Contagious faith amid coronavirus fear

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: the coronavirus.

As you heard earlier, the coronavirus continues to spread. So does the fear and disruption the illness is causing. Nowhere is that more evident than in China, where the outbreak began.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: The widespread worry has created a unique opportunity for churches to share the gospel. Joining us now to talk about that is June Cheng. She’s WORLD’s East Asia reporter.

Good morning, June!

JUNE CHENG, REPORTER: Good morning, Mary.

REICHARD: Start by telling us about the woman that you wrote about. Zhang Ruzhen.

CHENG: She’s a woman in her 80s and she traveled from Wuhan to Chengdu to celebrate Chinese New Year with her son and his family. And soon after she arrived she started to develop a cough and a low grade fever. When the family brought her to the hospital, they quickly diagnosed her with the coronavirus.

REICHARD: Tell us about how her son’s church responded and what happened next.

CHENG: Her son attended a church called Enfu Church and the members of that church started to pray for her, they brought food to her, as well as her son who was also forced to be in quarantine because he was in contact with someone who had contracted the virus. And the pastor, Paul Peng, called Zhang and explained to her the gospel, just told her how Jesus died for her sins, and she accepted Christ that day. And a few days later she passed away. 

So, because so many people were quarantined and they were afraid to go out, they held a memorial service for her over video conferencing. And Pastor Peng preached about Psalm 80 and talked about how calamity can cause people to pray for rescue but also lead people to repentance and turning back to God. The son also shared his testimony. And after that, several of the family’s friends actually professed faith in Christ. 

And the sermon was put on WeChat, which is China’s social media, and within a few days it had about 80,000 views. And someone actually contacted pastor Pung and asked him if he would lead her in the sinner’s prayer because she wanted to accept Christ.

REICHARD: So poignant. What are other churches doing during this outbreak?

CHENG: In Wuhan, there are Christians who are going out onto the streets and passing out face masks as well as gospel tracts. They’re just trying to look for ways to evangelize to their neighbors, especially in a time when people are very anxious and they’re very also angry.

REICHARD: Well, speaking of anger, I’ve read that a lot of people are angry at the government for its role in the spread of the coronavirus. Tell us about that.

CHENG: Yeah, there’s a lot of people who are putting a lot of the blame of the quick spread of the coronavirus on the government’s slow reaction to the outbreak. So, the first people to get infected with the virus, a lot of them are connected with a fish and wildlife market in Wuhan. And they started developing symptoms and going to the hospital in December. And at the end of December, eight people—including some doctors—shared about this unknown pneumonia on social media and they were actually sanctioned by the government for spreading rumors and told to stop. 

And it wasn’t until January 20th when an epidemiologist said that this virus can spread through human contact. That’s when President Xi Jinping started to speak out about it and because he said it, then the lower officials were able to admit the problem and to seek a solution. 

And so on January 23rd, Wuhan actually completely shut down. Unfortunately, this came a little too late because 50 million people had already left the city since this was during the Chinese New Year holiday, which is the biggest travel season of the year.

REICHARD: Yeah, so much time had passed by that point. June, you wrote about the doctor who first blew the whistle on this outbreak, a man named Li Wenliang. He himself got infected. And then this week we learned that he died. And he was just 33 years old. What’s the reaction been to that?

CHENG: Very upset, very outraged, there’s been a huge outpouring of grief about his death. The fact that he was punished for sharing about the coronavirus in a group chat with his former medical school classmates have people really angry at the government. The police made him sign a statement to say that he would stop sharing these rumors and told him to go back to work. And it was after he went back to work in his hospital that he was infected from one of his patients and then later died. 

What’s been really interesting about this is that recently the term “freedom of speech” has started to trend on Chinese social media. Academics have been publishing essays critical about the Chinese government. And local journalists have courageously documented what’s been going on on the ground in Wuhan where there’s overcrowding in hospitals, where people with symptoms are being turned away, and some people are even dying on the streets. 

I think this is going to be a huge challenge for the government as the CCP has wanted to seem like they’re in control—they control the narrative, they control the people. But this time, unlike with the Hong Kong protests, it’s hitting very close to home. And people are seeing what’s happening first hand, so they can’t be so easily swayed by the propaganda.

REICHARD: Right. June Cheng is WORLD’s East Asia correspondent. Thanks for joining us today, June, and stay safe!

CHENG: Thanks, Mary.

(Photo/Kevin Frayer, Getty Images) A Chinese man wears a protective mask as he walks through the empty streets in Beijing. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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