Wednesday, June 14, 2006



First, a look back at how the US handled tens of thousands of bird flu victims in the 1918-1919 'Spanish Flu' pandemic :

They brought in steam shovels to dig graves. Caskets were rented — just long enough to hold a brief memorial service — and passed on to the next grieving family. The death toll of the 1918 flu pandemic was so overwhelming that the military commandeered trains to transport dead soldiers; priests patrolled the streets of Philadelphia in horse-drawn carriages, collecting bodies from doorsteps.

This story claims that US federal and state government officials, and an entire slew of medical
experts, are now "racing" to get pandemic preparations in place.

They still don't know when bird flu might start a human pandemic in the US, or even if it will, but the preparations are underway, regardless, apparently at full speed.

Lots of talk in the US media about stockpiling food for when the local supermarkets run dry (no trucks delivering stock) and whether or not a vacinne will be ready in time (unlikely, as a thorough vaccine needs to be created from the form of bird flu spreading between humans, it's not doing that yet, so no fullproof vaccine can be generated), and insurance companies and corporations like IBM are jumping into the latest gold rush to help out small and large companies who will face guaranteed staff shortages when, or if, the pandemic strikes.

But not much, not enough, discussion of how to deal with all the dead bodies.

And it is a human toll which could easily reach into the millions. It's the most obvious problem, but the most sensitive subject of all in regards to a bird flu pandemic.

Americans just don't like to talk about, or face, the possibility of death. Their own, or that of anyone they know.

...experts foresee 18 months of funeral homes being short-staffed, crematories operating round-the-clock, dwindling supplies of caskets and restrictions on group gatherings, such as memorial services. Morgues and hospitals would quickly reach capacity.

It is the local communities in small towns and cities across the US coming up with the most innovative plans to deal with the dead, which include turning ice hockey rinks into chilled morgues big enough to take hundreds of corpses at a time, backyard burials (with re-burials later when the pandemic has passed) and 'virtual funerals'. More on that in a moment.

The US government's Health And Human Services bureau has been holding seminars and conferences in every state over the past year, and has been upfront in telling local mayors and small town and city officials that if the Big Pandemic comes, they're basically on their own.

The federal government can give them guidelines, they can recommend procedures to follow, but there won't be enough Tamiflu for most people, and not even the largest and best prepared hospitals are expected to be able to cope - they're barely coping with daily emergencies as it is.

Mass graves in fields, parks or sporting stadiums are also being considered.

"They would bury the person with all the identification material and carefully keep track of that information," said Ann Norwood, a senior analyst at the Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness at the Department of Health and Human Services. "After things calm down, we can locate the family, exhume the casket and put it wherever the family ultimately would like the body to rest."

"We've forgotten that people do die from infectious diseases, and our process of dying has become very sanitized...For the whole Western world, it's going to be a shock."

Funerals as they're now known will cease to exist during a pandemic.

Any large gatherings of people will not only be discouraged, but they will also be illegal.

But people will still want to pay their respects to dead friends and relatives, and will want to share their grief.

This is where the remarkable idea of 'virtual funerals' comes in.

Electricity is expected to remain on during pandemic waves in most parts of the US, at least for some hours of the day, as much of the electricity generation and delivery is automated.

Unlike other disasters with high death tolls, there won't be physical destruction to infrastructure, though shortages of workers will cause problems with maintenance and repairs during the expected length of each pandemic wave - an estimated six to eight weeks in duration, and there may be three or four in less than two years.

With millions of Americans advised to stay home during the peaks of each pandemic wave (to avoid exposure), and many others having to care for the sick, or the dying, the idea of gathering together to farewell a friend or relative online, via webcams and conference calls, is likely to become an everyday reality.

Sites like MySpace already host thousands of 'memorial' pages for the dead, where those who knew the memorialised can post their thoughts and farewells, and many of these are open to the public.

If virtual funerals become a reality during a pandemic, they may actually become extremely popular even with people who don't know the person being farewelled.

You would literally be able to shop through funerals being held online to learn details of the ones you might be interested in dropping in on.

You cuold read about the lives of the people being honoured, you could read up on their blog posts or best-of e-mails. You could see their photos and videos, read the memorials from friends and relatives and then decide if this is a funeral you might want to be a part of.

But if you've got online funerals, then obviously you would also have to have online, virtual wakes.

The online drinking parties now currenlty gaining in popularity - where people get drunk while chatting and swapping songs and videos with friends and strangers online, and showing off dance moves or tricks via webcams - may move into curious new territory.

But then, if you're confined to your home for six to eight weeks waiting out pandemic waves, and if you've lost loved ones to the bird flu yourself, such online wakes and activities might become just the thing to pass the time and to cope with the grief and loss so many people deal with alone in the real world.

Many, many stranger things have happened in our online world.

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