The threat of spreading the coronavirus has forced Catholic officials in Hong Kong to suspend all church programs for the next two weeks and cancel the Ash Wednesday liturgy that marks the beginning of the Lent season.
Cardinal John Tong, the apostolic administrator of Hong Kong, said the “disappointing” decision had been taken “because the next two weeks will be a crucial time to suppress the epidemic.”
The diocese has decided to suspend all public Masses on Sundays and weekdays from Feb. 15-28 and to cancel the liturgy of Ash Wednesday, Cardinal Tong said in a Feb. 13 pastoral letter.
Ash Wednesday, which marks seven weeks of fast, abstentions and prayer leading to the Easter feast of Christ’s resurrection, this year falls on Feb. 26.
Hong Kong’s 500,000 Catholics will miss the liturgy in which ash will be smeared on foreheads, reminding humans that they will turn into dust when they die. It calls for repentance and prayers.
The move comes amid global fears that the epidemic, now called COVID-19, has worsened in the last few days in China against the expectations of experts.
The epidemic, first reported in Wuhan city of Hubei province, has spread across the world and claimed 1,369 lives, with more than 60,000 confirmed cases as of Feb. 13, mostly in China.
Hong Kong, which has open borders with China, has reported 50 confirmed cases and one death. Hundreds are now under self-isolation or observation.
“Some church members may be disappointed” with the diocesan move, the cardinal’s message said. But “this is not an easy decision,” he said.
“At this difficult time,” Catholics must “deepen our trust in God and implement our Christian love for our neighbors and all people,” the message said.The diocese of Hong Kong remains without a bishop since Jan. 3, 2019, when its Bishop Michael Yeung died. Two days after the death Bishop Michael, the Vatican appointed Cardinal Tong as the administrator of the diocese. The cardinal had retired as bishop of Hong Kong in 2017.
Cardinal Tong wanted Catholics to fulfill their Mass obligation by participating in Mass online, receiving Holy Communion spiritually and meditating on the Scriptures or saying 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.
Hong Kong on high alert
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.
As part of the all-out efforts to arrest the outbreak, Hong Kong has set up a slew of mass quarantine camps to isolate victims.The government, headed by Carrie Lam, has already invited criticism from residents for setting up quarantine camps in residential areas.The new mandatory quarantine rules came into effect on Feb. 8, with persons arriving from the mainland required to be quarantined for 14 days to curb outbreaks in the community.
“We will provide as much as possible facilitation to ensure that people comply with the quarantine order and stay at home,” Lam said.So far, around 2,200 people have been placed in quarantine camps in Hong Kong.
People leaving the quarantine camps without permission may commit a criminal offense punishable with a six-month jail term and a fine of HK$25,000, the government has said.
Protest over quarantine camp
Riot police swung into action on Feb. 9 as residents again protested against the government’s decision to use a heritage lodge at the Jao Tsung-I Academy as a quarantine camp.Police arrested many protesters who attempted to block a major road in Mei Foo as they objected to using a nearby hostel as a quarantine camp.
Dominic Kam, a Catholic, told UCA News that the government did not consult local people before converting a heritage lodge in his residential area to a quarantine camp.
However, he said the building was renovated and is suitable for patients. “At least it is more suitable than a hotel because the hotel is centrally air-conditioned.”
Kam said he does not oppose it because it has become a social necessity.
Mary Chan, another resident, was not happy with the quarantine camp in her locality. She thinks this will threaten the safety of her family members.
Kam said people have “lost confidence in the government … they think the government will not handle the epidemic properly.”
With the prices of essential goods soaring and unavailability of medical masks, the residents think the administration has failed to tackle social unrest due to the outbreak.
Running out of masks, residents have raided supermarkets and pharmacies, braving chilly winds.
Chan said Carrie Lam has failed to control the rise in prices. “Unscrupulous merchants even increased masks by nearly 50 times.”
Schools in Hong Kong will extend closures until March 16 amid the spread of the epidemic, Kevin Yeung, Hong Kong’s education secretary, said on 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.
“From the beginning, the Chinese government has been concealing the epidemic, and Lam has always listened to the central government and refused a shut the border,” Chan said.