MUMBAI, India – India’s Catholic Church is doing what it can to provide relief for millions of poor people affected by the lockdown imposed by the government to stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
Much of India’s economy is informal, and millions of people live day-to-day and have been adversely affected by the nationwide quarantine.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi specifically apologized to the nation’s poor for the lockdown, which is lasts until April 15, but said there was “no other way to wage war against coronavirus.”
Indian health officials have confirmed more than 1,000 cases of the coronavirus, including at least 29 deaths.
India has over 1.3 billion people, and its hospital infrastructure would collapse if suffered an outbreak similar to the one in Italy.
“It is a battle of life and death and we have to win it,” Modi said.
The country’s Christians make up just 2.3 percent of the population, but the Catholic Church has pledged to offer food, shelter, clothing, and medical care to the most vulnerable during the crisis.
This includes the millions of people trying to flee from the cities to their home villages, many of the trapped during transit as government officials try to slow the movement of people, in an effort to also slow the movement of the coronavirus.
“All our Dalit and Tribals, migrants of every caste and creed, rendered homeless and jobless due to the lockdown are being taken care of selflessly , by the clergy, religious and nuns of Vasai Diocese,” said Archbishop Felix Machado, who serves as the Secretary General of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.
Many Christians in India come from the socially marginalized Dalit and Tribal communities. The Dalits are from the lowest rungs of the Hindu caste system, and the Tribals are the country’s indigenous communities, mostly located in India’s forests.
“Many of them are construction workers, and many have lost their jobs, many travel with their families,” the archbishop explained.
“The Church is always a Mother, looking after her children, especially those in need, and in these special times, the Church in India is indeed a Mother, providing for her children, the Tribal, Dalits migrants. In Vasai, there are particular parishes, where these people are concentrated. All help is being given to them,” Machado told Crux.
Bishop Lourdes Daniel heads the Diocese of Nashik in northern Maharashtra state.
“All our priests and churches will be giving aid to everyone who comes, here there are also district lockdowns, making it difficult for our Dalit and Tribal migrants,” he told Crux.
“No one will go hungry. In these times, with the lockdown, many of our migrants have lost their jobs, but our Church is for everyone, a place for refugee for every Dalit and Tribal migrant without discrimination; our priests are helping our people,” Daniel continued.
“Especially in Ahmednagar, which has a very large Dalit and Tribal migrant population, our priests and religious are actively working for them, with all the government guidelines strictly followed, yet food and shelter is being given to them. They have always been our brothers and sisters and we are with them in their need and suffering. Our Church is for the suffering people of Nashik Diocese.”
In Nagpur, also in Maharashtra, Archbishop Elias Gonsalves said, “The poor are the ones who suffer the most.”
“My heart goes out to them. I have instructed both Nagpur and Amravati social work directors to start the relief work especially for daily wage labourers and brick kiln workers. May God help us to help others,” he told Crux.
The archdiocese has provided food packets to over 350 families, especially poor migrants who are unable to reach back their homes and have been marooned in Nagpur.
Meanwhile, Archbishop Peter Machado of Bangalore has taken initiatives to distribute grocery items to the poor and providing temporary shelters to the stranded in the archdiocese.
He urged all Christians to come in solidarity to reach out to the poor in the “best and prudent ways possible.”
“In this time of isolation and social distancing, let us not isolate the needs of the poor and let our hearts share the warmth of the love of God and neighbor,” the archbishop said in a March 28 statement.
“People have been told to stay indoors, but for many daily-wage earners this is not an option as some of them, especially children, are left without food. Let us remember: Reaching out to feed the hungry and to shelter the homeless is not an option, but it is an obligation and a great opportunity for all us!” Machado said.
In the state of Uttar Pradesh, Father Anand Mathew is coordinating efforts to help the poor affected by the lockdown.
“I as the convener of the Sajha Sanskriti Manch (United Forum for Cultural Diversity), which is carrying out this noble cause throughout Varanasi city and in all the villages wherever the least privileged, marginalized and vulnerable Dalit communities are living many of them are called ‘musahars,’ or rat eaters,” the priest told Crux.
“This campaign has been a big blessing for them because they have no money in the hand: They live a life hand to mouth. This campaign will go on as long as the lockdown continues and as the funds keep coming from individuals in the city and their friends in different parts of the country,” he continued, adding that they receive no aid from outside the country.
“We are providing provisions to the entire family which will be useful for more than a week. 5 kilograms of rice, 5 kilograms of wheat flour, half a kilogram of mustard oil, half a kilogram of daal, vegetables, soaps, salt, masks, bread, biscuits etc.,” Mathew said. “Please support us with your prayers so that more and more people join us in this effort. Your prayers are most valuable.”
Bishop Gerald J. Mathias of Lucknow told Crux the social services wing of the local Church has adopted different shantytowns in the diocese.
“Our people, including religious, have been distributing rations to the families including rice, pulses, lentils, sugar, etc., and also hygiene products like soap. Packets are distributed keeping the necessary preventive measures in place. So many people, not just migrants, are jobless. They have become destitute. The Catholic Diocese of Lucknow is serving these people,” the bishop said.
Father Frederick D’Souza, the former director of Caritas India is currently serving as the pastor of a parish in South Delhi.
He said the local Church is encouraging people not to try to flee the area, but to shelter in place for their own safety.
“We – the parish fathers and St Vincent De Paul Society – are distributing cash to the people to buy rations for those who are staying in makeshift sums as construction workers, etc.,” he told Crux.
The priest said the Delhi government is also distributing food for the people who have migrated from other states to Delhi in transit to other states.
D’Souza also said his parish is working with slum dwellers to convince them not to return to their home states.
“Because of the lock down they have lost jobs also there is a lot of fear. Fears when they hear so many people dying, Fears, like they don’t know how long this will go on and how long the government will provide food for them. All these are contributing to the fears,” he explained.
They would like to get back to their own villages and be with the loved ones rather than stranded in Delhi, or anywhere for that matter. There is a lot of sense of insecurities among them,” he added.
D’Souza said the parishioners have been generous in funding the relief.
“While our parishioners are not affluent, a section of them have stable jobs and they are happy to contribute. Besides, those who are abroad are also contributing,” he said.
Meanwhile, the local bishop has condemned images of migrants being hosed down with a chlorine-water mix in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, in a supposed anti-coronavirus measure.
“This is inhuman, because these people are poor and marginalized and desperate, our migrants laborers and their families,” said Bishop Ignatius D’Souza of Bareilly.
“Their dignity cannot be violated in this inhuman and shocking manner. Each person has to be treated with human dignity,” he told Crux.
He compared the treatment of the migrants to Indian celebrities who have tested positive for COVID-19, who he said “received the best treatment.”
“Our poor people do not deserve this indignity. It’s an affront against the dignity of the human person,” the bishop continued.
“These people have nothing, not provided with any means of transportation to return to their place of origin. The Catholic Church of Bareilly has been distributing thousands of food packets to those who arrive. Our people have been going out – with safety precautions and following government guidelines – and giving food packets to the people stranded at bus station, railway stations and other junctions,” he said.