By Hannah Chowdhry
On 30th June 2020, I was able to attend a zoom panel with the Deputy Mayor of London for ‘Social Integration, Social Mobility and Community Engagement’, Debbie Weekes-Bernard, as a volunteer for the BACA. We were invited to talk about how the Pakistani community has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. The invite said:
“We invite British Pakistani Christian Association to a discussion on impact of COVID-19 on the Pakistani Community and how City Hall can address this issue for your community as we develop responsive recovery plans post COVID 19. We would be delighted if your representative can join us and share your views on this important conversation.”
An overview of the meeting, said:
“Addressing the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on BAME communities is a priority for the Mayor and on Monday 18th May, he joined hundreds of signatories in a petition calling for the Prime Minister to launch an independent public inquiry, investigating this issue across the UK. The impact on these communities has become increasingly clear in recent weeks with statistics from the Institute of Fiscal Studies and the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showing clear disproportionality.”
My response was quite specific as I focused on the impact Coronavirus had had on the Pak-Christian community of London.
As part of my research, I spoke with Shaheen Zar, Leader of Ilford Asian Church who has been talking with all the Asian Christian Pastors in London. I asked him a series of questions and used the responses and other less detailed conversations with members of the community, to report back to the Deputy Mayor of London.
Some of practical inputs we shared included a desire for different language translations for COVID-19 recovery plans. Nearly all existing ones are produced in English. I spoke of the need for grants to help groups that provide employment support to local people. One of the main causes of concern raised in our community is the reduction in employment opportunities. Projects that help create new businesses or provide skills training to help people secure work are essential. Funding towards counselling groups to help with a plethora of mental health issues that have arisen due to the lengthy lockdown will help our communities recover.
I reported back on the direct community response that helped our community get through the pandemic lockdown. Pak-Christian community members have been communicating through facebook, whatsapp and telephone. Conversations were used for and encouragement, fellowship and to monitor each others health and situation, especially those who were more vulnerable. Our churches held services on Facebook, Zoom and Youtube ensuring those with access to the internet were able to continue their scriptural learning, fellowship and worship. Many churches provided a daily meeting such as Ilford Asian Church. However since the lockdown eased the frequency has reduced. in most cases. Youth meetings have been held online so that young people could maintain their friendships but also to stay connected with God. Some smaller churches however, were not able to cater for the needs of the very young.
Many Pak-Christian churches provided a COVID-19 response team to support members of the community in self-isolation due to a serious health condition or by way of being elderly.
The charity I volunteer with British Asian Christian Association has been doing our part to help our community as well.
The Deputy Mayor sent me a very lovely email thanking me for contributing to the cause. She wrote:
Good Afternoon Hannah,
“Thank you for taking part in an open and explorative conversation on the uneven impact of Coronavirus on those from Pakistani backgrounds. Your contributions will help us feed into COVID 19 recovery plans and develop an ambitious approach to making London fairer and more equal in the future.
“I valued your honesty and the clarity with which you presented the hugely complex challenge that lays ahead of us. I would also like to thank you for all the work that you have been doing to the community during these difficult times…”
The Deputy Mayor has stated that I will continue to be part of this ongoing conversation and I hope that some of our contributions, will benefit the Mayor of London’s COVID-19 recovery plans.
Research for the meeting on the Pakistani Christian community
How have you and the Pakistani Christian community in London been affected by the outbreak?
I spoke with Shaheen Zar Leader of Ilford Asian Church who has been talking with all Pak-Christian Pastors in London. He believes the impact on Pak-Christians in London is no more than any other group. Though there are 80 regular members of Ilford Asian Congregation there were only a few people who reported infection and none of them were confirmed. The Pakistani Church in Hackney All nations church reported 2 deaths and it would seem so far that is the only deaths reported in our community across the nation.
What particular impacts do you feel are unique to your community and what impacts have been worse for Pakistani people?
The Pak-Christian community have in the main been compliant with the government guidelines e.g. keeping a 2-metre distance and use of self-isolation. Our community has been using technology – such as the Zoom, Facebook, Whatsapp and Youtube, to communicate with each other and hold online services. We are a small community and have been interacting with the wider church too so often on a Sunday we will attend both an Asian and English service. Feedback from community leaders suggests that many of our people have been left feeling very alone especially the elderly. Meeting at churches provided the solace of light physical and social contact which for many was the highlight of their week. The Asian church is very supportive of its members and young people from our churches have been providing the elderly with help with shopping and prescriptions. But the nature of our small diaspora means that this help is not always convenient with many members living geographically distant from one another. The danger of bus journeys (threat of infection) and limited services meant that many in our community stopped community support trips, especially if they had vulnerable or elderly family members. Fears grew after revelations that BAME people were more likely to have severe symptoms if infected with COVID-19, this was both demoralising and a factor that only further reduced our ability to support our elderly.
What would help London’s Pakistani Christian community with the current pandemic and future crises?
Funding should be provided to help our community maintain our churches and community groups considering the rise in operational costs to be legally compliant. We now need Hand Sanitizers at every location and have to continually disinfect our buildings. We are a small diaspora and do not have the large memberships at our centres that other community groups have. Most of our churches in London will have between 15 – 20 members. No Pak-Christian Church in the UK let alone London has its own building, and rental costs will no doubt soon rise.
More literature about COVID-19 in Urdu would certainly have helped. If it already exists, knowledge of where to get such information should be shared more liberally with our churches which do not sit on many of the local or national government panels. A group like ours the ‘British Asian Christian Association’ is best placed to share Urdu translations as our emails reach nearly every Pak-Christian and Indian Church in the country and most Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi ones too.
What are the assets (e.g. resources, skills, organisations) in your community that are enhancing health and wellbeing during this period?
In the congregation there are a few doctors, nurses and public health figures who give advice about Covid-19 and what precautions to take. One of the doctors, who works at King George hospital in the A & E, gave a detailed talk to Ilford Asian Church before the lockdown, on how to stay safe and protected. There is also a youth group that support the elderly but this soon became limited to those who were able to drive to limit the spread of infection within the community, due to fears of BAME heightened risk. British Asian Christian Association, provided a local community errand support service for self-isolators and also began to feed the homeless and financially hard-up (up to 65 people a day). A few of the people we supported where from our own Pakistani and Indian Christian community.
Does your community need support and what would this look like?
In London the British Asian Christian Association, Community Centre in Ilford is the only one in operation. Our foodbank served over 65 people a day and initially it was our own reserves that supported the local community. We later obtained a City Bridge Trust and Samaritan’s Purse Grant that made it possible to stretch our services for a longer period. Perhaps considering that we are the only specifically Asian Christian group in London we should have been prioritised for some funding to assist our churches develop similar programmes across London for our small diaspora. Our work was for Redbridge people of all diversities but we realise that this meant that many Pak-Christians who wanted support had to travel far distances or we had to send our officers to them, including places like Hackney and Alperton. Through our association with Fareshare we could have easily helped our churches across London develop more localised foodbanks, if we had a larger grant for this purpose.
What changes, that would directly benefit your community, would you like to see as part of London’s COVID-19 recovery?
We need more Urdu language translations of COVID-19 messages. Funding has to be provided to enable our churches to develop COVID-19 recovery strategies. Our people need access to socially-distanced women’s groups, counselling, Internet-access and job search and CV support, free on-line training courses and much more to help them cope with the isolation, health concerns and economic struggle that COVID-19 had induced. We are providing all the above at our centre in Ilford but are community cannot expect to travel to our centre. Many churches are providing a similar service and mosques too, but some Pakistani Christians and Indian Christians have suffered persecution in their homelands and would find it more appropriate and conducive to have meetings in their own language and provided by their own faith group.
As we move into a transition phase, what are some of the key concerns held by members of the Pakistani Christian community for the near future?
Pak-Christian Churches across London have opened for private prayer but only to the members of the parish, some Pak-Christians however travel from far in order to get to church. What makes this difficult is that risk assessments are not uniform and some churches will not be opening their toilet facilities. Families travelling from far especially those with children will find this a very limiting experience and may choose not to return to church till things change.
Due to social-distancing laws churches are limiting their congregations when churches open after 4th July. Ilford Asian Church is limited to only 60 members able to access the church for any one service – the church usually holds about 300 people. For a large Asian church like the Ilford one this means many regulars will not be able to attend the much desired services. Moreover, they may have to turn away those who will have travelled far journeys. It is quite impossible to gauge how many people will come to initial services which will be very popular after a long absence. The church will call and use social media to try and control numbers.
In some churches a decision has been made to sing no hymns or worship songs due to the increased potential infection via short-term airborne virus. Cushions which can act as infection sponges, will be removed making the elderly feel less comfortable in our churches. Hand sanitizer available and gloves for speakers. No tea and coffee will be available after the service to allow congregation members to socialise with another. Sanitizer will be used at all entrance points and stewards will be gloved and opening doors for people. There will be no handshakes and the services will be without the warm social contact associated with churches and will lack essential fellowship. This will be a difficult time.
How have churches adapted to the current Covid-19 Pandemic?
The church has adapted to the current covid-19 situation by using resources that are readily available to them. This includes, holding online meetings, which they have been doing for a couple of months to comfort everyone. Daily group prayers were also conducted online. People have adapted well to using technology to communicate with each other. Seeing everyone virtually before and after the service helped with the social interaction that they missed. Online prayers are now reduced to 3 times a week because some people have been going back to work, meaning the elderly now get less interaction than before.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the church has had continuous discussions on social media. Our churches have been trying to get more youth to connect on social media, so they don’t miss out on too much interaction with friends and family maintain a relationship with God. This helps the community make sure no one feels left out. The Sunday school children suffered with little interaction among all our churches as none of our churches provided a bible study for them. If a second wave occurs and a further lockdown is imposed or the current lockdown extended, future discussions will take place to make sure that people of all ages are better connected with the community.
What will church look like after the end of the lockdown? i.e. what policies and practices will be in place to protect congregations?
Once the lockdown is over, people will still be weary, therefore they will be incredibly careful by taking appropriate precautions. People will adapt to make it the new ‘normal’ e.g. socially-distancing from one another. Leaders believe that for a long time things won’t return to the way it was before Covid -19 came. This is why they church will try their best to learn and adopt new ways to cope.