Partially buried bodies of suspected Covid-19 coronavirus victims near a cremation ground by the Ganges River in Unnao on May 13, 2021.
(SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP via Getty Images)
The Catholic Church steps up as new Covid-19 wave stretches India’s public health services By Benwen Lopez
— Mumbai — Since a second wave of infections hit India in April, new cases have exceeded 300,000 per day, with the daily death toll climbing above 4,100 earlier this week.
As of 13 May 2021, India has recorded over 23,703,600 fresh Covid-19 cases and 258,317 fatalities.
From April 2021 to date, two bishops, one seminarian and more than 90 priests have succumbed to Covid-19. The youngest being 30 years old, who was ordained on 19 April 2020 for the Archdiocese of Ranchi and died on 20 April 2021. As each day passes, the Indian Catholic social media circuit is abuzz with news of priests and nuns suffering from Covid-19 and in critical condition.
While the central government and certain state governments have attempted to downplay the crisis, the real story unfolding on the ground has dominated headlines.
Hospital medical teams across India are facing enormous pressure to deal with the thousands of cases each day, including the appalling number of deaths daily. The country is struggling to come to grips with the lack of medical oxygen in state-run hospitals, which has exposed the failure of the central and certain state governments.
A significant number of deaths are mainly due to lack of oxygen in hospitals. Many patients have died either waiting for oxygen to be administered or just waiting for a bed in a hospital.
The lines outside crematoria and graveyards are long, with people having to wait for hours to cremate or bury their loved ones. In some cases, there is no immediate family member present at the last rites of a dead person because the entire family has tested positive and quarantined.
The crisis has forced certain State High Courts and the Supreme Court of India to intervene and question the central government about the situation. On 4 May, the Supreme Court of India set up a national task force to monitor the distribution of oxygen across the country. Heart-wrenching videos and images of people either begging for oxygen cylinders for their loved ones or attempting CPR on those struggling to breathe have been etched in the memory of every citizen.
A case-in-point of the oxygen crisis occurred in India’s tiny island state, Goa, where a total of 41 people died in a span of 24 to 48 hours (11 to 13 May 2021) in the state-run Goa Medical College and Hospital, owing to the malfunctioning of the central oxygen system during the early morning hours. The incident occurred even though the State Government was forewarned by the Goa Association of Resident Doctors about the malfunctioning of the hospital’s central oxygen unit.
The Catholic Church in India is punching far above its weight with its response to the crisis. Caritas India (a member of Caritas Confederation) has been at the forefront of outreach efforts to communities throughout the country, coordinating and cooperating with local Churches.
Speaking on the efforts by Caritas India, Assistant Executive Director Fr (Dr) Jolly Puthenpura said that over the last year, Caritas India has reached out to around 20 million people in the country, and has stepped up efforts in the second wave.
“While our program extends to all people irrespective of their faith, we prioritised 15 states of India where the numbers are spiralling,” he said. “In the last two weeks, we have identified 46 locations where we will be setting up first-level treatment centres exclusively for Covid-19 patients. This comprises of Church schools and other parish buildings and we will link it to the Government-run hospitals for support.”
“We are also setting up second level Covid-19 treatment centres,” Fr Jolly explained. These are Catholic-run hospitals and will be serving Covid-19 patients, some of them exclusively. “Besides these initiatives,” Jolly said, “we will also be supported in building the medical infrastructure, providing food and medicines for the patients.” He added that the target is to reach 100 first and second level treatment centres.
Fr Jolly added that some state or local governments have been requesting the Church to support them in the fight against Covid-19. A case-in-point is Kerala where the Archdiocese of Thalassery along with the State Government of Kerala inaugurated a Caritas India Covid Centre.
On May 11, Bishop Henry Dsouza of the Diocese of Bellary, Karnataka inaugurated a first level Covid care centre in cooperation with the local Bellary District Administration.
Fr Jolly added that besides the treatment centres, Caritas India is reaching out to the rural areas through its partners and providing community kits of oximeters, inhalers, sanitisers, face masks. Apart from providing these kits, they are also in the process of setting up a panel of doctors to provide support via mobile phones. Besides the medical support, the organisation is also reaching out to the daily wage labourers who have lost their jobs and providing them with monthly rations.
Speaking on the challenges, Fr Jolly said that the recently amended Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act makes it extremely tough for any non-profit organisation in India to acquire funding, especially at a time when the role of non-profits is critical during this pandemic. “These new rules make it difficult for fund transfers thus crippling our work but we are still managing.”
Besides the initiative by Caritas India, many dioceses and individual parishes are organising social outreach programs for those affected by the pandemic by providing meals and monetary support for families and individuals.
On the spiritual front, some priests are reaching out to administer the sacraments to Covid-19 patients.
Speaking on this initiative, Fr Daniel Fernandes of the Archdiocese of Bombay said, “There are many Catholic patients who are desiring the sacraments of Anointing of the Sick, Eucharist and Confession and there are people of other faiths who just want to be prayed over and blessed.”
Fr Fernandes said he has visited some 3000 Covid-19 patients since last year, in three hospitals in Mumbai. “This includes non-Catholic patients too,” he said.