Faith in Times of Disease: A Reflection on the Church's Response to the Threat of Ebola in the US
by The Rev. Jim Tilbe
“You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.” Psalm 91:5-6 NRSV
As long as human beings have lived in communities, there has been fear of disease. History tells horrific tales of plagues that have ravaged cities, nations, even whole continents. Modern medicine has done much to prevent the spread of dangerous infections, but we know there are limits to what science can do, and that makes us uneasy.
The current outbreak of Ebola in West Africa has shaken the world. This outbreak, perhaps the worst ever recorded, has brought the deaths of thousands. In some places the disease progresses unabated. Ebola is a truly frightening disease, the stuff of nightmares. And so that nightmare has captured the minds of many here in the United States. We have seen a few cases of Ebola here, brought by a traveler from West Africa or brought by healthcare workers who bravely went to fight the disease in Africa and returned infected. However, it must be said again and again, there has been no spread of Ebola in the community and it is very unlikely that such spread will occur.
In response to those who are anxious about Ebola, we must acknowledge this fear. The fear is real, even if the threat is not. Fear is not something people can turn off at will, but education will help.
The threat of Ebola in the United States is low because the disease is difficult to pass from one person to another in its early stages. We have seen family members of Ebola patients escape the disease even when living under the same roof with the patient. Casual contact will not pass the virus. Our medical facilities have the ability to isolate those who contract the disease, which is vitally important in the later stages of Ebola when it is more virulent. Hospitals have been working to increase capacity for such isolation should it be needed.
It’s important to put the threat of Ebola into perspective. It is a fact that more people are going to die this winter in the United States from Influenza than from Ebola. The Center for Disease Control estimates that in recent years between 3,000 and 49,000 people have died each year from Influenza related illness. The numbers have a large range because Influenza is stronger in some years than others.
Steps that can be taken to prevent the spread of Influenza will also prevent the spread of Ebola in its early stages. People and congregations who are interested in preventing the spread of disease should consider the following steps:
1. Get in the practice of keeping germs out of your body. Many germs enter by way of the hands when we touch the eyes, nose or mouth. Wash your hands often, especially before eating. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
2. Hand washing is considered key to limiting the spread of contagious diseases. Alcohol based hand sanitizers offer a good alternative when a sink and soap are not available. We might make these sanitizers available to people as they come to church and even as they leave. We do a lot of hand shaking and that's a great way to share germs. Keep in mind that this gel is very flammable until dried. Although it kills most germs (including Ebola), certain types of germs can survive these products, so hand washing is still vitally important.
3. Stay home when you are sick. Don’t share your germs unnecessarily. Similarly, avoid being with sick people if possible.
4. Churches should always be concerned about hygienic practices. This includes food handling, cleaning and sanitizing bathrooms, kitchens and children's areas. If your church uses a common cup for communion, you should think long and hard about that.
5. Consider those in your congregation and community who may be vulnerable in the event of a disease outbreak. How might the church reach out to them? If a church member were quarantined, how could you reach out to them? Perhaps by electronic means?
6. Urge people (especially pastors) to take care of themselves. Building up your immune system is the best defense. This includes proper diet, rest and exercise. And above all, try to stay calm!
Finally, pray for the people affected by Ebola. It has caused great suffering in parts of Africa, and raised anxiety around the world. Pray not only for those suffering, but for those who have taken on the task of fighting the disease. At this time, neither the National UCC or Church World Service have asked for more than our prayers.
Disaster Resource Team
Massachusetts Conference, UCC
Photo from the United Church of Christ website
The Rev. Jim Tilbe