by Bishop Victoria Matthews

For months and months now, stretching back to the scare about SARS, we have heard that a new pandemic is on the horizon.  Communities in the Diocese of Edmonton are being warned that as much as 30% – 38% of the population will be unable to work inside or outside the home.  I assume similar estimates are being offered for every part of Canada.  There is growing pressure to have an emergency response plan in place if and when the hospitals and medical centres no longer are adequate to meet the needs.

Canadian Christians need to ask what this will mean for them and what their vocation in Christ is, in terms of response.  At the first level of distress it means one in three priests and licensed lay ministers may be unable to work.  It means budgets may have to be cut drastically due to lower attendance.  We know some people will stay away because of fear of contagion.  But that is really only the first level of consideration.

We know that all our communities are dependant upon volunteer support.  This is particularly true in areas where the population is marginalized and at risk.  Just think of the volunteers involved in local food banks, out of the cold programs, lunch programs, community suppers and drop-in centres.  The list goes on and on.  In the event of a pandemic, such as influenza, which is able to spread from person to person, both the fear and the critical shortage of volunteers will escalate.

And who will be most at risk?  Obviously the very young and the very old.  Nursing homes in large urban centres already discourage visiting when there are certain outbreaks in the institution.  It is easy to understand why.  But many of the residents are dependant not only on being fed and assisted with self-care, but also dependant upon the daily visit from a family member or close friend.  Questions about quality of life come immediately to mind.  In one instance where visiting was strenuously discouraged by a long-term care centre, I witnessed a frail but very alert 90 year old retreat into herself more and more because she was denied the love and stimulation of frequent visits.

Each person and every community will have difficult decisions to make.  For example, after the first possible or probable exposure to such a contagion, will you place yourself voluntarily in isolation?  Or, will you wait until it is required?  What will your parish do to insure the local homeless population, presently dependant on community centres, shelters and drop-in centres are not suddenly abandoned without shelter, food or medical care?  If you minister or volunteer alongside many others, have you discussed an emergency plan.  You need to have it in place before the pandemic strikes.

No one needs or wants fear mongering but denial of what the World Health Organization sees as a probable threat, is also dangerous and wrong.  As Christians our calling to love our neighbour includes the lost, the least and the last.  Now is the time to talk to family, friends and fellow Christians about how you will respond in the event of a pandemic.

This article follows upon a discussion of the Human Life Task Force of Faith, Worship and Ministry and was written at its request.