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 healthcare 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.