‘Now We Are Paying the Price’: Church Leaders React to India’s COVID Crisis

‘The country has been too complacent and relaxed for too long,’ Archbishop Prakash Mallavarapu told the Register.

A health worker wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) gear speaks with family members outside a recovery center to treat COVID-19  patients, in Mumbai, India, on April 22. Coronavirus infections are currently spiking there.
A health worker wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) gear speaks with family members outside a recovery center to treat COVID-19 patients, in Mumbai, India, on April 22. Coronavirus infections are currently spiking there. (photo: PUNIT PARANJPE / AFP via Getty Images)

NEW DELHI — The Church in India has joined the national anguish over the exponential spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, amid widespread reports of underreporting of infections and deaths rooted in government complacency and public recklessness.

The second surge of COVID infections in India accounted for 35% of the 820,000 cases reported worldwide on April 20, amid a severe shortage of medicines, vaccines and even oxygen supplies that the government has been generously exporting despite criticism. 

“The country has been too complacent and relaxed for too long. Now we are paying the price for that negligence,” Archbishop Prakash Mallavarapu, chairman of the Healthcare Commission of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), told the Register April 20. 

Contrary to widespread fears, COVID-19 infections had peaked at 93,000 cases in mid-September in India, with 1.38 billion people. The infections declined steadily to 11,000 cases by February, with the daily death toll below 100.

However, the infections soon started rising sharply, with the daily count reaching 52,000 on April 1. In less than three weeks, it has spiked to more than 314,000 cases on April 21— the highest one-day national tally recorded anywhere since the pandemic began last year. And on April 20, the government’s conservative count of daily deaths crossed the 2,000 mark for the first time. 

As this COVID-19 “tsunami” floods across the nation, a chorus of protest has erupted from opposition parties, social-action networks and the media, challenging the government’s lack of foresight. One of the most prominent is a report by The Times that accuses the BJP government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of “floundering” in the face of the giant surge in cases. Another media account accuses the Indian government of indulging in “vaccine diplomacy” by exporting more than 60 million COVID vaccines to 84 countries at the cost of Indian citizens while the country’s own vaccination centers are crippled by vaccine shortages.

With infections rising meteorically, hospitals are packed to capacity, leading to problems of a lack of beds and fatal shortages of oxygen needed to save the lives of critically ill COVID patients. And similarly to the situation with vaccines, media reports indicate the government allowed escalating exports of oxygen despite the domestic shortages.

Meanwhile, 22 COVID patients died April 21 following an oxygen leak at Nasik in western Maharashtra state.

“There has been certainly a big lapse from the complacent government and the general public, paying scant regard for the social-distance norms while the state machinery ignored enforcing norms,” said Archbishop Mallavarapu, whose Visakhapatnam Archdiocese in located in the state of Andhra on the east coast of India.


‘Abominable’ Situation

Jesuit Father Cedric Prakash, an internationally known social activist based in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, was much more unsparing is his choice of words, when asked for his reaction to the calamity that has gripped the nation.

“Absolutely abominable,” Father Prakash described the situation on the ground in Gujarat.

“Many are dying due to lack of medical infrastructure. Necessary medical supplies are unavailable. Ambulances do not come on time. There are huge lines of ambulances in the crematoriums waiting for the corpses to be cremated,” lamented the Jesuit priest.

Among over two dozen Christians who have died of COVID in Gujarat were five of his Jesuit confreres, who died on April 17 alone. A week earlier, another eminent Jesuit, Father Varghese Paul, former president of the Indian Catholic Press Association and mentor of dozens of writers in Gujarat, also died of COVID at the age of 78.

“The government is blatantly lying on official figures of the grim reality,” said Father Prakash, endorsing the media reports that exposed the underreporting of deaths in Gujarat and several other Indian states. “They play down deaths and the number of infected by the pandemic.”

While the Gujarat government acknowledged only 78 deaths on April 16, national daily The Hindu reported cremation of 689 bodies in seven cities alone under COVID protocol in the state, in an article titled, “COVID-19 Deaths in Gujarat Far Exceed Government Figures.” 

“The situation is miserable here. Many are dying. I know an entire Christian family that has been wiped out. One of our young bishops is also in hospital with COVID,” Bishop Chacko Thottumarickal of Indore, in Madhya Pradesh state in central India, told the Register. 

“The media reports here routinely challenge the government death figures, with some networks challenging the actual figures to be several times higher,” said Bishop Thottumarickal, the former chairman of the Office for Communication of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences.

“All the 60 beds in our hospital are full, and we are getting at least 200 requests a day for admission. What can we do?” the bishop wondered.


Widespread Underreporting

Indeed, underreporting of infections and deaths has become rampant in many states. While ambulances wait more than six hours to drop dead bodies at crematoriums, embarrassed state governments are erecting huge tin-sheet walls to prevent photography of the unprecedented simultaneous high numbers of cremations.

The government’s response to the pressing situation came to the fore when the High Court of Uttar Pradesh state, India’s largest state with more than 220 million people, ordered lockdowns in five major cities of the state, a decision that was stayed by the federal Supreme Court at the request of the ruling BJP government. 

After The Wire news portal published an article titled, “Varanasi: Cremation, Burial Grounds Show About 50% of COVID-19 Deaths Aren’t Officially Recorded,” Prime Minister Modi called a meeting of top officials of Varanasi, as he personally represents the Hindu holy city in the Indian Parliament.

“Officially the death toll yesterday [April 19] was 10 in Varanasi. In reality, it is much more. The cremation grounds are overcrowded,” said Indian Missionary Society (IMS) Father Anand Mathew, who is based in Varanasi, where the IMS has its headquarters. “One of our young vibrant missionaries, Father Kiran, is critically ill, and many priests are sick.” 

“We completed the first day of blood-donation camp for providing blood to the COVID patients. We have two more such camps this week,” Father Mathew added.


Not Comparable to Wealthier Nations

“The tragedy unfolding here cannot be compared to Europe or the U.S.,” Archbishop Mallavarapu explained.

“Most of the people in India are poor, and the government could not just go for infinite lockdown and enforce strict norms, as the European nations have done. The earlier prolonged lockdown had made life miserable for the poor. So the government relaxed norms for them to earn their livelihood,” the archbishop pointed out.

In fact, Modi reiterated this point in his address to the nation on the night of April 20,  when he said that “we have to save ourselves from another lockdown,” alluding to the economic misery this would inflict on the nation.

However, according to Father Prakash, the primary responsibility for this unfolding calamity lies with Prime Minister Modi’s federal government.

Besides the unwise export of vaccines, oxygen and medicines, Father Prakash cited its failure to restrict unnecessary public gatherings. 

“In March, the government allowed huge crowds to watch the cricket match with England [in Gujarat], huge rallies for the local elections, and big crowds splurging at massive wedding celebrations,” he said. “Now the calamity is upon us.”


Register correspondent Anto Akkara is based in Bangalore, India.