In guidance produced during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in April, the World Health Organization (WHO) was emphatic: “Religious leaders, faith-based organizations, and faith communities can play a major role in saving lives and reducing illness related to COVID-19.”
As Canada begins rolling out vaccines in the midst of a devastating second wave, health authorities are once more echoing the WHO. Faith organizations such as the Anglican Church of Canada, they say, can play a vital role in supporting vaccination.
The church’s potential to bolster the fight against the virus can be felt in Western Canada, which has seen some of the country’s highest infection rates. Indigenous communities have been hit particularly hard: people in First Nations represent up to half of all hospitalizations in Manitoba according to Dr. Tom Wong, chief medical officer of health for Indigenous Services Canada.
“I think at this point, all hands really need to be on deck,” Dr. Nnamdi Ndubuka, medical health officer for the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority (NITHA), said in a conference call Jan. 15. The NITHA is a partnership between First Nations in northern Saskatchewan that provides culturally based health-care practices, serving more than 55,000 people across 33 First Nations, its website says.
“We do see a big role for the faith-based organizations, including churches,” Ndubuka added. “I’m aware that there are certainly First Nations communities that are quite evangelical, they’re strong in their faith.
“I think engaging those communities and their leadership would be very important to promote the vaccine uptake and also dispel any misinformation regarding the vaccine. We really appreciate some of those efforts that are continuing to be underway in most churches.”
More than 90% of confirmed COVID-19 cases on reserves since last March have been in Western Canada, Indigenous Services Canada reports. As of Jan. 19, the provinces with the highest number of active, on-reserve cases were Manitoba (2,241), Alberta (1,312) and Saskatchewan (1,196). In comparison, Quebec had 144 active cases on reserves and Ontario had 93. In Shamattawa First Nation, roughly one-third of the 1,300 people living in the northern Manitoba community had tested positive for COVID-19 by December, when the military was deployed for three weeks to control the outbreak.
Some of the reasons for high infection rates in northern communities, Ndubuka says, include lack of access to health-care services and inadequate housing. The latter can lead to difficulties isolating the sick.
As this issue was being prepared in early February, Moderna vaccines were rolling out in Manitoba. However, the Pfizer vaccine was not available in many First Nations, which lack facilities to maintain the cold temperatures needed for the vaccine. Many communities were flying residents to Thompson, Man., to receive the Pfizer vaccine.
As of Jan. 14, the community of Split Lake, Man.—home of Isaiah Beardy, suffragan bishop of the Northern Manitoba area mission—was in total lockdown. Health authorities rolling out the vaccine have underscored the importance of local clergy.
“The priority [for vaccinations] is the frontline workers, meaning health and paramedics, firefighters,” Beardy says. “They included the clergy on the priority list. The clergy are frontline workers in my community.
“In the North here … the church’s main role is to provide spiritual leadership and to encourage individuals to get vaccinated,” he adds. “We provide pastoral ministry for individuals at the local level…. We say prayers every time there’s a gathering, [to] put Jesus in the centre of our community.”
Michael Hawkins, bishop of the diocese of Saskatchewan, believes church leaders can play a public moral and symbolic role by sharing health information and setting a good example by getting vaccinated.
Church buildings can also provide spaces for vaccination, he adds. In a private communication this winter with the Saskatchewan government, Hawkins says, “faith leaders and other churches have reminded them that we would be honoured to have our facilities used in any way as part of public health and especially the vaccine rollout.”
In northern Manitoba, clergy have played a supportive role for people through the pandemic using a variety of mediums.
“You need to provide leadership, and I think the ministry of presence is so important that people are very comforted when the spiritual leaders are there with them,” Beardy says. Local clergy work “with the local leaders and pandemic teams…. They provide ministry through Facebook platforms…. They talk on the local radio, talk to the people, giving them encouragement and hope and to reassure the people that the Almighty God, our Creator in Jesus Christ, is with us through this pandemic.”