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Preparing for a Pandemic
What will happen when a pandemic hits? Faith groups must be ready.

When the next flu pandemic strikes, the very first people to get anti-virals – drugs like Tamiflu that can prevent the illness – should be clergy.

That’s what Dr. Joel Kettner, chief medical officer for the Province of Manitoba, told 87 participants at a Faith Community Summit on Pandemic Preparedness at Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) in Winnipeg.

Kettner was joking – sort of. But he was also trying to make the serious point that, during a pandemic, “we will need people to keep us calm and help us not to panic.” Clergy will be counted on to help perform that role.

The important role that faith groups will play during a future pandemic was underscored repeatedly during the event – the first-ever of its kind in Canada – which brought together health care experts, government officials, and faith community leaders from across the country to talk about the role faith groups will play during a major health emergency. At the same time, it underscored the need for faith groups to start planning for a pandemic now.

The SARS experience

What will happen when a pandemic hits? Summit participants received a glimpse of what it might look like from Lt. Colonel Irene Stickland, vice president and deputy CEO of Scarborough Grace Hospital, Ontario’s “ground zero” during the 2003 SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak.

Life at her hospital was normal until one Friday afternoon when a man just back from a visit to China walked into Stickland’s emergency department, complaining about a serious respiratory problem.

“A virulent pathogen had travelled halfway around the world and landed in my hospital,” she said.

She described how hospital staff became ill, how people worried about the unknown disease in their midst, and how many struggled to cope. Altogether, more than 100 of the staff contracted SARS, and everyone lived in fear of bringing it home to their families. “Some family members got it,” Stickland noted.

“For three months we all wore masks and gowns,” she said, noting that “we all remember how difficult it was in the masks, how we couldn’t breathe, how we worried the masks might not work.” To illustrate her point, Stickland invited three volunteers from the audience to sit on the platform during her speech, dressed in gowns, gloves, and a mask. They later spoke about how they felt hot, suffocated, and claustrophobic.

But despite the fear and discomfort, the staff was driven by a desire to care. Stickland said that faith groups will need this same “divine imperative to love and care” when a pandemic strikes.

Unlike with SARS, which caught people by surprise, faith groups can prepare now for a pandemic by educating themselves about the issue; organizing in advance so they’re ready to spring into action when it hits; forming partnerships with other groups and government agencies to maximize the effect of their response; building teams that can work together during a crisis; identifying leaders who will take charge; and creating a volunteer network.

When a pandemic strikes, “we will have no excuse,” she said. “We need to be prepared. The needs of the community will be great, the opportunities for faith-based groups will be many.”

When, not if

The inevitability of another pandemic, and the need for preparation, were twin themes that ran through the summit.

Summit participants Don Muir, Ruth Anne Peters, and Marg Pollon.

“We absolutely do know there will be another pandemic,” Larry Bredensen, regional coordinator for Emergency Preparedness and Response for the Public Health Agency of Canada stated. “We just don’t know when, where or what the virus will be.”

There have been three pandemics since the turn of the 20th century: The Spanish flu of 1918–20, which killed between 20 and 40 million people; the Asian flu in 1957, which killed one to two million; and the Hong Kong flu in 1968, which killed about 700,000 to one million. So far, 12 countries have had human cases of the most recent Avian flu, and 191 people have died.

What makes a flu pandemic so virulent is that victims tend not to be bed-ridden once they become ill, but will continue to move around, go on vacation, go to work, and go to church, even though they’re sick.

Adding to the problem is that people travel so much, and the world is very urbanized. “You can get anywhere in the world in 24 hours,” Bredensen observed, adding that together with our higher density living, viruses can be spread very quickly.

In addition to the health effects of pandemic flu, society would be greatly disrupted by the illness. Stores today depend on “just in time” delivery of everything from groceries to medicine. If truckers get sick in large numbers, or there are increased border delays, consumers might not be able to get food and drugs.

Faith groups, like other sectors of society, “have a duty to act – morally, ethically, and legally,” Bredensen said, adding that we can delay the pandemic by doing things like hand washing or staying home from work, church, and social events when sick. “But we cannot stop it . . . the pandemic clock is ticking.”

Making connections

During his presentation Kettner emphasized that people most at risk in a pandemic will be those individuals who don’t have support networks.

He also said that vaccines aren’t the key to overcoming a pandemic. “The key is building relationships . . . it’s something we re-learn after each emergency.”

Kettner noted that the people who suffered most during Hurricane Katrina didn’t have connections. “It’s not just that they didn’t have a car [to escape New Orleans], they didn’t have connections to someone who had a car.”

The most important relationships occur in daily settings, he added, like in a faith community. Faith groups can play an important role by making sure people are connected to sources of assistance during an emergency.

Duty to care

But what if some people in the faith community don’t want to help the sick? That was the issue addressed by Reverend Douglas Graydon of the Anglican Church of Canada.

… some clergy feared bringing the virus home to their families.

During the SARS crisis in Toronto, some clergy were unwilling to go back to the affected hospitals after the quarantine was lifted. “They said they hadn’t been called to put themselves at risk,” Graydon said, adding that 16 Anglican clergy had to be quarantined during the emergency.

The experience prompted a discussion about how the concept of the “duty to care” applies to clergy during a health emergency like a pandemic. “Can we assume that pastors will be there [during a pandemic]?” Graydon asked, noting that some clergy feared bringing the virus home to their families.

The experience also led the Anglican church to go back to its history and see how it responded to emergencies in the past. “We’re re-telling our story. As a faith community, we’ve been here before.”

Preparing for a pandemic is essential, but not easy to do, said Revered John MacDonald, director of Pastoral Care Initiatives for the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton. Parishes are cash-strapped, he said, adding there’s also a shortage of time and staff to do the extra work and planning.

The final challenge, he noted, was not to communicate a sense of gloom and despair about a pandemic. “We can do whatever we need to do with God behind us!” concluded MacDonald.

John Longhurst is the director of communications and marketing for the Canadian Mennonite University. Phone: 487.3300.

A web site for faith groups on pandemic planning is available on the Canadian Mennonite University web site.

Originally published in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, August 2007.

Used with permission.  Copyright © 2007




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