Of Fire and Flu

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
13th February 2009

Tagged: suffering

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My grandfather died of the flu. He was a man in his prime of life with a large family of young children. Within a few days he was dead.

Usually influenza is of greatest danger to young children or the elderly. However the so-called “Spanish flu” was notorious for its attack on healthy young adults.

Most Australians today have never heard of "the Spanish flu". It was a great pandemic that spread across the world at the end of the First World War—killing more people than the war did.

Nobody knows how many people succumbed to its deadly power. It is widely reported to have killed somewhere between 20 and 40 million people in a little over a year. Some nations were decimated. Fiji is said to have seen 14% of the population die in a two-week period. In America half a million people died: in Britain a quarter of a million. In nations like India there are no accurate figures, only estimates running into several millions.

Australia was more affected by the War than the flu. Of the population of 5 million we lost 60,000 in the war and 12,000 in the flu pandemic. But as the epidemic lasted only a few months the rate of death seemed much the same.

The nation went into shock. Drastic methods were introduced to avoid spreading the disease. Sharing at the Lord's Supper was discouraged and even discontinued. People wore masks in the streets. It was the greatest natural disaster in the history of the nation. Yet within a few decades it had slipped from public memory and is rarely referred to even in our history books.

This last week we have been through another appalling disaster. The catastrophic loss of life and property is a national tragedy. The speed with which it happened is traumatising. Our inability to stop the carnage, with the world's best equipment and some of the bravest and most heroic fire fighters, undermines our sense of safety and security. The whole disaster leaves people feeling frustratingly impotent.

In the midst of it we see humanity at its best and wretchedly worst. The idea that some people may have lit the fires intentionally is sickening. The existence of bogus charity collectors, stealing from donors and victims, is just plain wicked. The need to protect burnt out homes from looters borders on the unbelievable! But the Bible teaches us of human depravity and so even this sinfulness should not surprise us.

Yet in the midst of the terrors of our world, and the wickedness of humanity we see another example of the truth of God's word. For this week has demonstrated what the Bible teaches as goodness—the generous sacrificial actions of people created in God's image. These actions demonstrate what the Bible means by grace and love. These are the actions of the generous God who loves the generous giver and who gave his own Son that we may live.

So this week we have seen: fire fighters risking their lives to protect strangers; emergency services working around the clock to help the homeless; families offering hospitality to distraught strangers; and across the nation people giving their money to voluntary agencies working to alleviate the suffering.

Last Sunday night our Archbishop opened a fund to assist in the pastoral reconstruction of the devastated areas. It will be administered through the Anglican agencies that were working in the area prior to the bushfires and of course are continuing now.

It is important that we give generously. Our God is generous and loves his people to be generous. It is important that the current financial crisis facing the world does not affect our generosity. It was William Wilberforce who wrote: “Generosity means very little if it does not damage the luxury of our own lives.” Our Cathedral finances can ill afford giving money away to others, but we must be generous to be a Christian Cathedral. To give up on generosity is to give up the wrong thing.

Within a few years the horror of the last week will be all but forgotten by the general population. People will occasionally refer to it. When there is another disaster the media will compare that one with this one. It will fit into our history like the great influenza epidemic.

However it took most of last century for my family to recover from the sudden death of my grandfather. Our society was not as well organised to help victims in those days—there were no pensions for widows until the Lang government in 1926. The economic consequences of this loss on the family were disastrous. The personal loss of husband and father was unable to be measured let alone overcome. In many ways my father and his siblings never recovered and their children (my siblings and cousins) were all affected.

The terrifying speed of last week's fires, the immediate emergency help being organised, and the media's two-week attention span can all lull us into underestimating the long term consequences of this tragedy. People will be feeling it for decades ahead. The help they need is not only immediate and financial but also deep, personal and long term. Let us remember them in our prayers and our generosity as we help to restore the pastoral infrastructure of those communities.