The coronavirus outbreak, first reported in China and now spread to at least 60 other countries, has been declared a “public health emergency of international concern” by the World Health Organization.
As health and disease prevention organizations work to find ways to contain the disease and treat those diagnosed with it, religious communities worldwide have been forced to respond and take action to protect the safety of their members.
U.S. Catholic Church officials issued a response in mid-February, calling on Catholics to pray for those “impacted — or working to treat those — by the disease.”
“We offer our prayers for healing and support those organizations, both domestic and international, working to provide medical supplies and assistance to address this serious risk to public health,” said the statement, issued jointly by representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic Health Association of the United States.
As of March 2, more than 90 U.S. citizens have been exposed to the coronavirus and six have died. A Catholic high school in Rhode Island was closed the first week of March when a member of the school community, who had participated in a school trip to Italy, tested “presumptive positive” for a strain of the coronavirus.
In Wisconsin, Catholic colleges and universities have recalled students who are studying abroad in countries where high alerts or warning levels have been raised. On Feb. 28, St. Norbert College announced eight students studying in Italy were returning home.
“We are making arrangements for them to return to the states, complete their coursework online, and reintegrate into the campus community at month’s end, following the college’s spring break,” said college president Brian J. Bruess in a message to the campus community.
Gail Gilbert, director of study abroad and off-campus programs at St. Norbert College, told The Compass March 2 that one student arrived home on Sunday and the remaining seven would arrive during the week.
“We are continuing to monitor the conditions and the spread of the coronavirus to countries around the world and we will be watching to see if it impacts the rest of our students,” added Gilbert. “We currently have 40 students out on study abroad programs in 10 countries.”
While people in the health community have sounded alarms of a possible full-blown pandemic, others have called the virus an overblown panic attack. “Am I the only one who’s not that worried about the coronavirus?” tweeted Catholic actress Patricia Heaton on March 1.
Erring on the side of caution usually turns out to be the best response to health crises. It’s also why churches are cutting back on contact between people at religious services.
For example, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines has asked Catholics in their parishes not to kiss or touch the cross when they venerate it on Good Friday in April. In Wisconsin, Catholics are exchanging peace signs or waving rather than shaking hands during the sign of peace at Mass.
During this season of Lent, the coronavirus has given us another opportunity to offer prayers and sacrifice for the health and safety of our brothers and sisters around the world. While this country is better equipped to address health emergencies, so many others are not, leaving the poor, the elderly and the weak vulnerable to this contagious and deadly disease.