By Robin Gomes
At least 400 priests and nuns have died in India due to Covid-19, the bulk of them in the height of the devastating second wave of infections in the country in April and May. The grim figure is provided by Capuchin priest Father Suresh Mathew, the editor of the Church-run Indian Currents magazine, who has been compiling the list of the country’s priests and nuns who have died in harness in the pandemic. According to the update as of Saturday, May 29, 205 priests and 210 nuns have died of Covid-19, bringing the total to 415. The number could be higher as some casualties are not reported.
The list includes 3 bishops: retired Archbishop Antony Anandarayar of Pondicherry-Cuddalore and Bishop Basil Bhuriya of Jhabua died on May 3 and 5 respectively. Retired Bishop Joseph Pastor Neelankavil of Sagar of the Syro-Malabar rite, died on February 17, this year.
Dying in harness
“The high rate of casualties among priests and nuns is due to them working in remote areas where medical facilities are rare,” Fr. Mathew pointed out. “Most of them risked their lives to serve the church and society. The nation lacks infrastructure in the health sector. They lived and worked in rural areas and died amidst them,” he told Vatican News.
The death toll involves 98 dioceses and 106 religious congregations. Despite the risk of infection, dioceses and religious congregations have been reaching out to ease the suffering of the people hit by the pandemic. Many dioceses and congregations have made their facilities available for the treatment of Covid-19 patients. Several othes have started free meal services for hospitalized Covid-19 patients, their families and those quarantined.
Father Mathew solicits reports of deaths from India’s religious congregations and communities and the country’s 174 dioceses to compile his list. He said that the number of casualties has “increased due to asymptotic conditions and late access to hospitals which resulted in late diagnosis”. He said some of those infected went about doing their normal duties. “Gatherings, retreats, meetings etc.” he said, “caused a huge number of infections.” “We should have set a model for others by avoiding unnecessary gathering of priests and religious,” Father Mathew pointed out, adding the death toll would have been much lower had there been enough vaccines and a higher rate of inoculation.
However, Father Mathew looks at the distressing numbers in the light of faith. “We look at the Covid deaths and accept them as the will of God.” Those who have died carrying out their mission “are enjoying eternal bliss”, he said.
India, the world's second-most populous country, currently has the worst caseload of the pandemic, leading in daily cases and deaths. The country on Saturday reported 173,790 new coronavirus infections, its lowest daily rise in 45 days, while deaths rose by 3,617. According to the Health Ministry, the total number of infections now stands at 27.7 million (second to the US), with the death toll at 322,512 (after the US and Brazil).
India registered 4,529 deaths on May 19, the highest number on a single day in the history of Covid-19.
This month, India recorded its highest Covid-19 death toll since the pandemic began last year. Only about 3% of the country’s 1.3 billion people have been fully vaccinated, the lowest rate among the 10 countries with the most cases.
The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been facing mounting criticism, both within the country and outside, for its negligence and failing to act promptly to secure Covid-19 vaccines for its people, despite the fact that the country is one of the world's biggest manufactures of vaccines.