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Bishops speak of coronavirus panic

04 February 2020

Hong Kong residents angry at failures to tighten borders


Worshippers wear protective masks during mass at the National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, in Parañaque City, in the Philippines, on Wednesday

Worshippers wear protective masks during mass at the National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, in Parañaque City, in the Philippines, on...

FEAR and anger have taken hold in Hong Kong in response to the coronavirus outbreak, an Anglican chaplain said this week. Thousands of health-care workers have gone on strike to demand that the border with the mainland be closed, while schools have been closed until March. People are queuing for hours to buy masks, which are in short supply.

The Chaplain of St John’s Cathedral, Hong Kong, the Revd Franklin Lee, described on Monday being left alone with a woman who was coughing on the Underground, after other passengers fled to the far end of the train. He expressed fears for those on low incomes who could not afford protective masks.

“As the novel coronavirus spreads through Hong Kong, Macau, mainland China, and across the world at an alarming rate, our hearts are filled with worries and anxiety,” the Anglican Bishops in Hong Kong, led by the Archbishop, Dr Paul Kwong, wrote in a pastoral letter issued on Sunday. “A sense of frustration, helplessness, and even panic has enveloped us.”

As of Tuesday morning, 425 deaths had been reported in mainland China. More than 20,000 cases have been diagnosed in the country. The World Health Organization (WHO) has categorised the outbreak as a “public health emergency of international concern”, but has not recommended travel or trade restrictions.

On Tuesday, the Foreign Office in the UK tightened its advice, recommending that British people in China should leave the country if they could, to minimise the risk of exposure to the virus.

Last week, the WHO praised the Chinese government’s “leadership and political commitment . . . their commitment to transparency, and the efforts made to investigate and contain the current outbreak”. But, on Tuesday, the Chinese government acknowledged “shortcomings and deficiencies” in its response to the outbreak.

A Chinese doctor in Wuhan, Li Wenliang, posting online from his hospital bed, has revealed that he warned fellow doctors on 30 December that he had identified a virus that he thought looked like SARS, the respiratory virus that killed more than 700 people in 2003. He was accused of “making false comments” by the Public Security Bureau, and told that, if he continued, he would be “brought to justice”.

China first reported the outbreak of a new virus — coronavirus — on 31 December, in Wuhan, a city of 11 million in Hubei province, that is now subject to a strict travel lockdown. The disease has been traced to a wholesale food market in Wuhan, which sells live and newly slaughtered animals.

Cases have now been reported in 23 countries, including Japan, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, Australia, and the United States. Two Chinese nationals visiting the UK have tested positive for the virus and are receiving specialist NHS treatment.

PAMembers of a medical team get ready to board a train from the Chinese city of Taiyuan, bound for Hubei Province, on Wednesday

On Tuesday, the second death outside mainland China was reported: a 39-year-old man in Hong Kong who had a pre-existing condition.

“Fear” and “anger” characterised the public response to the outbreak, Mr Lee said on Monday. “Many are unhappy with what they see as the government’s inability to tighten borders, which allows people who might carry the virus to enter.” Three out of four of 16 border checkpoints remain open, enabling the entry of thousands of visitors every day.

“There are queues everywhere outside pharmacy shops to buy masks,” Mr Lee reported. “Some shops have taken advantage of selling masks at high prices. I was in the Underground one day, and, as soon as the person sitting opposite started coughing, literally everyone in that carriage moved away to the far end of the Tube. I was left alone with her.”

The Church’s welfare council was concerned about the ability of the poorest to buy masks, he said. Those who could afford them were queuing for hours.

“The Hong Kong economy is suffering greatly,” he said on Tuesday. “We expect the rise of unemployment in weeks to come. Our church welfare council is trying to get prepared to help. I am myself raising funds to help those living under the poverty line to have food and masks.”

Mr Lee said that he had cancelled several events, and that some churches had broadcast their service online. The outbreak had “destroyed any sense of celebration” at New Year, “the most important time of the year for Chinese people”.

The political demonstrations that had gathered momentum in recent months had faded in response to the outbreak, he said (News, 6 December 2019). “But many young people have told me how much they dislike the government in Hong Kong.”

The Provincial Secretary General of the Anglican Church in Hong Kong, Canon Peter Douglas Koon, issued guidelines to all dioceses last month. Members who felt unwell should not attend Sunday services; congregations should put on masks and avoid shaking hands during the sharing of the peace; and hand sanitiser should be used before the distribution of communion, which should be given only in one kind (the bread).

The Catholic News Service reports that the Vatican has sent 600,000 to 700,000 protective masks to China since 27 January — a joint initiative of the Office of Papal Charities and the Chinese Church in Italy, in collaboration with the Vatican pharmacy.

Last week, the director-general of the WHO, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, said that its greatest concern was “the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems, and which are ill-prepared to deal with it”. He called on the global community to “provide immediate support to countries with fragile health systems”, and “spur development of vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics to fight the outbreak”.

On Tuesday, the first patients arrived at a hospital, which was built in Wuhan in eight days. A second facility is due to be completed in the city this week. Scientists in different countries began working on a vaccine on 11 January, one day after China shared the genetic code of the virus; work is being funded by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, set up in response to the epidemic of the Ebola virus in West Africa.

In the UK, research is under way at Porton Down, a science park in Wiltshire. The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, has announced an additional £20 million for vaccine development.

The Chief Medical Officer for England, Professor Chris Whitty, confirmed last Friday that two people in the UK — Chinese nationals — had been diagnosed with coronavirus. They are being treated in the infectious diseases unit at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle.

“The NHS is extremely well-prepared and used to managing infections, and we are already working rapidly to identify any contacts the patients had, to prevent further spread,” he said.

As of Monday, a total of 326 UK tests have been completed. A team of public-health experts has been established in Heathrow to support anyone travelling in from China who feels unwell. Having initially advised against all but essential travel to China, the Government is now urging British people to leave China. Evacuations from Hubei province continue.

To date, a total of 94 people are being kept in isolation at Arrowe Park Hospital, in the Wirral, after being evacuated last week. They will be held there for two weeks.

On Friday, the Bishop of Birkenhead, Dr Keith Sinclair, said: “I know they will be well cared for by the wonderful medical teams here in the UK. . . May we pray for their support and well-being; for their families, wherever they may be; for a speedy return home; and for those in China who are continuing to find ways of bringing healing. May they and we know God’s healing and keeping in Jesus’s name.”

The Chinese Church in London has echoed government advice that travellers visiting or returning from China should “self-isolate themselves at home for 14 days”. Its online guidance says that “the congregation council will decide what local ministries/activities they see fit to continue or temporarily suspended”.

The Roman Catholic lead bishop for international affairs, the RC Bishop of Clifton, the Rt Revd Declan Lang, has called for prayers for those “living in fear” in Wuhan.

“Medical facilities are being stretched to the limit, and there is talk of a shortage of food,” he said. “Images of empty streets which are normally crowded indicate the seriousness of the situation and the panic felt by all.”

Although the death toll in China is now higher than that of the SARS epidemic, the mortality rate to date is relatively low: two per cent of cases have resulted in death.

In their pastoral letter, the Anglican bishops in Hong Kong write: “We are not fighting this battle alone. Jesus Christ, who cares for us and walks with us, is the ultimate strength in whom we can put our trust. . . After going through this we shall become an even stronger community to the glory of God and for the love of people.”

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