Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Black Death Awareness Week

Well, no, not really. But I was recently chatting with Prof. Lindsey Davies, the National Director of Pandemic Flu Preparedness at the Department of Health (as one does), and a thought occurred to me. She had been saying that public awareness of the fact that a world-wide outbreak of nasty influenza is well overdue seems to swing wildly between panic and complacency. As bird flu strikes in South East Asia, the tabloids run scare headlines, and the internet sale of dodgy antiviral drugs soars. Then there isn't a huge epidemic and everyone forgets about it. Yet the danger remains, and the likelihood of a massive flu outbreak continues to hover over us.

What we ought to be doing is raising people's awareness of several things. Firstly, that eventually (perhaps quite soon) it will happen. Secondly, that if we are prepared for it, the impact will be lessened, and there is no need to panic. And thirdly (there's more, but no one wants more than three points at a time) we need to raise public awareness of basic hygiene. Why is using a handkerchief a lost art amongst younger people? Coughs and sneezes really do spread diseases, (as do unwashed hands) but lots of people seem hardly to realise it, and so on....

The key in responding to the threat, then, is neither to panic nor to ignore it, but to be prepared, to be aware of how to respond, and how to minimise the spread of illness. Many people will fall ill, and quite a few will die. There will be a strain not only on the health service, but on all areas of life. Yet it is survivable, and with preparedness it need not be as bad as it could be.

Being a preacher, I couldn't help drawing a spiritual parallel. Many people believe in God, and will resort to prayer and even churchgoing in a crisis. And often they seem disappointed that it seems to offer less comfort and strength than it promises. Part of the reason is that the necessary preparation is lacking. Of course, God does tend to come through, but he can build much better on a foundation of steady spirituality. Where there is a constant habit of prayer and worship, and a way of thinking that acknowledges God from day to day, there is a firm basis for dealing with the lows and highs of life. Otherwise we tend to swing between panic and complacency, and end up wondering why we never bothered to have any spiritual preparation in place.

Coming back to the worldly, Prof Davies asked me what preparations our diocese has for a flu pandemic. After all, there may well be a lot more funerals, pastoral needs and so on, while quite a few clergy will no doubt be out of action, and the bereaved will still be wanting the same care and consideration for themselves and their nearest and dearest. So I looked it up on the diocesan web site. The good news is that there's an entry for " flu pandemic". The bad news is that there's no actual content linked to the header. No doubt preparations are in train....

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