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Summit to Help Faith Groups Respond to Pandemic
Are Canadian faith groups ready for a flu pandemic? CMU is co-sponsoring a June 20-23, 2007 event with the International Centre for Infectious Diseases to find out.


Are faith groups ready for a flu pandemic? They had better be! Many health care experts, such as the World Health Organization, say that a flu pandemic is inevitable. Dr. Allison McGeer, an infectious disease consultant at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, says "there will be another pandemic … it's 100 percent sure."

… all faith groups across Canada can help their congregations prepare for a pandemic at the June 20-21 Summit …

Tim Foggin is a family physician from Burnaby, B.C. and moderator of an e-mail group called Church Emergency Preparedness, which is dedicated to helping churches prepare for a pandemic. "A flu pandemic is inevitable," he says, adding that there's a good chance it could happen in the next five to ten years.

The last time such a severe flu pandemic hit Canada was in 1918, killing 50,000 Canadians. When it hits again, the Public Health Agency of Canada estimates it will kill between 11,000 to 58,000 Canadians and that 2.1 million to five million would get sick.

Various levels of government, the health care system and the business community are already making plans for the pandemic, as have a few faith groups. But now all faith groups across Canada can help their congregations prepare for a pandemic at the June 20-21 Faith Community Summit on Pandemic Preparedness and Response at Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) in Winnipeg.

The Summit, which is sponsored by the International Centre for Infectious Diseases (ICID) and CMU, is for leaders from national and regional faith groups and faith-based organizations, members of interfaith councils, and people of faith in the health care field. The goal of the Summit is to help faith leaders make sure their groups are integrated into official pandemic response structures; explore ways to serve members and neighbours affected by the outbreak; and find ways to work together to create proactive, responsible and meaningful pandemic strategies.

The keynote address will be given by Lt. Colonel Irene Stickland of the Salvation Army. Stickland served as Deputy CEO of the Scarborough Grace Hospital during the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in Toronto.

Why should faith groups care about a pandemic?

During the last pandemic, entire cities simply shut down. In Winnipeg, businesses, theatres and churches were closed for 46 days. If nobody goes to worship for one to three months—the estimated time it takes for a pandemic to sweep the nation—who will put money in the offering plate so groups can pay the bills?

Volunteers from places of worship will have a very large role to play …

More importantly, places of worship need to think about the most vulnerable members of their congregations—the elderly, shut-ins, single parent families or those without nearby family support. Randy Hull, who directs emergency preparedness for the city of Winnipeg, says that "city services will be stretched. Volunteers from places of worship will have a very large role to play in helping their own memberships—knowing who they are, and checking in on them."

One way faith groups can prepare is by making a comprehensive list of people who might need assistance during a pandemic, along with a list of those who will check in on them. It could start with the clergy, and include deacons or other caregivers. But what if the entire pastoral staff gets sick? And what if all the deacons fall ill, too—who do you turn to next?

Last, places of worship can be of service to the larger community by providing a list of retired nurses, doctors and other volunteers to local or provincial government emergency preparedness organizations. As well, places of worship could serve as temporary shelters during the pandemic.

According to Tim Foggin, a B.C. family physician and moderator of an e-mail group called Church Emergency Preparedness, government officials recognize that faith groups will have an important role to play during a pandemic. "While the surge on the hospitals will be immense, overwhelming even, the vast majority of people will need simple home care," he says.

The Church and pandemics

In 1996, sociologist Rodney Stark attempted to find out how Christianity went from being a small rag-tag group of people after Christ's death and resurrection to being the dominant religion of the Roman Empire.

… .[historically] the way the Christians selflessly cared for the sick left a powerful impression on their neighbours.

In his ground-breaking 1996 book, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal, Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force, he asked: "How was it done? How did a tiny and obscure messianic movement from the edge of the Roman empire dislodge classical paganism and become the dominant faith of Western civilization?"

Stark concluded that while there was no single answer to explain "the triumph of Christianity," one important factor was the way the early Christians responded to two terrible epidemics. The first, in 165, killed up to a third of the total population of the Roman Empire in 15 years. A second, in 251, struck with similar results.

According to Stark, the way the Christians selflessly cared for the sick left a powerful impression on their neighbours. While non-Christians would sometimes "discard" the infected "onto trash heaps," Christian believers "would go and rescue them and give them some dignity in dying, often in the process contracting the disease themselves."

This care for others, and the Christian practice of mutual aid, enhanced the young faith's reputation and helped to cement the rise of Christianity.

Says Stark: "To cities filled with homeless and the impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services."

Tim Foggin is a family physician and active church member in B.C. As a doctor, he wants to be sure that people are prepared to weather the pandemic. As a Christian, he wants to make sure that the church is active in responding to the needs that will result from the illness. When a flu pandemic hits, Christians will either "prove themselves irrelevant" when so many people are in need, he says, or "play a huge role" in responding to the crisis. He hopes that today's Christians, like the Christians of old, will do the latter.

People interested in ways faith groups can respond to a pandemic can learn more at the June 20-21 Faith Community Summit on Pandemic Preparedness and Response at Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) in Winnipeg. The goal of the Summit, which is sponsored by the International Centre for Infectious Diseases (ICID) and CMU, is to help faith leaders make sure their groups are integrated into official pandemic response structures; explore ways to serve members and neighbours affected by the outbreak; and find ways to work together to create proactive, responsible and meaningful pandemic strategies.

Also speaking along with Colonel Irene Stickland will be Dr. Tracy Parnell of British Colombia Ministry of Health, who has served on the Pandemic Influenza Committee of the Public Health Agency of Canada; John Webb, Nova Scotia Emergency Social Services; Jim Ferguson, Director of the Salvation Army's Disaster Emergency Services; Dr. Tim Foggin, Burnaby B.C.; Rev. Therese Modesto, PhD, who specializes in critical incident and mass fatality occurrences during epidemics and pandemics; and the Rev. Canon Douglas Graydon, Anglican Church of Canada and chair of a bishop's working group to create a Pandemic Response Plan for the Diocese of Toronto.

Topics that will be addressed at the Summit include Responding Faithfully: Spiritual Care in Times of Pandemic; Canada's Pandemic Influenza Plan; Understanding Pandemic--Debunking Myths, and Answering Your Questions; Communicating Pandemic Preparedness to Faith Communities; Faith Responses on the Ground: Needs Assessment and Planning Tools.

The cost of the Summit is $159 per person ($212. after June 1). For more information, or to register, go to http://www.icid.com/faith/ or e-mail info@icid.com.

John Longhurst is the director of communications and marketing for the Canadian Mennonite University.

Originally published in News from CMU, April 2007.

 

 
 
 
 

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