How do you stop a pandemic?

Most of my working life, I’ve been interested in how to keep things moving, flowing and spreading.  In my previous workplace as a manufacturing engineer and later operations manager my primary concern was to ensure that product flowed smoothly along the production (or in our case repair) line without interruption or delay. In my  role in the support sector I realised that to enable service, diagnostics and response the key thing we had to keep moving was knowledge, to make sure information flows weren’t held up by bottlenecks and to   share data as widely as possible. 

As a pastor, I’m similarly keen to see knowledge flow and spread widely. We want to see the Gospel go out as widely as possible. Now, fascinatingly, those who have done the heavy lifting in terms of getting us to think about how products, information and knowledge flow effectively have at least a passing interest in virology.  In fact, one author has even coined the phase “viral church” in order to encourage us to think about how church planting should be in our DNA so that we see rpi and significant multiplication of Gospel witnesses.

I have often talked through the virus about how we need to balance the need to “stay in lane” by listening to and trusting medical experts with the benefits in problem solving of listening to people with expertise in analogous fields. So, just as people in non-medical sectors have learnt to listen to the medical experts in order to think through the problems in their sectors, there may be helpful ideas that they can throw back too. If we learnt how to encourage flow, spread and replication by gaining some understanding of viruses and epidemiology, what if we were to reverse engineer back to think about how we stop the flow and spread.

In fact, we already are thinking about how to hinder as well as encourage movement. As a pastor, my concern is to ensure that the good news flows out, spreads and multiplies but I also to ensure that false teaching, gossip and slander do not spread. In industry the aim is to protect against faulty code, corrupted data or contaminated product from flowing, spreading and multiplying. From a health and safety perspective we also think about how to limit the spread of want things like fires and we are also concerned to stop computer viruses and malware getting into systems, spreading and causing havoc. 

That’s why you start to see the language of “circuit breaks” and “fire breaks” emerging in discussions about the pandemic. It is learning flowing back the other day. We’ve learnt that certain things will interrupt flow and sometimes that’s a good thing.

It’s also why you will start to see some suggestions emerging that seem to go against the conventional thinking and again that is a good thing. Sometimes when we are trying to fix the issue we develop a form of tunnel vision where we can only see one way in which to approach things.

“To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail”

In the case of COVID, I would suggest that this has led to actions being shaped by centralised bureaucracy and sometimes outside eyes would have helped. The risk is that whenever people come up with alternatives they are told to shush or are not heard. I’ve read people writing off lockdown sceptics (distinct from COVID deniers) as failing to offer any alternatives. I’ve also seen (and experienced) people being told to pipe down when offering ideas about how to approach vaccination because “We have a plan and need to see it through.” That’s one sure way to halt the flow of knowledge.

But at the same time ideas from other perspectives are coming through and whilst most of them won’t be used, I believe it is helpful to the overall strategy and other problems we might face in the future.

As you know, I’m personally enthusiastic about challenging the assumption that the vaccination programme should filter down, elderly and vulnerable to young and fit. I have joined others in suggesting that we prioritise the vaccination of schools. It might be helpful to show how the idea developed.

First of all, I saw our own Public Health Director calling for teache rs to be vaccinated at the same time as the vulnerable in order to keep schools open. At the time, schools were still due to reopen in January and the concern was about too many teachers going off sick. Put that alongside two other factors and it starts to put seed thoughts in your head. The two other factors were first of all the intention to test pupils each week. Now, in my industry this was what we called failure demand. Pressure would be put on testing capacity to see children tested each week, costing time in school and money shelled out on testing kits. In industry we would prefer to see one intervention which removed the need for further visits and checks. In this case, why keep testing each week when 2 jabs will fix things.

Secondly, lockdown came and schools closed. This was because the virus was spreading quicker amongst young people and this risked spread from them to elderly relatives or to teachers, school staff and their relatives.  So, what do you do? Well in the absence of a vaccine you seek to put a break in the viral transmission. If school is where it is spreading, you close the schools but that brings its own social costs. The Non Pharmaceutical  Intervention is designed to mimic the outcome of a vaccine by stopping the virus continuing to spread. A circuit or fire break is placed between those who have the virus and those who do not yet. 

So, now we have the vaccine, what if rather than locking the schools down with all the social and economic disruption, what if we were to vaccinate in schools, one of the contexts where there is most likely to be social interaction leading to super spreading has in effect been eliminating. Grandma no longer needs to worry about whether is in the 10% who didn’t pick up immunity. Also, the school no longer acts as a Petridis where the virus can hunker down and mutate again, maybe into a more resistant variant.

Now, that’s one idea and it is unlikely to get taken up at this stage. Our vaccination is well past even the locked and loaded stage. However, it may keep us thinking about how to face future threats. Furthermore, the collecting wisdom of those wrestling with the issue of viral transmission may also help us to think about other sectors. Just as we have learnt how to make good things go virl (the Gospel) we want to learn how to stop bad things from doing it. How do we limit the propagation of false teaching, slanders and lies?

I want to suggest here that we need to get a good understanding of where, why and how they are spreading and that will help us identify what to do in terms of putting in the fire breaks.  This primarily means reducing opportunities for mixed communication, checking sources and making sure we have not misheard. It may also mean identifying environments where false teaching and gossip are happening. It means refocusing people away from the Gossip and onto the Gospel.

The only thing that should be going viral is the good news about Jesus.

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