Religious leaders play key role in battle against COVID-19

Imams reach millions of Bangladeshis through mosque megaphones, bringing life-saving information to families that do not have a smartphone or TV

A mosque in the evening
UNICEF/BANA-2012/ Tasni
24 May 2020

Religious leaders throughout Bangladesh – including in the Rohingya refugee camps – have agreed to play a key role in the battle against the COVID-19 virus.

Mosque megaphones are traditionally used by imams to call the faithful to prayer. But they now serve an extra purpose: to disseminate key public health messages.

“Imams are expert communicators,” says Sheikh Masudur Rahman, UNICEF Communication for Development Specialist. “Their messages are listened to, both in the mosques when they deliver sermons, and when they use mosque megaphones. Once imams are supplied with key COVID-19 messages, they can tailor them in the best format for their communities.”     

Imams play an important role in Bangladesh because they hold the trust of millions of worshipers in what is a predominantly Muslim country. UNICEF and the Islamic Foundation Bangladesh (IFB) – a government organization that works under the Ministry of Religious Affairs – have worked together for the wellbeing of women and children since 2017.

Imam with a microphone

Information in rural and hand-to-reach areas

About 500,000 Imams and religious leaders are now disseminating information about COVID-19 nationwide. They help spread key messages focusing on hygiene and infection prevention, including handwashing using soap, social distancing, and how to benefit from the Koran when in lockdown at home.

In Bangladesh, a significant number of people in rural and hard-to-reach areas do not have access to radio, television or newspapers, in contrast to urban areas.

“It is in these less accessible places where the mosque megaphone – usually used by imams five times a day for the call to prayer – can play a critically important role. People listen to them and they are an amazingly effective way of spreading public information messages,” Mr Rahman said.

Dispelling rumours in Rohingya refugee camps

Although there have been only two  confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Rohingya refugee camps to date, because of fast spreading nature of the virus it is feared that without proper awareness and preparation it can be devastating

More than 850,000 Rohingyas – more than half of them children – live in cramped bamboo and tarpaulin shelters that make up the largest refugee camps in the world.  The high population density increases the chances of fast transmission rates, while limited sanitation and health facilities only add to the hardships.

Imam speaking through a megaphone
UNICEF Bangladesh/2020/BITA
A religious leader disseminates COVID-19 messages using a megaphone in the Rohingya refugee camps.

UNICEF and its partners have enhanced community awareness activities in the camps so the Rohingya children and their families are better informed about COVID-19 and can take preventative measures.

“Tackling rumours and falsehoods in relation to the virus is a key part of UNICEF’s response in the camps, because such misinformation can have devastating consequences when news and internet-access is restricted,” said Aarunima Bhatnagar, UNICEF Communication for Development Specialist in Cox’s Bazar.

“We imams take this very seriously”

UNICEF and its partner BRAC have trained more than additional 300 religious leaders in the camps, and these are now disseminating prevention messages about COVID-19 in the Rohingya language. They use megaphones and posters to explain COVID-19 and to debunk myths associated with the virus.

“The elderly feel threatened by COVID-19, because they have heard that it mostly affects them and people with health complications,” said Rohingya imam Noor Mohammed. “We are taking community prevention measures against COVID-19 very seriously. I am distributing messages during and after prayers at my mosque, and encouraging others to do the same.’’