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India Braces for Potential Third Wave

The health situation in India remains grave, as authorities fear a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic after cases of the “Delta plus” variant were recorded this week. The rise of a deadly “black fungus” infection among those who have contracted COVID-19 also has authorities concerned.

The country’s second wave of COVID-19 infections this past spring saw infections peak at 400,000 per day in early May. The virus has killed more than 390,000 people in India, though medical professionals believe numerous COVID-19 cases and deaths have gone unreported, especially in rural areas.

Speaking to ONE from his home in the state of Kerala at the height of the second wave, M.L. Thomas, director of CNEWA India, described the situation as dire. People were dying at a rapid rate due to a shortage of medical oxygen, a scarcity of remdesivir, the drug commonly used to treat COVID-19, and the absence of medical care due to an overburdened hospital system. In some states, patients were required to share beds and bring their own oxygen cylinders to the hospital, since hospitals no longer had any in stock, he said. 

Ambulances were working around the clock, assisting those in need of critical care and transporting COVID-19 victims to local crematoriums. Numerous corpses were waiting to be cremated or buried. By 22 June, less than 5 percent of India’s 1.4 billion people had been vaccinated, despite an aggressive federal immunization campaign.

Mr. Thomas said the virus and related lockdowns made daily wage earners, street vendors and other poor members of Indian society more vulnerable and dependent on the assistance of Catholic institutions and social service organizations for their subsistence.

The need is so great across the board that the local church cannot keep up. Even Kerala’s 200 Catholic hospitals, with their thousands of doctors and nurses, are short-staffed and dioceses have rallied volunteers to help out.

“Voluntary groups are stepping up,” said Mr. Thomas. “People who are service-minded are putting on personal protective equipment and helping out.”

“Many initiatives of the church are reaching out to the poor,” he continued. However, “it’s falling short definitely.”

Faced with this need, CNEWA issued an initial response at the end of May of food packages for more than 16,000 families, medicine kits for 1,250 families, 3,400 kits of personal protective equipment kits, more than 7,000 boxes of soap, sanitizer, masks, gloves and face shields, 45 disinfectant foggers, 10 oxygen flowmeter and humidifier bottles, 10 medical cots and 500 sets of bed linens.

The heads of local COVID-19 committees of the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic churches collaborated with CNEWA in India to procure and distribute the items. 

A second disbursement of $76,000, fundraised by the Archdiocese of New York, has purchased food and hygiene kits for 5,000 families in need, said Mr. Thomas.

“These may not be large projects, but they are contributing to the daily lives of the poor,” he said. “This is exactly where CNEWA can play a major role.”

Two religious sisters distribute basic provisions to people in need in a joint COVID-19 relief project of the Malnad Social Service Society and CNEWA. (photo: Courtesy CNEWA India)

Mr. Thomas said unlike the federal Prime Minister’s CARES Fund and the Chief Minister’s COVID-relief Fund at the state level, whose programs may not be adequate to meet fully the needs of the poor, CNEWA’s funds go straight to the most vulnerable.

As a registered charity in India, CNEWA purchases the provisions and distributes them directly to beneficiaries, he said.

“As a Catholic agency that is walking with the church, we can be sure that the resources of the church are being used for and by the poor,” he underlined. 

The Catholic churches in India have experienced significant loss of life due to COVID-19 as well. At the time of publication, four bishops died of the virus, along with more than 270 priests, 250 nuns and innumerable faithful. 

Bishop Jacob Barnabas Chacko Aerath of the Syro-Malankara Eparchy of St. John Chrysostom of Gurgaon, based in New Delhi, who contracted COVID-19 in April, was still in the hospital in a critical state, said Mr. Thomas. 

India is the third country to surpass 390,000 COVID-19-related deaths, after the United States and Brazil. 

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