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Bishop in Europe: Co-ordination needed to manage coronavirus spread

27 February 2020

As COVID-19 cases rise, precautionary advice from the Church is updated


A Filipino Catholic receives ash on top of her head as the church observes a “contactless” Ash Wednesday, at the national shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, Paranaque City

A Filipino Catholic receives ash on top of her head as the church observes a “contactless” Ash Wednesday, at the national shrine of Our Mo...

CLOSE co-ordination between health agencies across borders is essential to managing the coronavirus outbreak, the Bishop in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, has said, as new cases emerged across the Continent this week.

Italy has experienced the worst outbreak of the virus in Europe. More than 300 cases and 11 deaths were reported this week. Linked to this, several other European countries, including Austria, Croatia, Greece, and Switzerland announced their first cases of the virus.

The coronavirus, named COVID-19, was on the brink of being classed as a pandemic by the World Health Organization on Wednesday. It had already been declared a public-health emergency of international concern.

Dr Innes said: “We are a diocese that covers 42 countries, and some of our members travel widely and frequently. We are following the emerging situation closely in consultation with our local chaplaincies who are complying with national or regional decisions in their areas. . .

“Our understanding is that the EU and its member states have a good level of preparedness for dealing with the virus. Naturally, close co-ordination at an international level among health agencies is essential to help manage cross-border situations, drawing on the best available scientific advice.

PACoronavirus workers disinfect an area around Myungsung Church, in Seoul, on Wednesday, after a pastor tested positive for the virus

“We offer our prayers for all those directly affected or made anxious by the virus, particularly those in countries with less developed medical care.”

The secretary general of the Roman Catholic Italian Episcopal Conference, Monsignor Stefano Russo, said: “We affirm our closeness to the people impacted by this emergency. At the same time, we are adhering to the provisions that the prefectures are giving.”

The RC Church in Italy did not wish “to contribute to generating further alarm, but we are attentive to everything that is being communicated because we are interested in people’s living conditions. They are provisions that must be respected.”

The risk to the public in the UK was set at moderate on Wednesday. British people returning from the country with flu-like symptoms were told to self-isolate to prevent the possible spread of disease. In the UK between 2017 and 2018, more than 26,000 deaths were associated with influenza.

The advice on COVID-19 issued by Church House earlier this month is being updated almost daily. It urges individuals and churches to follow good hygiene practices and the latest NHS advice: namely, if symptoms manifest after travelling abroad, stay indoors and avoid contact with other people, and phone NHS 111 to inform them of your recent travel to the country.

“Churches should already be following best-hygiene practices that include advising parishioners with coughs and sneezes to refrain from handshaking during the Peace, and to receive communion in one kind only. At present, there is no government advice that suggests the use of the Common Cup should be suspended.

“It is also best practice for churches to have hand-sanitisers available for parishioners to use. In addition, priests presiding at the eucharist, communion administrators, and servers should wash their hands, preferably with an alcohol-based (minimum 60 per cent) hand-sanitiser.

REUTERSA view of an empty Duomo Square, in Milan, on Wednesday, as the coronavirus outbreak spreads to northern Italy

“Intinction is not recommended (even by celebrants or communion-administrators) as this represents an infection transmission route as well as a risk to those with certain allergies. Best hygiene practice should continue to be observed in all pastoral contacts.”

There was no need to avoid other worshippers who are well, it said.

The diocese of London summarised this in its own guidance, and urged Christians to pray for the people affected, including health professionals. It advises: “Do not soldier on. This will help prevent the spread of disease.”

This week, a further four patients in England tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total number of cases in the UK to 13, as of Wednesday. More than 7000 people have been tested so far. Testing is to increase to include people displaying flu-like symptoms at 11 hospitals and 100 GP surgeries.

Confirmed cases include four British nationals from the cruise ship Diamond Princess. A man from Hong Kong boarded the ship in Japan for five days before disembarking in his home town. He later tested positive for the virus, and, on 4 February, the ship was put on lock-down where it was docked in Yokohama. Of the more than 3000 passengers and crew, ten tested positive for the virus; the ship was quarantined for two weeks. Japanese officials confirmed this week, however, that, in this time, the number of cases on the ship had risen to more than 600. The Health Minister has apologised.

Most cases of Coronavirus remain in China where the disease originated last year: more than 78,000 people have been infected since the outbreak began (News, 7 February). British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have cancelled flights from Heathrow to China.

South Korea, which has the most infections outside of China, has been placed on “red alert” by its President, Moon Jae-in. The country reported more than 115 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday alone. The total infected is now 1261, and 11 people have died.

More than half othe new cases in South Korea are connected to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, in the city of Daegu, and a neighbouring hospital. Health officials in the country fear that a further 1250 worshippers have potential symptoms. More than 9000 Shincheonji members are currently in self-quarantine. The church has been described as a highly secretive Christian cult whose members are not permitted to wear glasses or masks.

REUTERSA church in Seoul is sanitised last Saturday

A former member of the church, Lee Ho-yeon, told The New York Times: “We were taught not to be afraid of illness. . . Everything was focused on proselytising, even when we were sick.”

The situation in Iran is also causing concern: 16 people have died. The country’s Deputy Health Minister, Iraj Harirchi, tested positive after a press conference on Tuesday. The country is believed to be the source of the first cases reported by neighbouring Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, and Oman. It is feared that Shia Muslim pilgrims and migrant workers, who have travelled between Iran and other parts of the region recently, could have spread the virus.


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