and cultural festivities, all of which, be it Easter for Christians, Wesak (Buddha Purnima) for Buddhists, Ramadan for Muslims, Lunar New Year for Sinhalese and Tamils, fell during the months of government imposed curfew and lockdown.|
He gave hope about the future generations by elaborating on how wrongful interpretations by media and unethical allegations on social media were handled by inter-religious youth leaders in communities.
He went on to explain how the ethnic and religious disparity can be won only through each person looking inward into a deeper level of consciousness and try to understand the other’s emotional and physical trauma, be it facing economic hardships, be it death of loved ones, be it inaccessibility to basic needs, due to their ethnic and/or religious standing in soceity.
Dr. Vinya also reminded us of the positives since the end of the war, despite the COVID-19 pandemic: having accessibility to all areas of the country and its people, Sarvodaya initiated various projects to support and facilitate entrepreneurship and other economic avenues for the youth and women.
Health care and data accuracy
The Q&A inspired query into the accuracy of data of such low numbers of COVID-19 positive individuals and number of deaths due to infection. Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne emphasized on the accuracy of the data, backing it up with the form of spread Sri Lanka faced: cluster transmission as opposed to community transmission. Due to this fact, with the closing off of each cluster, community spread was prevented case by case. Each cluster was quarantined and isolated thus containing the virus. Leakages did occur, no prevention is 100% contained with unknown COVID-19 positive people mingling in soceity, but the containment was strict enough to minimize the leakage.
People had been fearful of visiting hospitals and clinics for other requirements such as monthly medications and tests, but studies indicate that transmission and infection through healthcare facilities were insignificant.
A streamlined system is in place for testing and general temperature and symptom checks are done daily at all premises such as office buildings and groceries. Thanks to the general checkups, the healthcare system is not overwhelmed for testing or treatment.
The main worry Sarvodaya has currently regarding healthcare is child nutrition. With curfew and then lockdown, low income families were affected in accessing food for a balanced, well rounded, nutritious diet for their children. Sarvodaya initiated home gardening projects to combat this issue, but it is yet to be resolved nation wide.
Violence against Children and Women
Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne emphasized on how this subject is the biggest worry for Sarvodaya and the country currently.
Even before the pandemic hit the country, child abuse was a high risk frequently occurring subject, mainly due to women leaving their families for foreign employment. Female workers from Sri Lanka as house maids and nannies in middle eastern countries is a large category of income for Sri Lanka and there are laws in place to prevent mothers of newly born and infants from being eligible to travel. However, imposing of such laws are questionable as low income families would manipulate their paperwork to obtain work abroad for better prospects for their families.
Since the pandemic, children being confined to their homes with abusive elders, children mistreated by parents or guardians who have no guidance how to care for them in the isolated situation, and children sent to institutions due to various reasons such as economic hardships and parental abandonment have increased drastically.
More hot lines, trained workers and various new initiatives are in circulation to combat this issue, but it still remains the biggest area of negative impact due to the pandemic.
During the pandemic the public school system which is free for all, went online. However while metropolitan and middle and upper middle class families could give their children devices and internet access for online classes, the low income and rural communities could not.
Thanks to the vigilant control of the virus, schools are reopening this week. Systems are in place to check the temperature and symptoms of all students, teachers and workers entering the premises on a daily basis to keep the virus at bay. Parents are given the option to continue online studies if they wish, and offline options are being looked into in case the virus reappears.
Sarvodaya opened up a studio to assist communities with e-learning tools, facilitating interactive methods for both children and adults to study and participate in discussions remotely. The Government is also looking into affordable pricing structures for internet and device accessibility to the sections of soceity who cannot provide online access for their children’s education.
Closing the Ethnic and Religious gap
Sarvodaya, along with UNICEF and local religious leaders, has formed inter-religious groups to address and close the ethnic and religious gaps in soceity. As of now, the program is in a national level, but Sarvodaya hopes to take it to the grassroots level with UNICEF’s support.
|While no revolutionary changes are in the horizon to address the ethnic tensions, the school curricular is looking to add more historically accurate stories of the injustices people and families faced due to ethnic tensions. A second language of Sinhala to Tamil speaking and Tamil to the Sinhala children has been introduced to enable communication in at least a basic level of speaking with and understanding each other.
The aim is to prevent bigotry and encouraging children to interact with all ethnic groups form a young age.
…… And in conclusion
Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne emphasized on how lucky Sri Lanka is, being an island nation with early detection and taking of preventive actions. However, he, along with the nation in general, is keen for the country to open its doors to the rest of the world again. Sri Lanka is a multi faceted, multi cultural attraction to tourists and business ventures from all over the world and to get back on its economic feet, needs the world to re-invest in her again, and soon.
The positive impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, he showed us, was that the youth of Sri Lanka got creative and started exploring new avenues and found their potential for earning an income without waiting for a silver platter.
This wholistic approach, along with best of spiritual practices will enable Sri Lanka to stand on its feet again.
Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne concluded the webinar by stating that the new generation, the youth of Sri Lanka have realized the impermanence of life and its seen how they are working towards making the best of their lives in the present.