A Lunar New Year with the outbreak of Coronavirus
Lunar New Year is, without doubt, the most important annual festival for the Chinese. It is not only a long holiday in Hong Kong, but also a time for family and friends to gather. It is similar to Christmas in the North, but with much more noise and laughter.
But this year, when the government announced extra days of “home stay” for civil servants until 2 February, due to the coronavirus outbreak, the atmosphere in the city chilled in an unexpected and unusual way. Scheduled festivities, which normally extend for more than two weeks, were mostly cancelled. In restaurants, there was no need to queue for hours and there were always free tables.
This is exceptional.
Then the government cancelled school and all non-essential services, allowing civil servants and encouraging all employees to work at home for another week (this is renewed weekly, currently until 1 March). Suddenly, the whole city, including its churches, had very different agendas. Instead of daily business or ministry, work meant hunting for surgical masks, alcohol hand cleanser and antiseptic utilities.
A few churches cancelled Sunday services on 9 February, more joined them on 16 February, and still more on 23 February. All other church programs and gatherings have been cancelled. Most kinds of pastoring and fellowship, including Sunday worship, can only be done via internet or telephone. After seven months of social conflict, we are facing another round of challenges.
It is easy to imagine how cancelling Sunday services has caused a big debate. We affirm that the Word and Sacrament are important to us, especially in times of crisis, but we also tell church members that they are free to stay home, and those who are physically weak should stay home. They may join in the service via internet broadcasting, or they can sing a hymn and read a few verses of Scripture to strengthen their Spirit. Those who come to Sunday services in person are encouraged to sit apart and not to shake hands, while wearing a mask is mandatory. Extra caution is advised if Holy Communion is being distributed.
Staff at church-run schools and social services now face new pressures with regulations and hygienic requirements to avoid potential infections. An even harder challenge is the shortage of masks and antiseptic products and there is a growing sense of desperation which is creating both physical and mental problems. People queue up overnight to buy masks or tissues, and rice has sold out in some supermarkets because of panic buying.
In response, many churches, including our own, are doing what we can to help the needy. We gather daily supplies for the elderly and the poor, encouraging members to share what they have, rather than stocking up for longer than one or two months. Ministers are encouraged to spend more time caring via the internet, phone or even in person. In our homes for the elderly, counselors and ministers spend more time talking with residents in their rooms, while wearing a mask and washing their hands carefully.
There are rumors and fear around us, but we trust in our Lord, who will carry us through this time of trial. We also know that we can count on the prayers and practical support of Christians all over the world to support us in Hong Kong, as well as those affected elsewhere in Asia and around the globe. We shall overcome!