With all the frightening news coverage about the 2019-nCoV coronavirus, one can’t help but worry about it spreading around the world, especially as our media is good at spreading fear as well as information (gotta sell papers or get viewers!). And scary pandemics definitely draw eyes.
In fact, in the past few months I’ve been bathing in pandemics—first playing an epic 18-game-series of Pandemic Legacy with my son over December. And then, just a few days before fears of coronavirus came to my town of Middletown (a sick Wesleyan student was briefly isolated after being in the same airport as someone who contracted the disease) we started watching Netflix’s Pandemic series. While it was well-made, it could’ve been better—the 1918 flu that killed at least 50 million people got a few minutes of coverage while some technologist who is trying to create a universal flu vaccine has been the star of the show (reinforcing the myth that technology will save us—from disease, from climate change, or from whatever other symptoms living in a globalized consumer culture brings).
But of course, that’s not the case. Sure, maybe this guy will succeed and flu will become rare. But other diseases, new or new variations, will come along. Or diseases that have mostly been contained will flare up again as our antibiotic army is slowly felled by overuse, particularly in factory farms. And because of our sheer numbers, the density of our cities, and our globalized transportation system, diseases can become pandemics quickly—more quickly than many governments can respond.
So what should we discuss? I’d argue it’s the question: “How can we, Gaians, prepare our communities for this?”*
The Pandemic series does include a great case study about a New York City disease outbreak specialist whose job it is to stay on top of any possible spread of high-risk diseases—from flu to coronavirus. That is reassuring—and I hope all metropolises, states, and countries have the equivalent. But are there things Gaians can do at the community level? Two stories are worth sharing:
The Village of Eyam
Let’s start with the English village of Eyam, during the time of the Bubonic Plague. Unbeknownst to the villagers, hidden in a delivery of cloth, were fleas carrying Yersinia pestis bacteria. Soon after the tailor’s assistant opened the package, he had contracted the disease and died. In the next three months, 42 others followed him and panic (including the instinctual desire to flee) was growing. But the village rector—who felt it was his duty to stop the spread of the disease—realized it would be best if Eyam quarantined itself. He then convinced the village to isolate itself (and even found a patron to send food and supplies).** Over the next year, 30-70% of the village died—including the rector’s wife and one woman, Elizabeth Hancock, who had to bury her husband and six children by herself. But the quarantine held and Eyam, even today, is celebrated for stopping the plague from spreading to the rest of England.
Sociologist Rodney Stark, in his book The Rise of Christianity, describes the power in the Christian value of helping others—and how this contributed to the cult’s exponential growth in its early years. Specifically Stark points to how Christians, during early plagues in the Roman Empire, didn’t flee the cities but stayed and helped patients—at great peril to themselves. As they treated pagans and other non-Christians, many of the survivors became Christians themselves—pulled to Christianity by the compassion they received and the exemplars who saved their lives, and also pushed there because their own social networks (of pagans who either died or fled) had been decimated.
In other words, belief systems matter—even when you might not think they’re relevant.
So how should Gaians respond to pandemics?
Can we put the collective good over our individual good? Can we isolate ourselves willingly? Can we risk our wellbeing to help heal others? Can we vaccinate ourselves to increase human herd immunity? (I shouldn’t have to include that last one but measles too has been in the news of late. A disease that should have essentially no cases in the US is on the rise because parents aren’t vaccinating their children. I understand the concern about vaccines—and believe in better spacing them out to reduce the aggregate body burden of the additives (see here), but ultimately, it’s essential—even a duty—for us to vaccinate our children.)
The questions I ask are not immaterial. While writing this, I did some quick research on community disease preparedness. The easily findable results were underwhelming: a few MOOCs that offered either abstract information about pandemics or personal preparedness; a WHO hub on pandemics (geared toward government officials); a Ready.gov page and CDC page on Pandemics; and a CDC flu-preparedness page. I then found there is a CERT program where towns and cities across the US have Community Emergency Response Teams (for disasters, terrorism, and outbreaks).
However, finding useful information other than the local directory was difficult. There was a local coordinator for Middletown—however it turns out he retired from the city two years ago (the lack of update is actually more concerning than not having a program as it lulls us into a false sense of security). Though in fairness, when I emailed him, he responded within a few hours and we had a great chat about the program, which is active.
In 1918, there was a shortage of nurses and medical personnel. It would be wise to provide training to citizens in these skills. Upon much deeper digging I did find a Medical Reserves Corps. Again, Middletown has its own branch—with a count of 18 volunteers listed. But the website is so ancient that I worried that this too is far less current than it appears. Though when I reached out to the Middletown employee who manages this, she also responded within a few hours and told me of their monthly meeting time and invited me to join, which I will in March, as there’s a 2-day training scheduled for February (which is also a good sign).***
But ultimately, if no one knows about these resources, then no one volunteers, and they don’t actually become useful. Is this a marketing issue? Is it a time-stress issue? Is it the fact that no local churches are telling their members to get involved? I’m guessing all three. But along with personal preparedness, Gaians should get involved with preparing their communities in a variety of ways—to serve, to role-model, and yes, even to inspire some to understand that they, too, are Gaians, and to draw them into our community.
So let me end with a question to you: what resources are available in your town or city? CERT, MRC? Other organizations? Are you involved in any? If so, what are they like? Or if not, would you (why or why not)? Please share any thoughts you have with our community.
* Not ourselves as individuals—that’s been covered in the news. And especially valuable is this story, which can be summarized thusly: wash your hands A LOT. Isolate yourself if you are sick. And don’t wear a mask if you’re not sick (unless you’re a health worker or in a place where there are a lot of infected people). And don’t hoard masks, which just prevents them from getting to the people that need them.
** This took the help of the former rector, as the current rector wasn’t trusted, which also shows the importance of coalition building.
*** Once I attend a few meetings, I’ll report back what I learn.