Archbishop of Taipei: Pandemic Shows That Our Health Comes Before the Economy

Although Taipei has been considered a model in countering the pandemic, it has been overshadowed by its powerful neighbor, the People’s Republic of China, which claims Taiwan as part of its own territory.

An elderly couple wearing face masks in Tapei on April 4, 2020.
An elderly couple wearing face masks in Tapei on April 4, 2020. (photo: Shutterstock)

ROME, Italy — The coronavirus pandemic is telling us that “our health counts more than the economy’s health and that true human fraternity is more valuable and noble than diplomatic success,” a Taiwanese archbishop has said.

Archbishop John Hung Shan-chuan of Taipei spoke to CNA about how the East Asian state has been at the forefront of efforts to halt COVID-19. 

Taiwan was one of the first countries to warn the international community about the risks of the pandemic, although its appeal was not heeded initially by the World Health Organization. 

The country, which has a population of 24 million, has had only 429 documented coronavirus cases and six deaths as of April 30, according to Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.

Archbishop Hung, who has overseen the archdiocese based in the Taiwanese capital since 2007, explained that the local Church has not faced a crisis because the government has been effective in countering the virus.

Taiwan also sent medical masks and supplies to the Vatican, to be delivered to the poor. Taiwan’s ambassador to the Holy See personally brought 280,000 medical masks to the Vatican and the Italian bishops’ conference, and donated food and supplies to the Papal Almoner.

Although Taipei has been considered a model in countering the pandemic, it has been overshadowed by its powerful neighbor, the People’s Republic of China, which claims Taiwan as part of its own territory.

This shadow also extends to Taiwan-Holy See relations. On September 18, 2018, the Holy See signed a confidential agreement with China on the appointment of bishops. The agreement is scheduled to expire in August, and negotiations for its renewal are underway.

Although the Holy See and Taiwan have had uninterrupted ties for almost 80 years, the Holy See is now keeping a low profile in relation to Taiwan, likely in order not to annoy mainland China.

The Holy See press office issued a statement April 9 thanking two Chinese foundations for providing medical supplies to the Vatican Pharmacy. Despite the considerable commitment of Taiwan, the Holy See has not released any official statement thanking Taiwan.  

The archbishop of Taipei, however, emphasized the broader picture and did not complain about the Vatican’s choice.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented global crisis and represents a danger to all humanity,” he said. “No nation, absolutely no nation, can extirpate it by operating alone without the help of other countries.”

“What the world badly needs now is solidarity in action, not self-interest. And it is good that China can provide material aid to other countries on a very large scale.” 

“Thanks to the donations of supplies from China, the Vatican will be able to help many, many poor people in other countries who are forgotten by the politicians and barely reported by the media.”

Archbishop Hung continued: “The Catholic Church in poor countries is waiting for help. And the Vatican will be thankful for any concrete gesture of solidarity, regardless of the political system of the countries as the Church is entrusted with the mission to proclaim the Good News to all nations promoting at the same time a culture of fraternity and peaceful co-existence.”

Turning to Taiwan, he said: “Thanks to the competence of the government authorities and the remarkable support of the population, the people in Taiwan need not deal with emergencies, such as cluster infection. Understandably, no special contribution in terms of material aid to the local population is solicited from Caritas Taiwan.”

But the archbishop highlighted the plight of migrant workers, who ran a high risk of contracting and spreading the coronavirus.

Caritas Taiwan has been very active, the archbishop reported, distributing face masks to fishermen and and-based migrant workers who would not have them otherwise because of government rationing of masks.

“Furthermore,” he said, “in collaboration with other NGOs, Caritas Taiwan also advocates for the protection of migrant workers who are vulnerable to COVID-19 and asked the government to let them overstay in Taiwan, in case their visa is due.”

Archbishop Hung applauded the government for taking preventive measures to counter the pandemic. He stressed that the local bishops’ conference reacted very quickly and “complied with the recommendations and regulations of the ministry of the interior and decided, one by one, to suspend all the indoor Church gatherings, including Mass celebration on weekdays and Sundays, to avoid at all cost any possible infection that could cause death and the closure of the church premises.”

The Catholic Church in Taiwan has livestreamed Masses, while pastors have multiplied their efforts to be close to the faithful via social media and phone.

The archbishop noted that, although Taiwan has diplomatic ties with very few countries, “the Catholic Church is present in every nation,” and therefore “the Church in Taiwan never feels isolated.” 

“On the contrary,” he said, “thanks to the apostolic nunciature and its representative, we truly feel the communion with the Holy Father and with other local churches.”

Meanwhile, the Church in Taiwan is planning for the future. 

Archbishop Hung said: “Our bishops’ conference has been preparing a national evangelization congress since last year, which was initially scheduled for August this year.”

“The congress will gather clergy and laity that will come together to pray, to reflect and to discuss different issues regarding the future of the Catholic Church in Taiwan. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the congress is now postponed to next year.”

He also noted that Taiwan could be a bridge-builder to the Chinese world.

“As a Chinese-speaking bishops’ conference in the Catholic Church, the Church in Taiwan can contribute to the evangelization of the Chinese-speaking people,” he said.

Taiwan’s bishops’ conference collaborates with the dioceses of Hong Kong and Macau to translate the pope’s messages and writings, as well as Vatican documents, into Chinese. 

“Evangelization presupposes inculturation and goes hand in hand with the teaching of the Catholic Faith,” the archbishop said, adding that his bishops’ conference was helping to make “the Catholic Faith relevant to the Chinese-speaking people all over the world.”