In India, Church is overwhelmed by COVID-19

“WE ARE PASSING THROUGH UNIMAGINABLE SUFFERING,” said Father George Manimala, senior priest of the Delhi Archdiocese, summing up the impact of COVID-19 on the nation and the Church.

“We have had more than two dozen funerals of parish members since Easter. Whatever be the risk, we must take care of the pastoral needs of the people. Half of our 600 families have been hit by COVID,” said Father Manimala, vicar of the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Health, one of the archdiocese’s oldest parishes.

With three major hospitals in its territory, the parish has also hundreds of unregistered members. “Many are in shock, especially the elderly. Some have yet to come to terms with the tragedy. We try to console and reassure them with support. We have also online rosary and prayers to express solidarity with those suffering,”

Delhi made headlines after hundreds died of COVID, unable to get admitted to crowded hospitals; dozens of gasping patients who died at hospitals due to the lack of oxygen supply. With crematoriums full, Delhi witnessed stunning scenes of cremations on public grounds.

Even the conservative death figures in India has been steadily going up and on May 18, India’s daily death toll crossed 4,530—the highest total in the world—amid allegations of underreporting. As of late May, the official death toll stood at 311,000, but unofficial estimates put that number at 1.6 million, or even 4.2 million.

The deadly pandemic has claimed the lives of several bishops, dozens of priests and nuns and hundreds of lay people in a country that is reporting more than half of the 800,000 new daily COVID cases worldwide.

The death of as many as ten priests May 12 in different parts of the country—ages 34 to 80—illustrates how the second wave of the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the Indian Church. While the western state of Gujarat reported the deaths of five Jesuits on April 17, half a dozen senior priests of theThrissur Archdiocese in Kerala died May 1-2. At least 117 Catholic priests in India died in the 33 days between April 10vand May 14, 2021.

Catholic volunteers collect a body

“The situation is really frightening,” said Salesian Father Edward Thomas, president of the Conference of Religious India (CRI), Bangalore chapter. “We have lost so many of our colleagues and I am lucky to have survived,” said the priest who has recovered from COVID infection. A dozen male and women religious have died in Bangalore, which has been reporting more than 500 deaths since early May.

With families struggling to bury the dead, the Bangalore Archdiocese has reactivated an innovative program launched during first COVID wave in 2020, to facilitate burials. Father Santhosh Royan, who heads the challenging mission, told Aid to the Church in Need: “Our volunteers have so far facilitated the burial and cremations of more than 800 people, 300 of them Catholics, picking up dead bodies even from homes.”

“At least 50 deaths of our people have come to my attention,” said Bishop Raphael Thattil, who heads the Kerala-based Syro-Malabar Church’s Shamsabad Diocese.

“It has been an awful time for us,” said Medical Mission Sister Juliana D’Cunha, administrator of the Kurji Holy Family Hospital in Patna, capital of Bihar state. “Lack of regular oxygen supply was the worst we had to face.”

(In mid-May, more than 80 patients died due to a failure of the oxygen supply in the government-run Medical College Hospital in Goa, a former Portuguese colony on the west coast of India.)

 “In most cases, the patients had not beentested, and they took it to be a simple flu. By the time they were brought in, their lungs had been damaged with little chance of recovery,” the nun said. Three priests and three nuns died at the hospital in recent weeks.

“The government has entrusted us with the task of caring also for children of parents undergoing COVID treatment,” said Sister Denin David, who is based at the Jesus Mary Joseph (JMJ) hospital in Guntur, in southern Andhra state. “Often we had to turn away patients as we could admit only 125 at a time. Yet they kept calling and coming. I have never seen human suffering like this,” said Sister Denin.

With non-Christian staff often reluctant to work in COVID wards, Redemptorist Father Thomas Abraham, executive director of the Catholic Healthcare Association of India (CHAI), reported that some of the country’s 500 Catholic hospitals are employing volunteers, including nuns, in COVID wards, to deliver food and medicine, and to comfort patients who are cut off from their families.

“Wherever possible, our hospitals are doing their best to console COVID patients. They are in emotional stress, too,” noted Father Abraham, who himself has recovered from COVID.

Divine Word Missionary (SVD) Bishop Basil Bhuriya, 65, of Jhabua in central Madhya Pradesh state, on May 6 became the first serving bishop COVID to die of virus-related complications.

—Anto Akkara