A Covid-19 patient receives treatment at a makeshift open-air clinic in Mewla village, UP, India. A Covid-19 patient receives treatment at a makeshift open-air clinic in Mewla village, UP, India.  

Indian Church loses some 160 priests to Covid-19

As India continues to reel under the unrelenting waves of Covid-19 infections, averaging 4,000 deaths each day, the virus is also taking a heavy toll on the country’s Catholic priests.

By Robin Gomes

Some 160 Catholic priests have died from Covid-19 in the past 5 weeks, or an average of 4 each day. The alarming news comes from Capuchin priest Father Suresh Mathew, editor of the Church-run Indian Currents magazine.  He has compiled a list of at least 160 diocesan and religious priests, who died between April 10 to May 17.   

With 3 bishops, the toll goes up.  Retired Archbishop Antony Anandarayar of Pondicherry-Cuddalore and Bishop Basil Bhuriya of Jhabua died on May 5 and 6 respectively.  Retired Bishop Joseph Pastor Neelankavil of Sagar of the Syro-Malabar rite, died on February 17, this year.

Of the 160, more than 60 are from religious orders, with Jesuits topping the list with 24 deaths. According to Fr. Mathew, the list is incomplete as many deaths in the second wave of the pandemic have not been reported from all of the country’s 174 dioceses.  

4 priests dying a day

“Even this initial list is very alarming, as we have only some 30,000 Catholic priests and if four die daily, it is a matter of great concern for all of us,” he explained.

The list of deceased priests includes religious and diocesan priests of the Catholic Church of India which comprises the Latin-rite Church and the two eastern-rites, the Syro-Malabar and the Syro-Malankara Churches. 

Since mid-April, India has been reporting more than 300,000 new cases daily, with hospitals in acute shortage of beds, oxygen and vital medicines. Sick people have filled hospital corridors and compounds, while many have died inside ambulances waiting outside hospitals seeking medical attention. 

Crematoriums and burial grounds have been overwhelmed with huge numbers of dead bodies lining up.  The situation has become even more heart-rending with images of numerous bodies floating in, as many poor people unable to bear the expenses of paying their last respects to their loved ones are dumping them into the rivers.

India’s Health Ministry on Monday reported 281,386 new infections, dropping below 300,000 for the first time since April 21.  New deaths stood at 4,106, still above the 4,000 mark daily.  At the current rate, India's total caseload since the start of the pandemic last year should cross the 25 million mark in the next couple of days. Total deaths were put at 274,390, though experts say government figures were highly undercounted.

Lack of timely care

“Many priests are dying for want of timely medical care. It is a horrific situation,” noted Bishop Gerald Almeida of Jabalpur in central India’s Madhya Pradesh state.  “I am shocked to know that so many priests have died when priests and vocation to the priesthood are very scarce in the country,” Bishop Almeida said.  He noted a very high fear of death among priests and nuns whose communities carry out their pastoral ministry among the faithful and the general public.  He said he wants to assure them they are not alone.  “We are with them,” he said urging all to “ensure that their mental health is protected and maintained positively to overcome this calamity”. 

A quarantine centre for priests and nuns

After one of his priests died in the first wave of Covid-19 last year, Bishop Almeida set up a special quarantine centre for priests and nuns to ensure their treatment and to build confidence among them.  At least 26 nuns and 14 priests are undergoing treatment in the quarantine centre, where four nurses are on duty to take care of them. A doctor visits them daily.

All priests and nuns are instructed to report immediately if they suffer even from a minor fever or headache or any other health issues. Those found to be Covid-19 positive are moved to the quarantine centre, which is equipped with basic medical facilities and oxygen.

“We only shift critical patients to specialized hospitals. We take care of others until they recover,” said Bishop Almeida.  A nun who did not report to the centre succumbed to the virus.  Most people die as they don’t get proper care in the initial stage, he said.

Poor mental health

A senior Catholic priest who requested anonymity said poor mental health is a major issue among priests, “although the cause of their death is pandemic infection.”  “Most priests suffer immensely from their isolation in situations like this. Their public contact is restricted during lockdown periods. Despite years of training for pastoral work, they are asked not to have contact with people. That’s shocking for many priests,” he told UCA News   He said many priests risked their lives carrying out their pastoral duties during the Holy Week when government restrictions were eased but the pandemic was spreading.  (Source: UCA News)

17 May 2021, 17:24