Bishop of St Albans highlights importance of church in promoting disease prevention

On the 3rd April 2017, Baroness Hayman led a short debate in the House of Lords, to ask the Government “what is their assessment of progress made in combating neglected tropical diseases since the London Declaration made in January 2012.” The Bishop of St Albans, the Rt Revd Alan Smith, spoke about the role that the Anglican Communion could play in providing a bridge between NGOs and local communities.

stalbans190117-bBishop of St Albans: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, for introducing the debate. It is good to pause and reflect on the extraordinary progress that has been made, as well as the salutary thought of just how much more needs to be done. I am not a medic and do not want to engage in the medical aspect of this, but I want to make one, very brief point: the need to adopt clear protocols and joined-up approaches if we are going to be really effective in combating neglected tropical diseases.

I will illustrate this with the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, which broke out in 2014. At that point, medical teams were deployed from various parts of the world in the most extraordinary way. They adopted various measures for containment and treatment that were not always understood or appreciated by many local people. Indeed, it was very frightening, and the first-hand accounts of these teams by local people showed that it was quite shocking for many of them. In some areas there was actually hostility to what appeared to be draconian measures—made for the very best medical reasons—some of which were confronting local customs or traditions that the local population held dear.

Of course, community leaders have a role in education and communication, yet it took quite a long time to realise the role that faith leaders could play in mobilising and educating local people. Faith communities were to be found in virtually every community. They had regular meetings. They had resources, networks and communication. In Sierra Leone, respected Christian and Muslim leaders were eventually recognised as allies in challenging some of the myths and misinformation that were around. It was as important as the medical interventions that people had to want to collaborate. It was about local empowerment as well as medicine. That provided an important avenue by which to get life-saving advice about protection and prevention out to the community. Then there was the question of preventing and confronting the stigmatisation of the survivors, which was a profound problem.

This sort of engagement is an excellent example of what, at their best, worldwide religious networks such as the Anglican communion can do so effectively. Of course we are involved in raising money for water projects. A number of my churches proudly have signs up saying they have adopted toilets in other countries, and so on. These are the sorts of things that are happening because of the links right across the world. This is where we can act as a bridge between local people and outside agencies, often in hard-to-reach areas.

This is especially important for countries or areas which are in conflict or at war. At such times, NGOs can find it very difficult to deploy anybody and if war breaks out they have to withdraw their staff, rightly, to protect them—there is not much choice if you employ people from elsewhere. But unlike the NGOs, the churches will be there before, during and after the conflict or disaster and their clergy tend to be local community leaders, rather than outsiders. Very often it is local parishes or the diocese which run the schools, clinics and hospitals.

My simple plea to DfID, NGOs and all parties involved in this area is to bear in mind the vital need to get everybody round the table at the earliest stage to think about the cultural traditions and local faith issues if we are really to mobilise all people in delivering good health advice, some of which is preventative. This is so that we do not just look at the medical challenges but work with all the networks on the ground to address the social and religious contexts of those communities which are suffering so from these terrible diseases.

Lord Bates (extract): …The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans raised the strong partnerships that we have with faith groups. Through our faith partnerships we work very closely with those groups in a number of parts of the world. He talked about Sierra Leone and, in the past week, I have been looking at what the Anglican community is doing in the terrible situation in South Sudan, where the conflict is making the treatment of neglected tropical diseases and the effects of famine incredibly difficult. That is a real manmade tragedy…