Covens and a potential pandemic

 It occurred to me this week that it might be helpful to other groups to write up my thoughts on navigating a possible wide-spread contagious illness in a coven-running context. Most of what’s in this document also applies to other small groups hosted in people’s private homes: knitting groups, political groups, etc. but there are some ritual-specific notes too.

I am not an epidemiologist, or a doctor, or a public health expert, but I am a librarian with a tropism for medical history, as well as a priestess and witch with a small coven. 

Adapting : stars (bigger to smaller) on pale blue background

Before we get started: 

  • Some of this information is location dependent, I’m in the United States. I’ll be noting when you may need to adjust for your location. 
  • I am not going to keep updating this page as we learn more about the virus, so check out the resources section below for some other sources of regularly updated news and information. 
  • The actual practical suggestions I make are a good idea any time there’s something contagious circulating (that includes flu season in general). They’re not just for the current situation.

About me: I am a high risk group (chronic health issues that include perpetually cranky lungs) plus I work in a building with students, some of whom are medically fragile. (I don’t work directly with them, but we use the same hallways and bathrooms.) I’m assuming that at some point this spring, I’ll need to stay home for a bit either due to my own health, or precautions where I work.

My coven includes people who are also in high risk groups, and people who have kids, or who have family members in high risk groups. 

What are the concerns?

The information we have suggests a new (novel) coronavirus is circulating in a lot of places.

As I write this (on March 6th, 2020), research suggest that many people (maybe as many as 80%) will have minimal to modest symptoms that can be treated at home, but that some percentage of the rest may have serious, even life-threatening courses of illness. The risks are greater for people with underlying health conditions (especially things like chronic lung disease), or people over 60.  It doesn’t seem to be affecting kids significantly. 

What’s a bit unusual about this one is that the research so far suggests people can be contagious for quite a long time (up to two weeks) before they show symptoms. That’s lot of time to share the virus with others without realising. This makes precautions a good idea, even if you don’t feel sick.

Even if you and your loved ones aren’t in a high risk group, if you go out in public or interact closely with other people, you  will be interacting with people who are in a high risk group or who live with people who are.

My take on it is that if we care about the people we’re in witchy or Pagan classes and rituals with (and especially in a small group or coven setting), we should be talking about some of these issues.

Lots of other resources have covered information and preparation (see the resources below, especially Siderea’s preparation posts) so I’m going to focus on the small group and coven parts.

So what’s special about covens? 

(And other small groups that meet in our homes)

First, we’re having people over. Those people have lives, and may have all sort of exposure vectors (everything from kids in school to public transit, to where they work or where they shop). And those people are going to be in our houses, touching things, possibly including us.

Most of the time, this is not a huge problem, we’re used to it. When we’re concerned about something contagious, though, there are some steps we might want to take. The steps we take at home are different from a place with a janitorial staff (who have a different range of tools) or things like our workplaces.

How long you want to apply these for will depend on your personal circumstance, and a lot of details about the spread of COVID-19 that we don’t know yet. 

Healthy boundaries help everyone

Let people make their own choices, but be clear about your boundaries. (And you should have some boundaries). If you or people you spend a lot of time with are at a higher risk, you may want or need to make different choices than someone at a lower risk.

People may not always understand that. But if you’re hosting them in your home, or facilitating an event they’re at, you have choices in when, how, and whether you do that thing right now.

As coven leaders and group facilitators and people hosting group events, we put a lot of our time, energy, and space on the line. However, that doesn’t mean people get to insist we do things that make us sick, or put us at a high risk of serious health issues.

Reasonable boundaries and limits include:

  • Being prepared to postpone, cancel, or reschedule events, sometimes on fairly short notice, for health-related reasons.
  • Asking people to communicate with you about if they have symptoms or have been around someone who does.
  • Requiring people to wash their hands (when they arrive, before and after eating or the restroom, etc.) or take other appropriate hygiene precautions.
  • Asking people to let you know if they need an alternate approach that accomplishes the same goals.
  • Communicating what you need in order to be comfortable hosting and facilitating events (in my case, that includes communication from folks about information I’ve sent out.)

Group events in general

Be clear about your priorities, which I hope are about keeping members of the group safe and healthy. Give people chances to opt out or reschedule if they’re under the weather or need to be extra cautious. 

Very few things we do in a coven are absolutely and utterly time sensitive. There are almost always reasonably manageable alternatives. Support your people in doing the things they need to take care of themselves.

Have a group policy about when people should stay home, based on specific needs and concerns in your group. If you have a policy, remind everyone of it. Be clear about how you’ll communicate if you need to cancel a group event, and when. I’ve included what I sent out to my group this week as an example at the bottom of this page. 

Consider spreading out events a bit, so people can get some extra rest, have time to tend to things at home, or spot symptoms. (If you see someone every couple of days, you’re more likely see them in a period of contagion than if you see them every two weeks or so.)

Think ahead about when you need to make a final decision about any upcoming events (cancellation deadlines, how long everyone needs to prepare in advance, what travel time is involved.) Ask people to let you know when they’d need to know about a cancelled meeting or event.

If you are planning on scheduling more involved events (weekend events, initiations, etc.) then a little more planing may be a good idea. Talk through the circumstances in which you’d cancel, and what the consequences might be.

Get creative with solutions if you can. One of my students is staying home this week, but will Skype into the class part of our activities tomorrow, though not the ritual. In other cases, maybe you can rearrange the order of classes, share some things in other formats, etc. 

Think ahead about what will need to change if you get sick. Will you cancel all group events and classes until you’re better and certain you’re no longer contagious? Or does your group potentially have other places to meet, or people who can take over at least some of that event?

It’s a lot easier to figure this out before you get sick than when you feel awful. If you do have more significant symptoms, it may take quite a while for you to get back to your usual level of health. 

Think about the spaces people will be in. If you have someone who is high risk in your home, strongly consider if you can keep group members out of their personal space. If you have a guest bathroom, this is a great time for guests to use that, not others in the house. (If like me, you only have one, then be prepared to clean it thoroughly after people leave.) 

Encourage regular hand-washing, and minimise handing around shared tools. This is maybe not the month or two to have that activity where everyone passes everything around. If you do share ritual tools, choose ones you can clean thoroughly after use. 

Take steps after people leave: This is a good time to go through and clean the bathroom that was used, plus anything guests touched. Follow the guidance on your cleaning tools and/or from the reputable sites below. Make sure to get rest, too. 

Get plenty of rest. Lots of us don’t get enough sleep, and that’s one of the fastest ways to sabotage our immune systems. Help your body fight off things when it needs to.

Ritual

Think through your ritual actions. Reconsider using a shared chalice or food for Cakes and Ale. If (as my tradition does), you would normally include a hug or other greeting, consider something else. (A hand over the heart and a bow, the “live long and prosper” gesture, etc.) 

Incense and lungs are not always a great mix. If you use incense in your rituals, reconsider which kinds and how much – lower the burden on lungs that might be having a harder time. Use a smaller amount, or consider alternatives to incense.

How do specific rituals or ritual activities affect your body? My experience (and that of other people I’ve talked to) is that some ritual events seem to depress immune response and make us more likely to pick up whatever’s going around. For me, that’s been Drawing Down (in the possessory sense) and initiations, either as the initiate or a main ritualist.

Normally, I can manage both of these by being extra careful to get rest and have recovery time afterwards, but in this case I’d want to be a lot more careful and have at least one backup plan.

Is now a good time to learn a new ritual skill? For some people, new ritual skills flow easily. For others, they can be a drain on internal resources until the new skill is solidly learned. If you’re focusing on new skills, plan to give people extra time to learn and practice them.

Talk about ways to continue personal practice and learning when the usual routines aren’t an option. I always encourage my coven to keep the essential actions of their daily practice to something they could do in the hospital, stuck in an airport, or when they’re sick. Drinking a glass of charged water is probably manageable in all but the most serious cases. Sitting up and meditating, or lighting a candle or incense might not be. 

Consider including healing, health, or other related magical or ritual workings in your practices. Those of us who are alive now come from long lines of ancestors who survived diseases, uncertainty, and epidemics long enough to have descendents. Asking them for advice and help on what to pay attention to might be worth doing.

Similarly, if you work with/honour/etc. deities associated with healing, health, or alternately sorting through sometimes confusing information, this might be a good time for asking them for guidance and support.

Other good stuff to know

Lungs take a really long time to heal. If you’ve had a significant episode (acute asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia) in the last year, your lungs are probably still recovering from that. 

Multiple health professionals have told me that lungs rely particularly heavily on vitamin A for healing. You may want to make sure you’re getting plenty of the foods on this page or talk to a professional about supplementing. (Note that in the US, dairy and cereals are often fortified with vitamin A).

If you’re inclined to herbal support for medical needs (check with your doctor, reliable resources, etc.) there are a number of herbs that can help support lung function or deal with respiratory symptoms. I’m adding a couple of tinctures back into my life I don’t normally use routinely, but that I know work well for my particular body.

Resources:

Siderea, a therapist and medical history geek in the Boston area, (she also did a great retrospective on the 1918 flu epidemic) has been doing a series of posts about preparation and things to think about. She’s adding more posts regularly as I post this.

You also want to look at the public health information from your federal government (the Centers for Disease Control or CDC in the United States, or the World Health Organization), but you may want to supplement with local or regional resources (in the United States, state level departments sometimes have more useful local details).

I’m also generally finding that the coverage by the Guardian (UK) and the Washington Post is tracking with what I’m hearing and seeing from experts. Both are being regularly updated. 

If you are totally geeky and like the idea of listening to a handful of epidemiologists sitting around talking about viruses, the This Week in Virology podcast has been doing regular episodes on the COVID-19 virus. This is also fascinating if you want to hear how we got more information week to week.

Example group policy

Adapt for your own circumstance! As a model, though, here’s what I sent this week: 

Given the current news, this seems like a good time for a reminder about the coven policies for illness (also briefly listed in our group practices document)

Please keep an eye on your emails (Make sure to check sometime the day before we have something scheduled in case of early cancellations. If I have to cancel in the last day, I will text as well. Please let me know you’ve seen a cancellation notice.)

If you’re sure you’re not contagious, it’s your call (migraine, aches, pain, allergies, my cough from having cranky lungs, etc.)

If you think you might be contagious, let us all know as soon as possible so we can make reasonably informed decisions.

(I generally do not want people bringing contagion to my house if it’s anything other than extremely minor. I am in a high risk category for lung complications, and I want to avoid that, please.)

Given the current coronavirus symptoms, I’m going to say that if you or someone in your immediate household has symptoms that include a fever, cold symptoms, or flu symptoms, you should plan to stay home. We can figure out an appropriate makeup lesson at some future point. Please let everyone know as soon as possible.

If you have a kid, and they’ve been sick with something potentially contagious, let’s discuss, but default to staying home. I’d appreciate if you’d let me know you’ve seen this. (And if you’re wondering about what I’ve found for good info sources for the current coronovirus, I’m glad to share.)

Summing up

I know that human kind has come through any number of new infectious diseases. This particular variety is new, but the challenges of figuring out what to do about it are as old as humankind (and probably rather older than that.)

If you’ve got questions about resources or information in this page, the best way to reach me is through the contact form.

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