When H1N1 visits food banks and shelters, what then? We need a plan

Coughs and sneezes spread diseases. Trap the germs in your handkerchief.  ~  World War 2 health slogan

Charities and non-profits provide critical services to communities across Canada. What if they are not adequately prepared for an H1N1 outbreak? asks Marcel Lauzière, head of Imagine Canada, a national program to promote public and corporate giving, volunteering and support to the community.

In an opinion piece that appeared in a number of Canadian newspapers this week, including the Winnipeg Free Press, Lauzière attempts to bring to public attention the potential impact of the H1N1 pandemic on Canada’s charitable and non-profit organizations. From the blank looks and long pauses over the phone he says he has been experiencing when he starts talking about it, it is apparent that this issue is still languishing at lower levels in the nation’s health bureaucracies.

The focus of most official attention is on hospitals, schools, businesses, First Nations reserves, and vulnerable individuals like pregnant women. There is a lively and useful public debate about how prepared we are, and how prepared we should be, for a major outbreak. But charities and non-profits are too often not part of the discussion. Left out of the picture is the fact that charities and non-profit organizations deliver critical services to Canadians. If the H1N1 epidemic is severe, what will happen if charitable organizations lose up to a third of their staff and volunteers to illness?

What if food banks start closing? How will desperate families feed their kids? What if meals are no longer prepared and delivered to elderly people who can’t get out and who have no friends or relatives nearby to help them? What about Canadians needing dialysis or chemotherapy but who can’t get to the hospital because there are no volunteers to drive them? What about the thousands of children and their families who rely on local sports and recreation and arts and cultural organizations for their weekly activities? What if the homeless shelters shut their doors in the middle of winter?

As a third pillar of Canadian society alongside governments and business, charities and non-profit organizations are part of an intricate system of societal supports that significantly improve the quality of life in Canada. They are also a significant part of our economy. “The sector generates more than $87 billion annually, a contribution of almost seven per cent to Canada’s GDP. It employs more than 1.5 million Canadians (full-time equivalents)and mobilizes 12.5 million volunteers in Canada.”

Lauzière refers to the importance of “business continuity” during an outbreak and the plans that government and major corporations are putting in place. Everyone agrees that the economy must keep on working. That is precisely why we cannot forget charities and non-profits.

[They] are part of our economy too, as well as being major contributors to our quality of life… The demand many of them face is already greater given the impact of the recession and now they must prepare for the possibility of an H1N1 outbreak. What if they are not adequately prepared?

We will need them more than ever at a time of crisis. This is no time for blank looks. As a country, we need to figure out how we can help them be prepared for whatever this influenza season brings.

Lauzière’s argument is lucid and important, but he has put the focus largely on continuity of vital services to the disadvantaged. Yes, if H1N1 cripples charities the results could be, according to the Halifax Chronicle Herald’s melodramatic headline, “catastrophic.” But where are the plans to prevent H1N1 transmission among people these charities serve? This, it seems to me, is an issue that should be higher up the priority list of public health authorities. Toronto has a working document, the Toronto pandemic influenza plan: a planning guide for homeless and housing service providers [PDF]. Other Canadian agencies seem to be a little slow on the uptake.

Rather than focusing almost entirely on business continuity, it makes sense to intensify efforts to slow the spread of the virus among disadvantaged and equity seeking groups who make use of charitable services such as food banks and shelters. These are environments in which disease can spread quickly. Sleeping and eating in close quarters, the homeless are even more vulnerable to infection by H1N1, many of them already being immune compromised, poorly nourished, and suffering addiction and chronic illness.

While Marcel Lauzière’s plea for a plan to maintain services should not go unheard, it is also important that our public health authorities act now to slow the spread of H1N1 among the many vulnerable users of charitable services until the vaccine is ready. Or we may find down the road that we have adequately prepared service organizations with no one left to serve.

Advertisements

0 Responses to “When H1N1 visits food banks and shelters, what then? We need a plan”



  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s




Subscribe

My Tweets

My Delicious Bookmarks

PubMed Logo

Blog Stats

  • 68,492 hits

%d bloggers like this: