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COVID-19: Religious leaders call for inter-faith alliance to fight stigma and discrimination

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BHOPAL: Faith Leaders come together for a joint fight against stigma and discrimination stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, and call for a state-level interfaith alliance to address inequities,

Nine faith leaders representing different faiths from Madhya Pradesh came together on June 22 in a webinar organized by Sphere India, in partnership with UNICEF, WHO, Spandan, NGO of Bhopal, USAID and World Vision India.

Vikrant Mahajan, CEO, of Sphere India said at the outset, “In these testing times, the role of faith-based organizations, civil society and religious leaders is vital in bringing communities together.  

Michael Juma, Chief UNICEF, Madhya Pradesh, “the key to the success in anti-stigma and discrimination campaigns is through promotion of correct and appropriate information on COVID-19 in sync with underlying principles of Infection Prevention Control (IPC) and Hygiene Management practices and Risk Communication and Community Engagement (RCCE).’

Faith-based leaders play a big role with their transformative leadership and voices with positive messages as these are essential ingredients for strengthening social behaviour change critical for demystifying stigma and discrimination attached to COVID-19. This will help in ensuring that people at risk, come forward for testing, Juma said.

Ramona El Hamzaoui, Acting Mission Director for US Agency for International Development in India, talked about how trusted religious and community leaders can play a huge role educating their communities on how to prevent COVID-19 and adhere to Government of India guidelines for staying safe. “We are confident that their voices can help address the social stigma associated with COVID-19," he said

Dr Ritu Chouhan from WHO India stressed upon use of positive vocabulary saying, “There is a need to focus on facts, as it drives away stigma by redirecting people towards authentic information.

Faith based leaders highlighted the importance of supporting government response, and specific actions that could be taken to combat stigma including counselling, support to frontline workers, raising awareness on government advisories, among others.

Pandit Devkarn Pandya, Bhagwat Katha Vachak stressed on the need to go beyond awareness and take initiatives in fighting against the crisis. Kaynat Kazi, an Islamic scholar discussed the positive interventions undertaken by government, importance of focussing on tribal population.

BK Reena, Brahmakumari Prajapita Ishwariya Vidyayalaya stressed on fighting stigma and discrimination of affected and frontline workers engaged in fighting this pandemic.

Pandit Ramesh Sharma, Katha Vachak, spoke about providing support to affected population emphasizing on promotion of local goods and services and also said that we have fight COVID-1919 and not the affected people.

Bhante Shakayputra Sagar Thero, Chairperson, Buddh Bhumi Dhammdhut Sangha, spoke on the need to reduce fear, discrimination and that they will take it up. Dr. Qazi Nurulla Yusufzai, Shahr Qazi, Guna, said “We need to show compassion for affected people and talk of physical distancing.” He said they will take this up in their work.’

Dr Azhar Baig of Jamat-e-Islami said “Preventing stigma and discrimination is the prime focus while managing social distancing.” Gyani Jagjeet Kaur, Sikh Religious leader spoke on the need to show empathy for affected people and to say no to any discrimination.  Pandit Virendra, Katha Vachak, also graced the gathering with his presence.

Anil Soumitra of Spandan said, “It is important to acknowledge religious leaders as a big guiding force to encourage good practices among the communities and support government to simplify the technical messaging for common community beneficiaries, by integrating it with religious messages. This will help inter-faith leaders to inspire the society to prevent stigma discrimination and COVID-19 pandemic prevention and management.”

Dr Vandana Bhatia, Health Specialist, Anil Gulati, Communication Specialist, F A Jami, Education Specialist with UNICEF were part of the webinar.