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Are Churches Ready for the Next Pandemic?
Churches are uniquely poised to meet both spiritual and physical needs in the next pandemic.

It's not a question of if there will be another worldwide pandemic; it's a question of when. Epidemiologists from around the world agree on that. "There will be another pandemic," says Dr. Allison McGeer, infectious disease consultant at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Toronto, Ontario. "It's 100 percent sure."

Dr. Tim Foggin
"A pandemic will affect every country, region and village within a relatively close time," says Dr. Tim Foggin.

The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada has begun to investigate the role which churches can play; however, for most churches, pandemic influenza preparedness is nowhere on their radar.

If Andy Kwak had his way, it would be a top priority. Kwak is president of the Edmonton-based NGO Council of Alberta, a coalition of Christian and secular non-governmental organizations involved in disaster relief. He is bursting with tales of lives transformed in times of crisis. "Faith is key in disaster relief," Kwak says, "because it's in disasters that people turn to God." Kwak also works as executive director for the Salvation Army Community and Family Services in Edmonton, Alberta.

Another reason for the Church to be in the front lines in emergencies is offered by Jacob Kramer, director of disaster response and rehabilitation for the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee: "We serve because it's the Gospel mandate."

Perhaps because of the media frenzy over the H5N1 avian influenza virus, Christians outside the disaster relief community are beginning to wake up to the possibility of a pandemic. More and more, church leaders at every level are asking themselves, "What can we do to help?"

First we learn
For Christians wanting to get involved, the first step is to learn the rationale for pandemic preparedness.

What remains unknown is the severity of that pandemic. The Public Health Agency of Canada estimates that from 11,000 to 58,000 deaths could occur in Canada alone. An estimated 2.1 to five million Canadians would require outpatient care, placing further strain on our health care system. A pandemic could also result in closures of public spaces such as schools, churches and shopping centres for days or weeks at a time.

The implications for the Church? Lots of room for ministry. Dr. Tim Foggin is a family doctor in Burnaby, B.C., and moderator for a website that provides churches with reputable resources on pandemic preparedness. He says pandemics are different from other emergencies because help cannot be expected from the outside. "A pandemic will affect every country, region and village within a relatively close time," he says. Depending on the severity of the outbreak, government resources could be stretched to the breaking-point. In such a scenario, the Christian community could make a significant difference in how effectively treatment, recovery and restoration begin.

Make a plan — now
According to Foggin, the most important thing for churches to do right now is contingency planning — that is, giving serious consideration to the impact of a pandemic on the life and ministry of the church. How will the local church carry out its pastoral ministry in a situation where one-on-one contact is discouraged? If local health authorities close down places of worship, does the church have mechanisms in place to receive members' tithes and pay bills? How will the worshiping gather without actually gathering? Who are the key staff members, and what happens to their ministry in the event of illness or death? Who are the most vulnerable members of the congregation, and what people and financial resources are available to help them? These are only some of the questions a contingency plan should be able to answer.

Andy Kwak
Andy Kwak: "It's in disasters that people turn to God."

Gord Friesen, Canadian director of Mennonite Disaster Service, sees a clear role for denominational agencies in developing plans. When it comes to pandemic preparedness, he says, "I think, probably, there is not too much awareness at the local level."

It's precisely for this reason that the Anglican Diocese of Toronto, along with Niagara and Huron, all in Ontario, formed a tri-diocesan task force to work on basic church policies and communication strategies in the event of a pandemic. Douglas Graydon, the task force representative from Toronto, says the group is working toward a preparedness checklist that will be shared with local Anglican churches.

Share the facts
Because of all the media hype around the avian flu, there is an unmanageable amount of information on pandemics. "The information needs some filtering," Friesen says, and denominational headquarters can serve their churches by sifting out the good from the bad. The end product can then be passed on to the local church.

This is the approach being taken by the Anglican tri-diocesan task force. Clergy and laity have already received a letter outlining basic information on pandemics, ways to prevent transmission and some of the implications of a pandemic on the worshiping life of the church.

"The SARS experience in Toronto caught a lot of people off guard," Graydon says, particularly when it came to communication. Things happen quickly during a crisis and, this time, the Anglicans aim to be better prepared.

Of course, there's nothing to stop the local church from taking initiatives on this front. Friesen says congregations could set up working groups to educate themselves and take responsibility for information sharing within the community. Centre Street, an Evangelical Missionary church in Calgary, Alberta, is a case in point. During its missions and outreach event in March 2006, Samaritan's Purse offered an information session on pandemics. Carol Morris, who attended the talk, says there was a positive response. "Everyone felt well-informed," Morris says, "and it was presented in a matter-of-fact way."

Share the work
In Mary Marrocco's opinion, there is strength in numbers when it comes to emergency planning. Marrocco works for the Canadian Council of Churches, a national organization representing 19 member denominations, and is a staff member on the national advisory group on emergency planning.

Jacob Kramer
"Disaster response always begins at the local level," says Jacob Kramer.

"We try to work ecumenically," Marrocco says. "It's more cumbersome in some ways, but enables stronger representation before the government." The national advisory group is setting up a network that would link government to Church leadership in disasters. While still in the development stages, the plan is to equip churches to work with local and federal agencies to ensure the delivery of spiritual care in emergencies.

"People need pastoral care in crisis situations," Marrocco says, "and we want the government to see the importance of this [ministry]." By working on a network, in conversation with groups like the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, Marrocco and her colleagues hope to drive that point home to the government.

Graydon agrees with Marrocco that, when speaking with the provincial or federal government, it's most efficient to go either as a denomination or, better yet, as a coalition of denominations. Graydon and colleagues from the Presbyterian, United and Salvation Army churches, to name a few, have been meeting with the Ontario emergency planning unit to discuss the role churches might play in a pandemic. "For sure," he says, "other denominations are welcome at the table."

Don't reinvent the wheel
One thing to realize, Kramer says, disaster response always begins at the local level. Consequently, he advises church leaders to contact their municipal emergency management officer. "Say, 'Hey, we are here! Our church has four buses, a gym and an industrial kitchen. If you have any shortages, let us know. And we can come to an emergency planning meeting if you are organizing one.'"

Part of the conversation with local officials involves assessing church assets. What are the people assets? (Are there drivers? Trained nurses?) What services can the congregation offer?" I don't think as a church you have to do everything," Kwak says. "But do be able to say, 'When this happens, we're going to be able to help out with bereavement counselling or help with providing food and so on.'"

Church cooperation with local government can be very fruitful. Kwak mentions an upcoming gathering of local churches in St. Albert, Alberta. Together with the local fire department and a health officer, churches will go through a Pandemic 101 course, with a discussion of ways to serve.

In addition to working with local government, Kwak and Kramer encourage churches to plug in to organizations already experienced in disaster relief. This way, churches avoid duplicating work. The Red Cross, St. John's Ambulance and the Salvation Army all welcome volunteers and are in the process of developing a voluntary sector framework that would include churches. Kwak sums it up: "We work with churches all the time. We cannot do it on our own."

To learn more about how churches can prepare for pandemics, including briefings and a recommended 70-page discussion guide prepared by Dr. Tim Foggin and Marg Pollon, see

Stephanie Douglas is a freelance writer in Toronto, Ontario.

Originally published in Faith Today, May/June 2006.




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