As Pope Francis Expresses Solidarity, India Church Head Calls Dire COVID Situation ‘Alarming’

Speaking with the Register, Cardinal Oswald Gracias also expressed his sadness over the heavy death toll among Christian clergy, religious and laypeople.

Ambulance drivers being given food packets from 'Mother's Kitchen.'
Ambulance drivers being given food packets from 'Mother's Kitchen.' (photo: Anto Akarra)

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic taking a heavy toll on the church in India, Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI), has described the situation as “alarming.”

“The situation in the country is very disturbing and alarming,” Cardinal Gracias told the Register May 9 in a phone interview.

The cardinal’s remarks came in the wake of the official daily COVID death toll in India, which is considered to be substantially underreported, crossing the 4,000 mark, along with over 400,000 new infections daily — half of the cases reported worldwide.

“I am saddened by the deaths of so many of our people — priests, nuns, lay people across of the country. We have lost a couple of bishops too,” lamented Cardinal Gracias.

Divine Word Missionary Bishop Basil Bhuriya, 65, of Jhabua in central Madhya Pradesh, became the first serving bishop victim of COVID-19 when he died from COVID complications on May 6.

Earlier on May 4, Archbishop emeritus Antony Anandarayar, 76, of Pondicherry-Cuddalore succumbed to COVID.

“The Holy Father sent a message [on May 6] to express solidarity with the Church and the people of India in this painful time,” said Cardinal Gracias, one of Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinal advisors.

“At this time when so many in India are suffering as a result of the present health emergency, I am writing to convey my heartfelt solidarity and spiritual closeness to all the Indian people,” Pope Francis said in his message, sent to Cardinal Gracias in his capacity as CBCI president.

“I join you in commending to the Lord's infinite mercy the faithful who have lost their lives, not least the great numbers of priests and men and women religious,” Pope Francis said.


Grim Statistics

In fact, along with the entire nation, the Church in India has been passing through grave times as the “second wave” of the COVID pandemic has wreaked havoc, claiming the lives of dozens of priests, old and young, nuns and hundreds of lay Catholics.

COVID-19 infections previously had peaked in India at 93,000 cases in mid-September. Afterward the infections declined steadily to 11,000 cases by February, with a daily death toll below 100 in the nation, which has a population of over 1.3 billion people.

However, the fresh infections soon started rising with the daily count reaching 52,000 on April 1. In five weeks, the tally multiplied eightfold, with over 400,000 cases and 4,000 deaths by May 7.

The recent Church casualties included Father Prasanna Pradhan, the vicar general of Cuttack Bhubaneswar Archdiocese, who died of COVID on April 25.

Several retired vicar generals, former provincial superiors, and dozens of priests and nuns in pastoral and social service have also perished in the pandemic along with hundreds of lay people. 

The first big headline regarding deaths in the Church came on April 17, when five Jesuits died in different parts of Gujarat state. This was followed by the death of 14 priests due to COVID in different parts of India during April 19-23, Matters India reported

The May 1-2 weekend recorded a big tragedy for Thrissur Archdiocese in Kerala, when half a dozen retired priests died of COVID.

“The situation is very painful,” Archbishop Peter Machado of Bangalore told the Register May 10. “We have lost three priests these days and dozens of our people.”

“All our hospitals are full, and ambulances wait outside with patients for admission. We are moving less critical and those out of danger to ‘COVID care centers’ we have opened in our schools and other institutions,” Archbishop Machado said.


Burying the Dead

Amid the escalating deaths, the Church in Bangalore has reactivated its “Here I Am-COVID Squad, which was originally launched during the first COVID surge in 2020, to facilitate burials. 

“So far we have sent our teams to facilitate the burial of over 515 bodies, including 211 Catholics,” Father Santhosh Royan, who heads the challenging mission told the Register.

The 80-member team, which includes eight Muslims and two Hindus, responds to calls for help and rushes to pick up the victim and help the family with the funeral.

“The most challenging part is now to find [a] burial place. All the cemeteries, [Muslim] graveyards and [Hindu] crematoriums are full,” Father Royan said.

With all the burial grounds running full, even granite queries in the suburb of Bangalore are being used as cremation grounds as illustrated in this Indian Express report.  

This unprecedented church service comes amid reports of dead bodies of COVID victims being thrown into rivers in north India.

Meanwhile, another initiative has been launched — “Mother’s Kitchen,” led by Claretian Father George Kannanthanam with the collaboration of several Catholic charities in Bangalore.

The network, with three dozen volunteers, delivers food packages daily to around 1,000 COVID-affected families, street people, and those serving the COVID-affected such as ambulance drivers and staff at crematoriums.

“The work is challenging. So far all our volunteers are safe. They have been told to be extremely careful and leave the food at the door of the affected families and call them up,” Father Kannanthanam explained.


Christian Denied Help 

Unlike in Bangalore, Goa or Kerala where the Church with hundreds of institutions has been capable of extending such help to COVID victims, the situation for a Catholic family in Meerut in northern Uttar Pradesh state, where such services are lacking, was traumatic.

Even though his two younger brothers were already on ventilators in a hospital 60 miles from New Delhi, the elder brother (whose name is withheld due to the threat of political harassment) had to stand in line starting at 3am to get a replacement oxygen cylinder for his father, who is being treated at home. 

But when his turn finally came to pay the required fees to collect the cylinder, an official bluntly told him: “We do not give oxygen to Christians.”

When he protested, the official changed his explanation, instead citing a technicality to justify denying the oxygen supply from the Christian man.

It’s not the only case of preferential access at the hospital to life-saving oxygen, which currently is in critically short supply across India. In another shocking incident, police brusquely removed the oxygen cylinder from a critically ill patient when a VIP patient was admitted to the hospital. The critical patient, deprived of oxygen, soon passed away.

Several state high courts have castigated India’s federal and state governments for their failure to provide adequate oxygen supplies for the gasping patients who are dying in hospitals. The High Court of northern Uttar Pradesh state described the situation as a “genocide” on May 6 amid recurring reports of such deaths in the state, which is India’s most populous with more than 220 million inhabitants.

“We are in pain observing that deaths of COVID patients just for non-supply of oxygen to the hospitals is a criminal act,” the court stated, “and is not less than a genocide by those who have been entrusted the task to ensure continuous procurement and supply chain of the liquid medical oxygen."

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