Altar boys, wearing masks to protect themselves from catching the flu-like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), emerge from church after Good Friday mass at Hong Kong’s Roman Catholic Cathedral. A number of Canadian churches also took precautions over Easter to prevent spread of the disease. Anglican dioceses in parts of Ontario and Quebec suspended the common cup and handshaking or hugs during the exchange of the peace and intinction – the dipping of bread into communion wine – was ruled out in at least four dioceses.
EEvents over the last several weeks in Canada, and particularly in Toronto, have reminded us of the power of infectious disease to disrupt far more than the lives of those infected. In addition to the tragedies of sickness and death we have seen the growth of fear and the disruption of relationships and communities.
For many years now, infectious diseases have appeared to be under control. In some ways this has been deceptive. Infectious disease specialists have repeatedly warned us that the appearance of new and serious infectious illnesses is inevitable. Therefore we should ask what lessons we might have learned for next time.
One problem is that when a new illness appears there is a period of time when we are unable to identify the nature of the illness. We will not know what causes the illness, and we do not yet fully understand how it is transmitted. During this time people’s fears are heightened by the experience of uncertainty. Fear and uncertainty are a potent combination.
In this context it is important that the church remember its vocation to be witness to the possibility of a new and inclusive community, a place where all people may hear and respond to the love and grace of God. Such a community will want to act in responsible ways that do not endanger either themselves or the wider community. On the other hand the church needs to be acutely aware of the ways in which fear can all too easily break communities and isolate particular individuals or groups. A healthy response to the emergence of new risks requires several factors.
First, we need reliable and timely information about the true nature and extent of the risks we face. This would be helped by more effective communication and co-operation between health authorities and the churches. When a new disease enters the population we do not have complete information. This means that health authorities will need to err on the side of caution. However, the use of inaccurate or misleading information can have long-term negative consequences. To this day, I am aware of some people who will not shake hands with an HIV-infected person because of fear. In the recent outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), the Chinese communities of Toronto were the ones who bore the brunt of an unreasoned fear that expressed itself often in racism, and resulted in disproportionate losses for Chinese businesses.
In addition to information about the nature of the new illness, we also need information about what activities and behaviours are genuinely risky. Although early information about a new illness is always incomplete, we have a great deal of information from our earlier experiences with infectious disease. For example, there are medical studies around the use of the common cup. We are told that while there is a theoretical risk of infection from the cup, it does not seem to have been a mode of transmission in the other airborne diseases such as colds and influenza. By contrast we do know that the practice of intinction, the dipping of the bread or wafer into the cup, greatly increases the number of bacteria and viruses in the cup because they are carried on the hands. In fact, it appears that the most dangerous things we do together are the things that all groups of people do. We gather, we touch each other and we touch surfaces used by everyone, such as door handles.
To eliminate all these risks would be impossible. This reminds us that there are problems with the attempt of many in our society to seek risk-free lives. Human life is full of risks and the task is to be able to recognize those risks that need to be accepted, and those risks that need to be avoided. When the fear of risk grows out of bounds it becomes a prison that constrains our lives and a barrier to relationships with others.
Finally we need compassion: Compassion both for those whose fears are beyond reason and also for those who might be hurt by such unreasoning fear. Such compassion may involve taking short-term measures as the churches in Toronto did in order to reduce anxiety levels to a point where we could think about the way forward together. In the long run it will remind us all that true human community is inseparable from risk and from the virtues required to face risk: wisdom, compassion, generosity, courage, love, and faith.
Canon Eric Beresford is consultant for ethics and inter-faith relations at the national office of the Anglican Church of Canada.