Friday, January 19, 2018

Are Places of Worship Ready for a Flu Pandemic?

Flu is gripping parts of Canada and the U.S., filling hospitals and dominating the news as more and more people get sick. It reminded me of a column I wrote in 2009 about faith groups and pandemics—and if they were ready for one. It still may be germane today.

Is your place or worship ready for the coming flu pandemic?

Does your church, temple, synagogue or mosque have a list of all the members who might be most vulnerable to the illness?

Do you have teams of members who will check in on shut-ins and seniors?

Have you contacted city or provincial authorities to see if your meeting place could be used as a temporary shelter or hospital?

If not, now’s the time to get ready. That’s the message that Dr. Tim Foggin is trying to share with group that will listen.

Foggin, a family physician from Burnaby, B.C., is on a crusade to help faith groups prepare for the coming pandemic.

“Let me put it simply,” he says. “A flu pandemic is inevitable. Period. It’s not hype. It’s going to happen.”

Adds Dr. Allison McGeer, an infectious disease consultant at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Toronto: “There will be another pandemic,” she told the magazine Faith Today. “It's 100 percent sure.”

When a serious flu pandemic hits, an estimated 2.1 million to five million Canadians will get sick, and between 11,000 to 58,000 will die. But unlike other disasters, like Hurricane Katrina or the Tsunami, there won’t be help from the outside that can pour in to help victims.

“A pandemic will affect every country, region and village in a relatively close time,” Foggin says.

Already, various levels of government, the health care system and the business community are making plans for the pandemic. But it’s only recently that faith groups have started to put it on their agendas.

But why should faith groups care?

One reason is how a pandemic will affect congregational life. During the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, the city of Winnipeg was shut down for 42 days in an effort to control the virus—no going to school, theatre, concerts or church services.

Randy Hull, who directs emergency preparedness for the City of Winnipeg, says the city wouldn’t order the closure of public buildings today, but he admits it is likely people will voluntarily not go to places like shopping centres, theatres, sporting events or places of worship during a pandemic.

If that’s the case, how will faith groups minister to their members?

Online is one way, of course; churches prepare daily or weekly devotionals that families can do at home, in lieu of gathering for worship.

What about communion? Churches that use a common cup will likely have to change to intinction, or dipping the bread into wine.

Passing the peace and shaking hands at the door may also have to be suspended for the duration.

And then there’s the matter of the offering; how will it be collected if nobody goes to church for weeks or months?

Some sort of on-line donation form, or pre-authorized cheques, would be required.

But those things pale in comparison to how groups can help the most vulnerable in their congregations—the elderly, shut-ins, single parent families or those without nearby family support.

So, what’s a place of worship to do?

It can create a comprehensive list of people who might need the most assistance during an epidemic.

It can set up a way for someone to check in on them, to be sure they are OK. It could start with the pastors, and include deacons or other caregivers.

Says Hull: “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.”

Finally, places of worship can be of help to their communities and provincial government emergency preparedness organizations during a pandemic.

This would include providing them with a list of retired nurses, doctors and other volunteers who could be called on to help what will surely be an overwhelmed health care system. 

As well, places of worship—especially those with large gyms and good-sized kitchens—could serve as temporary shelters or even isolation wards.

We can all hope a pandemic never happens. But in case it does, it would be good to be prepared.

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