In late December, Hong Kong was becoming aware of reports from mainland China about a dangerous new virus that was rapidly spreading, especially in the Wuhan area. Immediately, this brought back memories of the panic of the 2003 SARS epidemic. Over 1700 people were diagnosed with SARS in Hong Kong and 299 died. That is a death rate of 17%.
As confirmed COVID-19 cases in China continued to increase, Hong Kong was put on alert in early January with reduced hours for hospital visitors and enhanced screening of travelers from Wuhan. Still, there were no community-wide restrictions and we carried on as usual. However, we started wearing surgical masks again, just like during SARS, and kept an eye on the news. The Lunar New Year was approaching in late January, when many people would travel to and from Hong Kong for family reunion.
On January 23, Hong Kong reported its first case, a 39-year-old man from mainland China, who had recently traveled by high speed train to the city. Then one by one, the number of infections increased with most coming from visitors over the border.
After six months of anti-government protests in the second half of 2019, many Hong Kongers were now impatient for the authorities to take urgent action to protect the health of its citizens. They demanded that the government close all entry points from mainland China into Hong Kong. This was a complicated situation as there are 12 entry points by land, sea and air. Many cross the border every day for work, school, or business. The situation became even more tense after hundreds of Hospital Authority workers went on a one-week strike to demand that the government close all borders. The medical profession in particular expressed frustration since they were most at risk on the frontlines with limited medical protective gear and overloaded hospital wards. Eventually, the government closed nine of the 12 border points, and instituted a mandatory two-week quarantine for all travelers from the mainland.
By February, it became apparent that the virus was spreading in the community through local residents. More drastic measures were needed. Schools that had shut down for the Lunar New Year have not reopened. Lessons and homework are given online. Government workers are asked to work from home, with many businesses and offices following suit. Libraries, museums and sports grounds are all closed and only essential public services are available. My office (Hong Kong Christian Council) allowed us to work from home most days and cancelled meetings and big events. As of March 21, there are around 270 confirmed cases of coronavirus with four deaths so far in the city.
As far as churches, the Catholic Church announced it was closing public worship in late February until further notice. The Anglican Church and other Protestant churches followed. Many churches have put their Sunday worship online so members may watch at home. I felt fortunate that some of the churches that broadcast as part of our radio ministry managed to find a way to continue to be on air for the Church Service program on RTHK-Radio 4.
Besides online worship, churches and Christian organizations recognized the need to serve the most vulnerable at this critical time. It was obvious that there was serious shortage of surgical face masks and hygiene supplies. People were buying out the shops and the stores were charging outrageous prices for masks, hand sanitizers and cleaning products. Grassroots people and the poor in particular were left out. Other groups like migrant workers and asylum seekers could not afford or find these essential goods. Fortunately, charities banded together to collect supplies for the needy, and distributed them through church networks and organizations like Hong Kong Christian Service and Hong Kong Church Network for the Poor.
As the coronavirus epidemic has spread around the world, we are mindful of the need to give spiritual and emotional support as well as material aid. Even though churches have been challenged with loss of donations during service closure, they recognize that many have been even more severely impacted. The hospitality and tourism sectors in Hong Kong were already struggling from loss of business during the 2019 protests. Now they are faced with more cancellations, layoffs and closures. Hong Kong’s overall economy and morale will need quite some time to recover.
In the meantime, we continue to pray for all those affected including patients, their families, frontline medical workers, and vulnerable groups in the community like cleaning staff, the elderly, and those for whom vital services are closed due to the virus. We also pray for governments and those in authority to respond wisely and quickly in this critical moment. Lastly, we pray for churches and all Christians to be mighty witnesses for the love and mercy of God through their words and deeds, both private and public.
Thank you, wherever you are, for all are doing to care for yourselves and those around you. May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be upon a suffering world and may we be God’s channel of blessing for divine protection, healing and hope.
Judy Chan serves with the Hong Kong Christian Council (HKCC). Her appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples Mission Fund, Our Church’s Wider Mission, and your special gifts. Make a gift that supports the work of Judy Chan