A dire warn­ing

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - EDITORIAL -

Go­ing to wakes and fu­ner­als could be the death of At­lantic Cana­di­ans. Or, at least so warns the Pub­lic Health Agency of Canada. The agency is be­ing prag­matic, adding a slight twist of the macabre, as it dis­cusses the pos­si­ble im­pact from the next in­fluenza pan­demic.

A pan­demic oc­curs, on the av­er­age, three to four times a cen­tury, so we seem over­due in North Amer­ica. It’s one of the rea­sons why pub­lic health of­fi­cials are in­creas­ingly adamant each year in urg­ing Cana­di­ans to get a flu vac­cine shot.

While health of­fi­cials have de­tailed plans to en­sure peo­ple sur­vive a pan­demic, they also pro­pose some un­set­tling rec­om­men­da­tions for the na­tion’s fu­neral homes to han­dle those who don’t. Given the al­most re­li­gious de­vo­tion of At­lantic Cana­di­ans to turn out by the hun­dreds to of­fer sup­port and sym­pa­thy to fam­i­lies, and pay last re­spects to the de­ceased, we seem at greater risk in this re­gion than other parts of Canada.

Fu­neral homes can ex­pect to han­dle about six months work within a six- to eight-week pe­riod. Par­lours in larger cities may not be able to cope with the in­creased de­mand.

It con­jures up graphic images of the Black Death or bubonic plague which swept across Europe in the Mid­dle Ages, killing mil­lions, and re­sult­ing in corpses be­ing tossed out into the streets, fol­lowed by mass buri­als. Fu­neral homes are be­ing urged to make plans if their own staff gets sick, in­clud­ing ar­range­ments with vol­un­teers from ser­vice clubs or churches to dig graves. Stor­age space for corpses could also be a prob­lem, so re­frig­er­ated trucks, or curl­ing and hockey rinks, could be pressed into ser­vice.

The most re­cent pan­demic was the out­break of the Ebola virus in West Africa. Iso­lated cases in North Amer­ica caused con­sid­er­able fear and con­cern. While Ebola was spread through di­rect con­tact with the bod­ily flu­ids of victims or corpses, the body of some­one dy­ing from the flu is not con­ta­gious. But mourn­ers who at­tend fu­neral homes and churches could be con­ta­gious.

So the agency urges pro­vin­cial health of­fi­cials to plan on pos­si­ble re­stric­tions on the type and size of gath­er­ings. That would be a huge prob­lem, es­pe­cially in a prov­ince like Prince Ed­ward Is­land, where the av­er­age at­ten­dance at a vis­i­ta­tion or wake is 1,000 to 1,400 peo­ple.

The health agency rec­om­mends that fu­neral homes stock an ex­tra sup­ply of in­ex­pen­sive cas­kets be­cause fam­i­lies could ex­pe­ri­ence mul­ti­ple deaths, which would strain fi­nan­cial re­sources. It’s all not very re­as­sur­ing.

We like to think that our mod­ern health-care sys­tem makes us im­mune or in­vul­ner­a­ble to pan­demics. Yet the odds are in­creas­ing for an in­fluenza out­break. Viruses and bac­te­ria are be­com­ing re­sis­tant or im­mune to drugs. Hu­mans in­ter­act on a mas­sive scale each day around the globe by plane, train, ship and au­to­mo­bile. The chances of lim­it­ing such an out­break to a single coun­try or re­gion is re­mote. It’s not a pleas­ant pre­dic­tion be­ing of­fered by our pub­lic health agency. But we have to plan and be ready.

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