COVID-19 deaths in South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan stand at 250; US passes 50,000

What can we learn from our siblings in Asia?

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

Mission co-worker the Rev. John McCall has his temperature taken as he enters the General Assembly office of the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — The United States leads the world in COVID-19 numbers, with 852,610 cases and 48,295 deaths. South Korea, once a hot spot, has 10,702 cases and 240 deaths. Hong Kong has 1,036 cases and 4 deaths and Taiwan has 427 cases and 6 deaths.

Is there something to learn from our brothers and sisters in Asia?

During a Zoom call last week, mission co-workers from those three areas shared their experiences with the pandemic and praise for the way their respective governments and churches had responded to the crisis.

South Korea

Kurt Esslinger and Hyeyoung Lee live in Seoul, South Korea with their son, serving with the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea (PROK), the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK), and the Presbyterian Church of Korea (PCK).

Nearly half of South Korea’s COVID-19 cases have been linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a religious sect in the Southern city of Daegu.

After that, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) partner churches send a note to its members to move toward forms of online worship. That was about eight weeks ago. Initially the government said churches could meet if they practiced social distancing, but many who did became hotspots and the government tightened regulations.

“The other thing that Korea is doing that has been effective is testing as many people as possible,” said Esslinger. “If you test positive, they take your phone and look at your GPS and take note of everywhere you’ve been. Then they look at credit card purchases to track your movements. They post that information, not using your name, so that people can get tested if they were in the same place. It’s a super-aggressive way of finding and isolating those who are positive.”

Both said access to a national healthcare system means everyone has testing and treatment available. South Korea increased its health care budget so even undocumented people can be diagnosed and treated.

Lee had a friend who had come back from Europe and was self-isolating. The government sent her care packages with food, masks and hand sanitizers. “I have friends who wanted to come back from the U.S., but they didn’t have a place to self-isolate. I found out the government would pay 70 percent of the cost of isolating in a hotel. They have been really intentional about how to control this and take care of people,” she said.

Esslinger and Lee attend a small church. In some ways, even though they are not gathering together in person, they believe their faith community has become stronger by being intentional about how they worship. They use a text formatting system to reach some of the older members and stream worship services, with church members contributing readings and videos.

Hong Kong

The Rev. Judy Chan, a mission co-worker who has served with the Hong Kong Christian Council since 1994, said there are 12 points of entry from mainland China into Hong Kong. They were already alerted in late December that something was going on in Wuhan and it appeared to be quite deadly. They had lived through the SARS epidemic in 2003, so everyone was more than willing to wear face masks from day one, she said.

Face masks are prepared for charity distribution. (Photo courtesy of Hong Kong Christian Service)

The government very quickly confirmed the majority of the cases were coming from China. In fact, thousands of hospital workers went on strike for a week, insisting the government shut down its borders and provide enough medical protective gear for frontline workers. Chan’s daughter is an operating room nurse and her daughter’s husband is a doctor, both working in public hospitals. So COVID-19 is a personal family matter as well as a deep health concern. Hong Kong closed most of its borders with China on February 8.

“Schools have been closed since the end of January, after the Chinese New Year holiday,” she said. “It’s been difficult on families because apartments in Hong Kong are very small. Churches stopped meeting in early March, when the government ruled that only four persons could gather at a time, even outside. Masks were being sold for quadruple their price and there were so many vulnerable communities, such as asylum seekers and cleaning staff, who HAD to work, but could not afford to buy them, so the church community gathered masks and hand sanitizers and distributed them.”

Chan said it seems important to people that they can go to their office and go to restaurants. But it doesn’t seem as hard for them to give up attending church, she said.

People stand in line to buy face mask in Hong Kong. (Photo courtesy of Hong Kong Christian Council)

“It’s not about us. It’s about what Christ did to make the resurrection possible. In some ways we are still at the cross. We need to recognize the sacrifice that was made for the church to come into being. And others are sacrificing to keep connected, to keep hope and faith until we can meet again. I have really realized what we are missing by not being able to worship together, to see each other face to face,” she said.


The Rev. John McCall has served with the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan for more than 20 years. He too, remembers SARS, and so do his fellow residents. So much so, that after SARS, Taiwan created an Epidemic Command Center. In early December officials sent a team to Wuhan to investigate. McCall believes the Taiwanese were well poised to respond. Today, there are 0-3 positive cases and only six deaths in the entire country.

Schools, businesses and public transportation have remained open. There are daily briefings on television. McCall said the transparency that’s been practiced has helped alleviate fears. Contact tracing and publishing the information without names have also been effective. People who violate protocols can be charged up to $30,000 U.S. dollars and their names are published.

From the beginning, pharmacies sold masks for 15 cents (U.S.) to anyone with a health card. Children get their temperatures taken at the door and their hands sprayed with alcohol before they enter school. At the hospital, there are four entrances, one specifically for COVID patients.

“On an island of 23 million, the size of Delaware and Maryland combined, they have been very intentional about stopping cross-contamination,” he said.

McCall leads several pastor groups and he has found that the pastors have approached their congregations and their neighbors with grace and sensitivity. Churches sometimes purchase an apartment in a high rise building, which becomes their sanctuary. They try to be very respectful of their neighbors, taking temperatures at the door and practicing social distancing.

Churches with fewer than 100 people are still able to worship in their sanctuaries, and as McCall worshiped on Easter Sunday at a church in Taipei, he thought about what that meant.

“I was struck that we represented all the people around the world who were not able to gather face-to-face and how fortunate we were. I felt that very deeply,” he said. “That is how I am seeking to accompany the Taiwanese people and the people of the world, as we together rely on God’s strong and tenacious love and lean into God’s promise always to be near.”

Give to the Peace & Global Witness Offering to support the peace and reconciliation work of church partners through World Mission.

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