Time to Resurrect ‘Flu Friends’? A Christian Response to the Coronavirus

With calls for church leadership in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Easter maybe a time to resurrect Flu Friends. Al recalls one past scheme and some of the challenges.

Back in 2009, the pandemic darkening our sky was not Coronavirus (COVID-19) but Swine Flu (H1N1).  In preparation, the government championed Flu Friends; not contagion spreaders as the name might suggest, but people who would collect medicines or supplies for those with flu so that they would not need to leave their homes.

An idea with an ailment

In theory, flu friends were a good idea. The British government recommended that everyone find a flu friend to help prevent the spread of Swine Flu. However, this was a plan with an ailment.  Many in our community didn’t have people to call on if they were ill. The planners also didn’t seem to account for the human tendency to prioritise self-interest over others – consider the recent stock piling of food!

Several churches rose to the need and set up a Flu Friends scheme to serve their local area.  At the time, I worked for a church in Streatham, South London and helped to plan one such scheme.  We thought Flu Friends might be away to provide care to those in our local parish and, in doing so, share something of Christ’s love with them through our words and deeds.  Our church was not alone in this initiative, but we were one of the first, and there was a lot of national interest in our scheme. Our website was recommended by the Oxford Diocese as an example of good practice and various churches contacted us for more information.  We therefore produced a pack of resources that could be used and modified by other churches to plan their Flu Friends.

While we didn’t offer a professional or approved model, a simple volunteer scheme was not straightforward to plan. There was the problem of infection control.  Christians would not be thanked if they became ‘super spreaders’! We stressed that volunteers should follow the government’s guidelines on hygiene and visiting.  But how do you avoid contact if the exchange of money is necessary to buy a neighbour’s shopping? The elderly may not have means to transfer funds electronically and any payments would present the risk of fraud.  Such problems are not insurmountable but they need careful thought. The key factors that we considered are included below.

What was the response to our Flu Friends? In the end, the fears about Swine Flu didn’t materialise; it petered out. Our offer of help was appreciated but not needed in our parish. COVID-19 appears to be a much more potent pandemic, however.

A need for churches today

Once again, the government has talked about urgently mobilising volunteers to support the elderly, vulnerable and those in ‘self-isolation’ but without clear details of how this might work on a large scale.  Perhaps this is where local churches could provide some leadership.

Churches might have reservations about starting a Flu Friend scheme. As well as some tricky logistical questions, there is the matter of capacity. We planned how to manage a high demand for our Flu Friends in 2009.  But running a Flu Friend network now might be difficult for a church with finite resources faced with a full-blown COVID-19 pandemic. Quite honestly, the church that I lead now at St George’s Morden would probably struggle to meet all the needs within its own congregation, let alone in the local neighbourhood, despite its best intentions.

Some church leaders might also question the role of the church in providing social care in society.  The apostles put preaching and prayer at the center of the church’s ministry (Acts 6.1-4). Christians were called to “do good to all people” (Galatians 6.9-10).  However, there is a debate among Christians about whether the ‘gathered’ church or the organisation was intended to be main vehicle for implementing external ‘mercy ministries’ or whether this aid was primarily intended to be offered by the ‘scattered’ church or individual Christians living in society.

Where churches do embrace social action as part of their co-ordinated ministry, there can also be a concern about the danger of, on the one hand, neglecting love for one’s neighbour but, on the other hand, neglecting people’s eternal spiritual needs in providing temporal physical care.  This theological tightrope combined with limited resources means that social action may tend towards planned projects rather than a crisis response.

A possible sacrifice

Even if a coordinated Flu Friend scheme was not practicable or preferable, however, most churches would probably want to encourage individuals in their congregation to offer loving help to those around them (Mark 12.31).  This support need not be centralised; it could be informal or use a simple resource like this card designed by a couple in the news.  Christians could form their own street networks like some have done on Facebook. That more informal approach is what I intend to encourage in our church.

This hand of friendship would not be without risks to volunteers, particularly if the Coronavirus were to become more deadly.  It would be important not to be naïve about the risks and balance responsibility with a trust in the Lord’s protection (Nehemiah 4.9). Some Christians might be hesitant in the face of illness or death. But arguably this is exactly the sort of sacrificial love that Christians should be providing (Luke 10.25-30).  Christians have cared for their sick in society throughout history, even dying in the great pandemics in providing such care. This is a stark demonstration of Christ’s great love in our stock-piling world.

A Flu Friends scheme should not be undertaken lightly or without careful planning. Details of our 2009 plan are included below in case this helps churches in their thinking.  This includes some key factors that we considered in setting up a scheme. Plans would need to be modified to follow current pandemic, safeguarding and church guidance.  It would also be worth checking whether your Diocese or denomination were running a scheme to follow best practice and provide a coordinated approach.

Christ-like leadership in crisis

The church must provide spiritual leadership through the biggest health crisis of our generation. It may not be wise or possible for all churches to set up a Flu Friends scheme. But even if Christians were encouraged to be Flu Friends to a few neighbours, this could make a significant impact in our ailing, anxious world, demonstrating the life-giving, comforting love of Christ. As it has been said, words without gospel action lack conviction, and action without gospel words lack clarity.  Jesus taught that “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” and “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (John 15.13 and Mark 8.34).