Coronavirus: The Latest and the Impact on Churches at the Start of Lent

This scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (orange)—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19—isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells (gray) cultured in the lab.

By Al Perrotta Published on February 26, 2020

President Trump is holding a press conference this evening at 6 p.m. eastern to discuss the ongoing coronavirus situation. He’ll be joined by officials from the CDC. 

Trump is receiving some heat for appearing to downplay the threat to the United States, even as the CDC warns it’s very likely we will see community outbreaks. For his part Trump is ripping his foes for trying to create a panic. He continues to say the “USA in great shape!”

As of this writing, the United States has 57 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and no deaths. Also, a U.S. service member stationed in South Korea has tested positive for the virus. He is currently being quarantined at his home off base, according to U.S. Forces Korea command. For the latest worldwide stats on the spread of COVID-19, click here.

Meanwhile, Latin America has its first identified case of coronavirus, in Brazil. This leaves Antarctica as the only continent that hasn’t been hit with the virus. 

For the first time Tuesday, more new cases were reported outside of China than inside of China. According to The New York Times, China is reporting 411 new infections. The rest of the globe, 427. Of course, this assumes we can trust China’s numbers. But if true, this could suggest the first slowdown of the virus in its country of origin. We’ll take the good news.

Why We Can’t Breathe Easy: Iran

While Chinese cases may be slowing down, Iran appears to be amping up. 

Iran poses trouble because scientists lack an accurate picture of how widespread the outbreak is there. Dr. Nathalie MacDermott, an expert in infectious diseases at King’s College London, told the BBC, “It seems like we’re hearing about the tip of the iceberg and missing that chunk underneath who may be younger and may not be particularly unwell.” 

But these younger persons may be on the move across borders. And therein lies the concern. According to the NY Times, “cases in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kuwait Obaman, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates … have all been traced to Iran.” In fact, Iran’s deputy health minister himself, Iraj Harirchi, has tested positive.

Reports the Times:

Civil wars or years of unrest have shattered the health systems of several neighboring countries, like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. And most of the region is governed largely by authoritarians with poor track records at providing public transparency, accountability and health services.

“It is a recipe for a massive viral outbreak,” said Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Start of Lent Brings Caution in Italy

Lent began today and fears of the coronavirus were felt, particularly in hard-hit Italy. Pope Francis celebrated Ash Wednesday at the Vatican, as thousands in St. Peter’s Square wore masks to ward off the virus. And according to Time Magazine, “most clergy were refraining from kissing Francis’ ring or embracing him, as they usually do.”

Meanwhile, mass was canceled at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice after a cluster of elderly people tested positive. Other towns in northern Italy cancelled mass as well. 

Fox News reports that in the Philippines, “priests avoided physical contact by sprinkling ashes on the heads of the faithful instead of making the mark of the cross on their foreheads.”

Masses had already been cancelled in the Archdiocese of Singapore and the Hong Kong diocese. And some Chinese churches here in the U.S. have taken to self-quarantines. For example, the Raleigh Chinese Christian Church in North Carolina has posted a warning on its doors. “Please refrain your child from church/class if he/she traveled to Asia within 14 days or contacted persons from Asia within 14 days.”

As Religion News Service reports, other churches are cancelling small groups, Sunday lunches and other communal events.

South Korea: Massive Church Being Tested

Outside China, South Korea has been hit hardest by the coronavirus, with over 1,200 cases and 12 deaths thus far. Roughly 60% of the cases in South Korea are connected to a cult called the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. Health officials have now tested 200,000 members of the cult.

South China Morning Post reports 200 members of the church had gathered in Wuhan for prayer sessions last fall. Wuhan is ground zero for the virus. An anonymous 28-year-old member of the cult told the Post, “Rumours about a virus began to circulate in November, but no one took them seriously.” The cult didn’t stop the prayer meetings until December. 

Not helping matters, Shincheonji church practice made a spread of the disease inevitable. According to the Jerusalem Post, “Members are reportedly instructed not to miss prayer meetings even if they are sick, as doing so is seen as a lack of faith.” 

In fact, a health official in charge of fighting COVID-19 in the South Korean city of Daegu tested positive. Only then did he admit he was a member of the Shincheonji cult. That forced 50 other medical officials to be quarantined along with him. 

Also in South Korea, a female flight attendant for Korean Air has tested positive. Thirty people connected to a Tel Aviv-to-Seoul flight she worked February 15 also tested positive. Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times reported the woman may have worked flights between Seoul and Los Angeles last week. Korean Air has not yet confirmed the report. 

But even the report shows just how precarious the situation is; how easily the virus can arrive on our shores with a first class ticket.

Church Can Help Stop It … Through Prayer

What can we do? Yesterday we spoke of practical preparations and practices. We cannot forget prayer. Intercessory prayer to keep the virus from spreading. Praying to keep our families and communities protected. Praying for the heath professionals who are not only aiding the ill, but racing to find a vaccine. (And for that matter, the original source.) Praying against a spirit of fear. Praying against a spirit of rebellion that would have people defy quarantines and other requests from health officials.

Tonight, we also pray for the President, his administration and the CDC, that they take the wise and prudent steps necessary to protect our nation. And prepare our nation. Pray that politics is put aside. Pray that we will love and serve our neighbor. 

American Christians will not be alone in such a prayer. Ten days ago a mass prayer was held at the Western Wall in Israel. Nearly a thousand people took part to pray for the health and well-being of the Chinese people and others impacted by the virus. A shofar was blown to invoke God’s mercy. 

May we hold to the word in Exodus 23:25: “You shall worship the LORD your God, and I will bless your bread and your water; and I will take away sickness from among you.” (NRSV)


Al Perrotta is the Managing Editor of The Stream and co-author, with @JZmirak, of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration. You can follow him at @StreamingAl. And if you aren’t already, please follow The Stream at @Streamdotorg

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