HONG KONG — The threat of spreading the coronavirus has prompted Catholic officials in Hong Kong to suspend all church programs Feb. 15-28, including Sunday Masses and the Ash Wednesday liturgies.
Ucanews.com reported Cardinal John Tong, apostolic administrator of Hong Kong, said the “disappointing” decision had been made “because the next two weeks will be a crucial time to suppress the epidemic.”
“Some Church members may be disappointed” with the diocesan move, the cardinal said in his Feb. 13 pastoral letter. “This is not an easy decision.”
The move comes amid global fears that the epidemic, now called COVID-19, has worsened in China against the prediction of experts. The epidemic, first reported in Wuhan city of Hubei province, has spread across the world and claimed more than 1,300 lives, with almost 75,000 confirmed cases as of Feb. 19, mostly in China.
Hong Kong, which has open borders with China, has reported 50 confirmed cases and one death. The densely populated Hong Kong city-state of 7.4 million people is on high alert to check the virus, as thousands have crossed over from mainland China to avoid the infection, ucanews.com reported.
“At this difficult time,” Catholics must “deepen our trust in God and implement our Christian love for our neighbors and all people,” the cardinal’s message said.
Cardinal Tong said he wanted Catholics to fulfill their Mass obligation by participating in Mass online, receiving Holy Communion spiritually and meditating on the Scriptures or praying the Rosary at home.
He also urged Catholics to help each other; share anti-epidemic materials; live the Gospel virtues of faith, hope and love; and pray for each other.
As part of efforts to arrest the outbreak, Hong Kong has set up a slew of mass quarantine camps to isolate victims.
The new mandatory quarantine rules took effect Feb. 8, with people arriving from the mainland required to be quarantined for 14 days to curb outbreaks in the community.
Schools in Hong Kong will extend closures until March 16, Kevin Yeung, Hong Kong’s education secretary, said Feb. 13.
The government has given its 176,000 civil servants the option of working from home until Feb. 23 to reduce the risk of the virus spreading.
CRS health official keeps close eye on coronavirus
Suzanne Van Hulle, the global public health expert for Catholic Relief Services, is paying particularly close attention to the spread of the virus to ensure CRS staff members in Asia are safe.
She said she and other CRS officials are monitoring the situation on a daily basis to see where new cases are showing up and would be willing to adjust programming so that staff members are not in contact with the deadly virus.
CRS, the U.S. bishops’ overseas relief and development agency, has programs across Asia but no staff members in China. They have a regional office in Cambodia.
For now, the agency is encouraging employees to be vigilant about hand-washing and to monitor their own symptoms, particularly if they have been near anyone exhibiting signs of the virus.
CRS also has urged its employees in Asia to wear protective masks or clothing if they wish and also not to go to that region if they don’t want to. “We encourage our staff to feel safe,” she said.
In a joint statement issued Feb. 18, three U.S. Catholic leaders expressed solidarity and prayers “for those impacted or working to treat those infected by the disease.” Signing the statement were Bishop David J. Malloy of Rockford, Illinois, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace; Sean Callahan, CRS president; and Mercy Sister Mary Haddad, president of the Catholic Health Association of the United States.
“We offer our prayers for healing and support those organizations, both domestic and international, working to provide medical supplies and assistance to address this serious risk to public health,” the leaders said.