02/18/2020, 10.30
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Coronavirus, missionary: Compassion, solidarity and sharing in the face of tragedy

by Sergio Ticozzi

The testimony of a PIME missionary in Hong Kong. "My thoughts go to empty churches, here in Hong Kong, Macau and in many cities in mainland China." "Working from home, schools and universities closed until March: all this increases the pressure and sometimes makes some people react in unreasonable ways".

Hong Kong (AsiaNews) - Isolation, anxiety and fear: the coronavirus epidemic offers everyone an opportunity to show "compassion, solidarity and sharing". In the face of the tragedy, Christians are called to "live the gospel virtues of faith, hope and love, as well as to pray and reflect on its meaning,” reflects Fr. Sergio Ticozzi. The PIME missionary (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions) has been in Hong Kong and China for over 40 years. We offer below a testimony on the health emergency in the former British colony, which the expert sinologist gave to the Altare Dei site two days ago. (Translation edited by AsiaNews).

It is Sunday here in Hong Kong. I have just concelebrated the Eucharist with four of my confreres in our private chapel, and now I am alone in my room. My thought goes to the empty churches, here in Hong Kong, in Macao and in many cities of mainland China, since the fear of the spreading of the coronavirus, now called COVID-19, has forced a prohibition against public gatherings and even religious assemblies. The threat of this epidemic fever, in fact, has made the Catholic officials in Hong Kong take the painful decision to suspend all church programs for the next two weeks, including cancelling the Ash Wednesday liturgy.

​Isolation seems to be considered the most effective measure to prevent the spreading of the epidemic. In China, several cities are closed up and millions of people are kept in their homes because of the shortage of masks, disinfectants and other medicines. Due to the shortage of masks, residents have raided markets and pharmacies, while unscrupulous merchants even exponentially increased the price of the masks.

 ​Sick people are even more isolated since approaches and contacts with them are prevented by fear of infection. Hong Kong has set up several mass quarantine camps to isolate victims. The new mandatory quarantine rules came into effect on February 8, with persons arriving from the mainland required to be quarantined for 14 days to curb outbreaks in the community. It becomes a very serious psychological drama for many people.

All these measures came amid global fears that the epidemic has worsened in recent days in China against all the expectations. The epidemic was first reported in Wuhan city of Hubei province after a long official silence. The death of Dr. Li Wenliang on February 6, who first denounced the outbreak of the epidemic and then died of the disease, sparked an outpouring of grief and anger from across the nation, requesting to celebrate the date as the Day of Freedom of Speech. The government responded by censoring social media posting and blocking accounts. Subsequently, the epidemic spread to all regions of China and across the world, claiming many lives and infection cases. The origin and the size of its spreading have been subject to so much ‘fake news’ that I leave to other sources to provide details and numbers. But undoubtedly it has created a psychology of fear in the majority of people.

Isolation, anxiety and fear are holding a heavy grip on the soul of people. Working at home, schools and universities shut up until March – all this increases the pressure and, at times, make some people react in unreasonable manners. In Hong Kong, riot police swung into action and arrested protesters as residents demonstrated against the government’s decision to use some places as a quarantine camp.

Moreover, in China, in view of battling the spreading virus and of avoiding the previous attitude of silence and misinformation, Chinese authorities promised cash and material rewards for information about sick people and visitors from virus-stricken locations. With this openly legitimizing such a method of “spying”, suspicion has pitted neighbors against neighbors, wreaking havoc in society. Instead of honesty and sincerity for public health and safety, such a measure favors mistrust, vengeance and scant regard for morality.

With regard to the future development of the epidemic, opinions vary, as usual, from optimistic to pessimistic. China’s official reports include claims that its control efforts are succeeding and the epidemic will soon peak and then decline. Other people think that steps taken over the next few days, particularly by Beijing’s leaders, will decide the fate of the virus and whether it spreads internationally to become a pandemic. Some others think that by April the epidemic will be over. 

Laurie Garrett, a former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Pulitzer Prize winning science writer, informs us: 

In Geneva this week, some 400 top infectious diseases experts gathered to help WHO solve the many mysteries that still surround the virus. One of them was Hong Kong University’s Gabriel Leung, who does not think China’s strategy will succeed and fears that as schools reopen and millions of people return to Wuhan and other locked-down cities, the virus could, once again, surge. And it could spread far beyond China’s borders, possibly infecting more than 60 percent of the world population.

Regardless of whether one is pessimistic or optimistic, such an epidemic provides occasion for everybody to show concern for sick and needy people, to help each other, to share anti-epidemic materials, and, for Christians, to live the Gospel virtues of faith, hope and love, and to pray.  

Prayer, indeed, seems a very important means to show concern for people suffering for sickness, isolation and fear. But it should be combined with the reflection on the questions: why has God permitted such a tragedy and what is the message God wants to convey to us with it? Yes, we need prayer and reflection.

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