Of swine flu, hype, and church

I’ve been trying to parse the news explosion around swine flu. It’s still not clear to me if this is a real health threat or if it’s in the family of the buy-duct-tape-to-stop-terror hype meme. So far, it seems closer to the latter. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but here’s what we know:

  • A bunch of people have contracted swine flu in several nations around the world.
  • It’s easily spread, perhaps more so than other variants of flu.
  • Its symptoms are very close to those of “normal” flu.
  • More people, including healthy people, have died in Mexico than might have been expected.
  • There’s been one death in the US so far.
  • Every year 250,000-500,000 die of flu worldwide.

It’s that last statistic that puts some of the others in context. Yes, this seems serious. But if we’re going to panic about things that could kill thousands, here are some other things to worry about:

  • Deaths caused by SUVs, which are inherently more dangerous than other autos.
  • Deaths due to bad diet.
  • Deaths due to smoking.
  • Deaths due to gun violence.
  • Deaths due to senseless wars.

So maybe this swine flu isn’t quite up to its hype? If we’re going to worry about flu deaths, why not others? Don’t get me wrong. Every death, especially those who die before the end of a typical lifespan, is a tragedy. But maybe it’s too soon to cancel everything and stay home until the zombie plague passes by.

And what of the church? Does the church have a role in all thise? Episcopal Life has an article about responses. Episcopal Relief & Development is gearing up for problems. The Diocese of Texas has produced a bulletin insert. (Oh, good, a bulletin insert!) Strangely, that bulletin insert says nothing about what the impact of swine flu might be on church communities. It does, however, reassure its readers that it’s OK to eat pork. (See the death list above, especially the item about bad diet.) Other dioceses have sent out information. My own diocese, not exactly known for communicating about things of, shall we say, diocesan importance, has felt the need to post something on the official diocesan blog. We may not know much about our diocesan budget and finances, but we know that someone’s on the case with swine flu! Other than spreading panic, ought we to do something?

It seems to me that this might afford an opportunity to straighten some things out, if it hasn’t happened already. Remind those Eucharistic Ministers to wash their hands! For that matter, make everyone wash their hands. Let folks know how to determine if church is happening or not. For example, members of the parish I serve know that we will always, always, always have church services when scheduled unless ordered otherwise by a declared state of emergency.

The Roman Catholics bishops have issued a statement about the situation, indicating possible liturgical changes if things get worse. This seems to be on the part-of-the-problem side, rather than the part-of-the-solution side, but I suppose that’s subjective. As for me, if this thing turns out to be serious — and it may — I will ensure that we end the dubious practice of communicant intinction. (This is the one where the communicant keeps bread and dips it into the wine.) That practice, favored by so many in Rhode Island, is the least hygienic of all possible communion practices. But intinction may be the subject of a future rant, so I won’t’ steal my own thunder.

So, for now, here’s what I see as the church’s job:

  • Discourage panic and encourage perspective.
  • Provide public health information as needed.
  • Ensure that church practices are hygienic — this should have already been in place.
  • Be ready to do more.

My own personal task will be to poke fun at hype-mongers and fear-spreaders. They are the last thing we need these days.

Image from — I am not making this up — Zombie Pictures. I love the fact that there’s a blog devoted to zombie pictures. Who knew?

UPDATE: Make sure you pop over and read my suggestions for liturgical changes related to swine flu.

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4 Responses

  1. kali says:

    I understand what you are saying. However maybe you could read about the pandemics in the past. When people become infected in mass amounts day by day, eventually there is no help for them as those who are to care for the ill are ill also.

    It becomes a true pandemic in the sense of the word. We do meet all the criteria of a pandemic.

    Please. I beg of you…please do not take this lightly. It will be people who slough this off who ultimatley will harm all of us by spreading this virus. Pay attention, follow instructions, and wash wash was. I just woke up with chills and runny nose and sneexing. No one is around but I still put on a mask. I am just hoping that this is something flukey.

    Your stats are correct. But you must not slough this off and not worry. Please worry. I do not want you to be a statistic if you cann help it.. 🙂

  2. Phil Snyder says:

    In my parish intinction is done by the Chalice bearer, not by the communicant. This is more hygenic than having 30 different sets of fingers in the wine. If done right, there is only one set of fingers in the wine.

    I might suggest to our celebrant that at the “washing of the fingers” that (s)he also get a “hit” from the steralizing gel (placed discretely on the creedence table)

    YBIC,
    Phil snyder

  3. Captain Rugeley says:

    Dear Scott,

    Some thoughts from ascross the Atlantic –

    At this stage
    • A pandemic is not inevitable.
    • The current H1N1 swine ‘flu appears less dangerous than the avian ‘flu H5N1 we were so worried about in past years.

    Implications for the Churches
    • Wherever possible try to sustain pastoral practice as usual.
    • Church people at present are most likely to encounter risk in isolated pastoral situations, such as hospital chaplaincies or parish priests taking sick communion. Those ministers would need to be rigorous about taking sensible hygiene precautions. (Indeed, there’s a universal need for such precautions for seasonal flu.)
    • The most important single action would be to buy and use a batch of ‘Now wash your hands’ and ‘Catch it, bin it, kill it’ posters.

    Should we find ourselves with a true pandemic, Christians in your country and mine would need to think how they could personally help alleviate suffering in the Third World, where fatalities will be horrific compared with the West.

  4. Anne McCarthy ,Faith Community Nurse says:

    Parish Nurses in this state started stressing handwashing about 4 years ago.Some churches have had tissues and Hand antiseptic on tables at the back of the church for at least three years. I believe in” forewarned forarmed”.The media hype has been extreme but perhaps the general public will pay attention when it comes to prevention of infection by adhering to the handwashing and avoiding contact with persons ,who demonstrate
    questionable symptoms.
    Churches have to be ready for any kind of disaster because our members look to us for healing of the body ,mind and spirit when unusual/usual events occur.