MUMBAI, India – When India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a lockdown to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus on March 24, he gave the country just four hours’ notice.
This was disastrous for India’s millions of migrant workers, who often leave their villages for jobs in the country’s large cities. These jobs are usually as day laborers, where wages are low, and savings non-existent. Suddenly, people were stranded far from home, unable to travel, and with little or no money to survive.
In Mumbai, the Jesuit St. Stanislaus school has opened a migrant relief camp for 100 men; in the Catholic school’s Arrupe Hall, 25 women are housed.
“St. Stanislaus High School decided to take a step forward in making available its premises to house outstation workers during the lockdown, realizing that many had lost not only jobs but were also not able to remain in their housing, for various reasons,” explained Jesuit Father Frazer Mascarenhas, the manager of the facility.
Initially, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the Archbishop of Bombay, offered four archdiocesan schools, including St. Stanislaus, to the Home Guards – an auxiliary Indian police force – to open camps for the migrant workers. However, this offer wasn’t taken up, and the Church went to the local Mumbai authorities, who accepted the offer.
“The municipal corporation is supporting and has sanitized the whole area. A team from the Bhabha hospital, a public hospital in the neighborhood, check the migrants once a day,” Mascarenhas told Crux.
The priest insists on calling the migrants living at the facility his “guests,” and is doing all he can to make them feel at home, despite the less than ideal circumstances.
“We think it’s a privilege to host these stranded workers during this time of emergency and we are treating them as our guests. That’s why there is a lot of activity around health, nourishment, entertainment and productivity, so that they feel cared for,” he said.
“Besides a safe place to stay, reasonable sleeping quarters in the school assembly hall for men and the school conference hall for women, with sufficient toilets and bathing rooms made available, our concern was about how to keep our guests occupied during these days. Entertainment in the late evenings through Hindi films was the first move and that has worked well,” the priest said.
However, another activity is making face masks, with the assistance of a local business that had started making masks for corporate clients.
The company’s head, Krysyn Rego, brought material and equipment to the school, and taught the residents how to make the masks.
“We were amazed at how quickly our- till then- very lethargic guests, jumped to the occasion and enthusiastically commenced production. They soon ran out of material and more was requested. Our residential camp has very quickly been transformed into a production unit and our guests seem quite at home now,” Mascarenhas said.
The Jesuit said right now, it is a waiting game at the school.
“We do await the lifting of the lockdown, so that these workers can get back to their families and their regular work; but until then, St. Stanislaus is pleased to do whatever possible to keep our guests in good health and humor,” he said.
“Networking has created many possibilities, with several donors rising to the occasion to contribute to the expenses while other donors are offering things like giving these workers a refill of their mobile cards to enable them to keep in touch with family. The milk of human kindness never ceases to surprise!” Mascarenhas told Crux.
India currently has just under 30,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, while 937 people have died from the coronavirus. However, experts say the true number is far higher, since widescale testing hasn’t happened in the country.
In an April 27 letter, Gracias – who also serves as president of India’s national bishops’ conference – said the Church is coordinating its charitable efforts with the central and local governments of the country.
“This is an opportunity for us to give witness as a vibrant community full of love for God and love for our neighbor”, the cardinal wrote.
He also said it was “extremely important” for volunteers to look to their own safety, and obey the government protocols on preventing the spread of the coronavirus.