‘Scare mongering’ is my usual cynical response to the reports of pandemic flu, whether it’s of the man, bird or swine variety. Imagine my surprise to learn that one of my Co-Mission colleagues had given some serious thought to the issue and produced a paper for our consideration.
But wasn’t that taking it all a little too seriously? Apparently not. Over the last 400 years we’ve averaged three flu pandemics per century. The last one was 1918. We’re long overdue.
But surely the UK can avoid it? Apparently not. It’s in the nature of a pandemic to spread over the whole world. That’s why it’s called a pan-demic, after all.
But surely it won’t be that bad? Apparently not. The first wave of the pandemic will last somewhere between 8-12 weeks. There’ll be no vaccine during that time. It’s predicted that 50% of the population will be infected. It’s anticipated that 30-40% of the workforce will be out of action at any one time. Each London borough can expect over 500 extra deaths. It’ll cause major disruption to transport networks and healthcare provision. Education and normal social institutions may not be able to function. Civil unrest is has not been discounted.
The paper was written by Andrew Nicholls. He’s an old friend and one of the church leaders in Kingston. He also used to be a Doctor. Ethical issues, and especially medical ethical issues, are his speciality. When he speaks I’ve found it’s usually worth taking notes! Andrew may distribute his paper more widely than the Senior Staff of the Co-Mission Initiative. But let me give you the salient points.
He argues that, ‘A flu pandemic is thought to be inevitable at some point in the future. The Mexico flu may or may not be it. The effect on our communities will be huge, with public services affected and possible civil unrest, for a period of 8-12 weeks per pandemic wave’.
However, this may be a God given opportunity to serve the communities in which He’s placed us because, ‘Our churches could be well placed to serve our communities during a pandemic, and to help prepare for one. There is potential for us to contribute as a mercy ministry, serving our communities, perhaps alongside others in a co-ordinated response now being drawn up in London Boroughs, or independently’.
Andrew identifies three strands in the developing public strategy
- preventing infection
- limiting proliferation
- distributing medication
He suggests that churches can help in six ways
- Helping prepare our church members with clear information
- Sharing the care of infected members between those who are well at the time
- Following advice about closing large meetings if this is given
- Helping with temporary arrangements for any large excess deaths (temporary burials if morgues overloaded), bereavement counselling and so on.
- Pro-actively finding those in our streets who may not have a ‘flu friend’, and providing one. [A ‘flu friend’ is someone who can get medication for someone who requires care whilst they’re affected]. We could so this by co-operating with other local churches and serve the communities together.
- Taking note of the weak and vulnerable in our streets and neighbourhoods, helping them find out their NHS number, and being ready to call on them as the outbreak hits to check on their health and on whether services are functioning for them.
Clearly I need to put my cynicism to one side and we need to think through how we can serve the community amongst which God has placed us.
Shortly before the spiritual reformation of the 16th century a flu pandemic wiped out a third of the population of Europe. Both Luther and Calvin ministered to their congregations during time of sickness. Writing on his blog, Al Mohler quotes them both.
Luther stayed in Wittenburg throughout the bubonic plague and told his congregation, ‘If God wants to have you sick like this, what He wants will certainly be better than what we want’.
Calvin stayed in Geneva and taught his students, ‘the greatest need which a man ever has of the spiritual doctrine of our Lord is when His hand visits him with afflictions, whether of disease or other evils, and specially at the hour of death’.
Mohler concludes his piece with this pertinent reminder,
‘In the end, sickness points to sin and sin points to our need for Christ. Luther, Calvin, and all true ministers of Christ know that sickness and death point to our need for a Savior. Even as Christians seek to minister to the physical needs of the sick, the spiritual need is even more urgent. Each tiny germ shows us our need for the Gospel. Every cough is a reminder of coming judgment. Our confidence is placed only in the ministry of the Christ our Physician, ‘who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases.’ [Psalm 103:3]