COVID-19 Response from a Buddhist Perspective – The Sarvodaya Experience in Sri Lanka

By Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne, President of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement of Sri Lanka

According to the Buddha, health is considered “the supreme gain” in life; “Arogya Parama Labha” (Dhammapada Verse 204). Buddhist teachings are abundant with content that relates to health – both physical and psychological. Buddhism has clearly recognized the value of promotive and preventive health aspects while also providing guidance on curative or healing aspects related to illness. It also pays significant attention to various sociological dimensions of disease, particularly those associated with stigma and discrimination.

The literal meaning of Sarvodaya is ‘awakening of all’ and ‘Shramadana’ means ‘sharing of time, thoughts and energy’. Working towards the Buddhist goal of “wellbeing of all” (sabbe saththa sukhi honthu), the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement of Sri Lanka founded in 1958, has been at the forefront of poverty alleviation, peace building and reconciliation in Sri Lanka for over 6 decades and reaching over 15,000 village communities throughout the country. Buddhists follow the “Four principles of social conduct” or “offerings” (“Sathara Sangraha Wasthu”). They are dana (giving or sharing), priyavachana (pleasant language), arthacharya (engaging in meaningful or constructive activity), and samanathmatha (equality).  Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sarvodaya has engaged in various activities in line with those Buddhists principles.

Sarvodaya Staff and Volunteers in Action
Sarvodaya Staff and Volunteers in Action © Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement

Emergency Response

Based on the first principle of dana, there was an immediate and widespread response from ordinary people to help others who were affected by the lockdown. Sarvodaya mobilized religious leaders belonging to all faiths assisted by neighborhood groups, youth volunteers and civil society organizations, collected vast amounts of food items and distributed them to large numbers of low-income families and differently abled persons, children, elders and women in care homes. The restrictions imposed by health authorities in addition to the curfew prevented groups from engaging in such emergency relief work as they used to do in other disaster situations. Even experienced humanitarian organizations such as the Sarvodaya Movement found it extremely challenging to respond as we could not risk the health of the relief workers. However, despite these constraints, we are pleased that during the two-month long lock down period, there was no major food crisis and we largely attribute this to people practicing the Buddhist principle of “dana”.

Risk Communication

Sarvodaya Awareness Raising Materials
Sarvodaya Awareness Raising Materials © Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement

Under our public health mandate as civil society, Sarvodaya played a leading role in providing vital information to the public in local languages of Sinhala and Tamil. We took the lead in disseminating vital health information to the public with creative social media posts, videos and influential communication. These were disseminated across Sarvodaya social media channels and reached a significantly large audience across the country. This is putting into practice the second Buddhist principle of social conduct: piyavachana (pleasant language). Sarvodaya also produced risk communication messages based on religious teachings. In partnership with the UNICEF Sri Lanka office, we convened a group of eminent religious leaders at the national level who met virtually every week to discuss how to manage the situation particularly in relation to child protection and welfare. We produced faith-based messaging to address the prevailing challenges at household and community levels (see image).

Addressing the Socio-economic Impact

Since the beginning of the crisis, Sarvodaya immediately started to assess the socio-economic impact mainly on the village communities where we have been working over the years. Rapid assessments were carried out to help those families who were worse affected and also to support micro, small and medium enterprises. Through well-wishers and external donor support, a small grants scheme was initiated to restart businesses. As some trades such as those related to tourism were badly affected with no sign of early recovery, alternative income generation schemes had to be worked out. COVID-19 reminded us of the value of a simple and sustainable life which is a fundamental teaching in Buddhism. Sarvodaya aspires a no-poverty, no-affluence society which is achieved through inner spiritual development where the focus is on basic needs of communities. Sri Lanka is a country with rich natural resources and agriculture still remains the means of main economic sustenance for rural populace. COVID-19 demonstrated the importance of decentralized and devolved economic and governance systems. This is in effect putting into practice the third and fourth principles arthacharya (meaningful activity) and samanathmatha (equality) respectively. Sarvodaya is now positioning itself to address the socio-economic transition based on the “middle-path” as shown in Buddhist teaching.

Faith in Development Monitor (FiDM)

five categories - 500 seconds to read

Faith and existing belief systems do not receive enough attention in global development cooperation despite the fact that human development is inseparably interwoven with worldviews. Development is taking place in all societies and cultures which are deeply influenced by religions. At the same time, faith-based organizations are among the oldest and most influential actors in global and local development cooperation. The Faith in Development Monitor (1) illustrates the relevance of religion for international development cooperation, (2) increases religious literacy among practitioners and policymakers, and (3) comprehensively explains current developments in the field of "religion and development". We encourage readers and recipients to engage in dialogue with faith-based organizations.

Next Edition:

9 March 2021


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