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  • Sean O'Leary

Saints, Pandemics & Science

A century ago, two children contracted a virulent form of swine flu during a pandemic that spanned the world. Francisco Marto survived the flu, but in 1919 he died of complications at just eleven years of age. Less than a year later, his sister Jacinta subsequently developed TB and died just before her tenth birthday. With their cousin Lucia dos Santos, they are better known today for having witnessed the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima.


The crowded and unsanitary army camps of the First World War, widescale troop movements and soldiers returning home in the aftermath of the war likely contributed to the spread of the disease. The war that had killed 20 million helped fuel a pandemic that caused the deaths of over 50 million people. The world has suffered many disease outbreaks in the past century but none as far-reaching or as deadly as the pandemic known as the Spanish flu.


The death rate from the current coronavirus pandemic is considerably lower but the disease shares some similarities with Spanish flu in that people with Covid-19 are falling prey to a form of pneumonia that develops as the immune system is weakened by the struggle against the virus. In the case of Covid-19, older people and those with underlying conditions are most susceptible to the infections that cause pneumonia. However, explanations do not lessen the loss felt by those left behind.


There is no doubt that science can reduce the suffering caused by the illness and decrease mortality rates through the use of modern healthcare technologies that were unavailable in previous centuries. At some point in the future, scientists will also create a vaccine that will protect people from becoming infected with Covid-19. In the meantime, whole societies must implement strategies for slowing the spread of the virus.


Economic lock-down, banning social events, sheltering at home, social distancing and hand hygiene have all been implemented to varying degrees throughout the world. When it comes to protecting public health from an emerging disease, the science is not so clearly defined. Scientists can differ in their opinions on the most effective approaches to combatting the pandemic.


The approaches used in various countries are based on models that use real time data to measure the success of current interventions and project forward in time to anticipate the success of future interventions. Data includes testing, hospitalisation, intensive care, patient mortality and various assumptions concerning viral infectivity amongst other things. It is a step-by-step approach with no easy answers. It is an unfortunate truth that the immediate landscape painted by this pandemic is one of trial and error.


The pandemic itself and the experimental approach to minimising its effects have caused unease in the public domain. Journalists ask questions that have no ready answers. Scientists from various disciplines work hard to develop solutions based on their knowledge, resources and expertise. Healthcare staff work even harder to serve the needs of the sick and dying. People in various essential roles keep supply lines open and ensure people have access to food and other vital services. Politicians utilise state resources in the best way they can and try to reassure the people. How they go about this can vary widely and much airtime can be spent on the politics alone.


For their part, the people try to protect themselves and their loved ones by not spreading the disease to others. Some work from home or implement social distancing in the work place, some raise money for charity; some volunteer to help their communities; some use the time for personal improvement; some pray, meditate or read; some sing, bake, or cook; some work in the garden or use technology and some worry. Of course, we all do more than one of these things.


A few people spread dissent, argue against what they perceive as the loss of personal freedoms imposed by state legislation, join the anti-scientific movement against vaccination or target telecommunication masts. When it comes to people, every nuance of opinion and behaviour is possible.


I once heard a climate scientist say that while she knew a lot about the data that supported climate change, she understood very little about why people responded to the science in diverse ways. This is an interesting observation.


Science cannot always provide absolute certainty and so we are required to adopt a mature view of science and weigh up both established and emerging evidence. The patience required to live with this approach is not always evident in wider society especially when there is a sense of urgency about the need for a solution.


The full scientific account of this pandemic will only be revealed slowly. We may have to wait a full year or so for a much clearer picture to emerge. No doubt, scientists will debate the finer details for years to come.


In the public imagination, science is often portrayed as the panacea for providing us with health, happiness and freedom from disease. At times, it is seen as being able to solve all human problems and answer all possible questions.


The current pandemic reinforces the view that science cannot protect us from every ill especially those that we create, such as division and strife. It takes significant funding, expert training, hard work and a certain kind of faith to utilise the strengths of science. Equally, it takes a certain kind of wisdom to comprehend its limitations.


From a social or political perspective, the most fraught areas of science are those that suggest humans need to alter their behaviour or limit their freedoms in significant ways particularly when such suggestions carry society-wide implications. There is always an inevitable pushback against such scientifically informed policies.


The difficulties associated with interpreting scientific findings for the good of society can be clearly seen in climate change debates that still take place despite a great deal of scientific evidence in favour of human-induced climate change. Sometimes it’s not the science that is the problem, it is the decision-making that seeks to take account of the science and shape developing policy. While claiming to be evidence-based, it is not always clear why some interventions are implemented over others. All of this will play a part in the developing story of this pandemic.


For the moment, we live in a changed world. How we respond to changing circumstances is up to us both individually and collectively. When it comes to human behaviour, science strives to be non-judgemental so we must look elsewhere for the moral courage to persevere with wisdom and fortitude.


There are important messages for us during this time as we witness the terrible effects of the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe. Not all messages are scientific in nature.

In 1918, during the swine flu pandemic, our Blessed Mother appeared to Francisco and Jacinta and said that she would take Francisco to heaven shortly, but asked Jacinta if she would stay longer to suffer for sinners. I have always struggled with this strange request from Our Lady. It seemed cruel and unjust.


But today, I am opening my heart to the possibility that we all suffer for the sins of others in one way or another. To do so willingly is the mark of a saint. Indeed, it is the great saving legacy of Christ himself. Sin and suffering are not the end for goodness can grow in its midst and bear rich fruit.


During her final days, Jacinta is reported to have said: ‘If men knew what eternity is, they would do everything to change their lives’. The words from a suffering child on the threshold of death speak for themselves.


I find inspiration in the words of St. John Paul II, who stated at Francisco and Jacinta’s rite of beatification - ‘the Church wishes to put on the candelabrum these two candles which God lit to illumine humanity in its dark and anxious hours’.


And so, I pray to St. Francisco and St. Jacinta, the little saints of Fatima, to help us find our way forward using the best scientific advice available and the spirit of solidarity that the world needs more than ever during challenging times.