On 31st December 2019, Wuhan, the largest and ninth most populous city in Hubei, Central China which has a population of over 11 million made history as host to the novel Coronavirus disease otherwise known as COVID-19. It is instructive to note that before the World Health Organization (WHO) finally settled for COVID-19 as nomenclature for the novel virus, there were apprehensions about a possible stigmatization of people if the disease is associated with Wuhan or China. One of such sentiments was expressed in an article titled “Calling COVID-19 the “Wuhan Virus” or “China Virus” is inaccurate and xenophobic” and published on March 12, 2020, on Yale School of Medicine website by Marietta Vazquez, MD – a Professor of Pediatrics (General Pediatrics) and Pediatric Global Health Track Director.
Dr. Vazquez wrote: “As Vice-Chair of diversity, equity, and inclusion for paediatrics at Yale School of Medicine, I feel compelled to speak out. In the weeks since COVID-19 has been circulating, Asian-Americans and Asians around the world have noted a spike in discrimination and xenophobic attacks. Public transit riders have encountered hostile interactions and people simply walking down the street have experienced microaggressions — which I prefer to call veiled aggressions because there is nothing “micro” about them for the person on the receiving end.”
To justify this position, she maintained that: “This behaviour, and the stigma associated with referring to an illness in a way that deliberately creates unconscious (or conscious) bias, can keep people from getting the care they may desperately need to get better and prevent others from getting sick. When faced with this type of constant, heightened discrimination our friends, neighbours and colleagues of Asian-decent can feel uncomfortable in places they should feel welcome, included, and safe. This type of discrimination may also put their mental health at risk.” The Pediatrician also claimed that “The CDC has noted that health care workers and people who’ve recently travelled to areas where COVID-19 is circulating are facing increased discrimination and stigma, too.”
Well, it is amidst this fear that Catholic News Agency’s (CNA) Courtney Mares provided us with a consoling news flash. The news item which reads, “China’s first saint was martyred on a cross in Wuhan” may have brought some respite to “Asian-Americans and Asians around the world” who were hitherto scared of discriminatory action or xenophobic attacks. To all intent and purposes, the story disclosed that “China’s first canonized Saint was martyred by suffocation on a cross in Wuhan, the epicentre of today’s coronavirus pandemic.” It highlighted that “St. Jean-Gabriel Perboyre, a Vincentian missionary priest from France, was betrayed by one of his catechumens for money, bound in chains, tortured, tied to a wooden cross and strangled to death in Wuhan in 1840.”
This revelation provides cynics and those who often ask, “Can anything good come out of China (Wuhan)?” with a warm recipe. We are told that St. Jean-Gabriel Perboyre like St. Francis Regis Clet, another 19th-century Vincentian priest martyred in Wuhan, was killed by strangulation. Perboyre suffered continued beatings on his lower back. He was also forced to kneel on broken glasses. The duo reminds us that Wuhan was once home to Catholic missionaries who founded Catholic hospitals in the city. It would be recalled that the Canossian Daughters of Charity founded the Hankou Catholic Hospital there in 1880. Also, the Father Mei Memorial Catholic Hospital of Hankou, an infectious diseases hospital, was established by Franciscan missionaries in Wuhan in 1926. These efforts draw attention to the fact that salvation is integral – little wonder the early missionaries often combined evangelisation with education and provision of Primary Health Care. This was aimed at grooming a healthy mind for a healthy workforce and a potential citizen of heaven.
Although CNA’s heartwarming story appeared on April 9, 2020, to my mind, it is the best Easter gift at a time like this. St. Jean-Gabriel Perboyre’s account has changed the narrative of a city in distress. It has taken us back to the 19th century to reflect on the importance of taking care of the sick. The Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and other isolation centres across the country ought to view their work as a missionary enterprise reminiscent to that of Wuhan missionaries of yesteryears. During this time, the rich in our country should be happy to freely offer their mansions as sickbays (isolation centres) for those suffering from the deadly disease.
CNA reported that Dr. Anthony Clark, a professor of Chinese history, spent time in Wuhan researching the life of Perboyre who was martyred in that city (Wuhan). Based on his testimony, it is crucial for all of us to make recourse to Wuhan’s martyr-saints who are suitably the best intercessors for victims of COVID-19 today. In a society where the novel coronavirus has apparently defied scientific logic and technological prowess with all its paraphernalia, prayer is the best bet. In difficult times such as these, while we are locked down and are separated from professional job and physical bonds of friendship, Saints like Clet and Perboyre are ever ready to carry us on the plank of their prayers. It is high time we explored this exciting Easter gift from China. The time for global and national supplication in this regard is now. May God heal our sick brothers and sisters and bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Fr. Justine J. Dyikuk is a Catholic Priest and Researcher who combines being the Editor of Bauchi Caritas Catholic Newspaper, Communication’s Director of Bauchi Diocese with his job as a Lecturer in the Department of Mass Communication, University of Jos, Nigeria. He can be reached through – firstname.lastname@example.org.