Biji Biju was 42 when she became another COVID-19 statistic in India.
She was a popular figure in her community: effervescent, active in church and helpful toward others. She and her husband, Biju Jose, ran a tea kiosk in the town of Irinjalakuda in the state of Kerala, known as the birthplace of the most popular actors in the state’s film industry.
Despite her asthma, Biji was the breadwinner of the family. An accomplished cook, she made and sold fried snacks at the kiosk. She also delivered homemade meals to those stuck at home during the pandemic.
When she felt unwell at the end of May, her husband took her to the hospital. Three days later, she died; she had fallen critically ill, having contracted the coronavirus.
“Things just happened suddenly; it was out of our control,” her husband says. “We did our best for her. The doctors, nurses, everybody did all they could, but nothing could save her life.”
At their home, Mary Jose, her 79-year-old mother-in-law, is distraught.
“Biji was the life of this house,” she says. “We’re all numb from the shock.”
Families from their parish have been helping with food and money. The grieving family’s pillar of strength, however, is the Rev. Thomas Kannampilly, who directs a social service ministry of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy of Irinjalakuda.
Hrudaya Palliative Care and Hospice Trust helps people with long-term palliative health care needs for free, irrespective of religion. However, its work has extended beyond its usual mission during the pandemic.
The trust, with its four units across the eparchy, has been helping families affected by COVID-19 for months, providing oxygen cylinders, checking on people at home, and offering them emotional support. Nurses, doctors, ambulance drivers, counselors and trained volunteers have helped in emergencies as needed, explains Father Kannampilly.
“We’ve taken people to hospital in the middle of the night, helped families with medicine, been there for them emotionally, given them support in providing food and other goods,” he says.
“But that’s exactly what working in the community means. Everybody knows we are here for them.”
Father Kannampilly says funding for this necessary work among those affected by the virus comes from parishioners and from charitable organizations, such as CNEWA.
“The aid we get is so important to keep us going,” he says.
“We’re also lucky to have people volunteering,” he adds. “Volunteers have even risked their lives to help with funerals of those who died of COVID-19.”
The priest explains that volunteers have had to be trained for burials and cremations to ensure adequate protection for themselves and others, especially in times when restrictions are plentiful.
Kerala has been hit hard by the coronavirus this summer, reporting the highest number of cases in India in June and July. During this two-month period, Kerala accounted for more than half of the country’s infections. At the time of publication, the infection rate continued to rise, and the national COVID-related death toll was more than 438,000, third worldwide after the United States and Brazil. Among the dead are at least 270 priests, 252 religious sisters and nine religious brothers.
This has meant severe restrictions, including on places of worship. Churches in Kerala have not been able to open their doors to worshipers for months.
Concerned about the high transmission rate of the virus in Kerala, compared with the declining rate in the rest of the country, the Prime Minister’s Office commissioned a team of virologists to assess the situation. They found that Kerala was testing more than other states and was reporting positive cases with greater transparency.
For several reasons, Kerala has become a national model on how to manage the pandemic. For instance, while in most parts of India deaths were attributed to the unavailability of oxygen and hospital beds, Kerala’s health care infrastructure did not collapse under the pressure of the pandemic.
Nonetheless, the pandemic has stretched India’s southwestern state and its people, who have been trying to rebound from several natural disasters in the past few years. In November 2017, Cyclone Ockhi killed 143 fishermen. In August 2018, unusually high rainfall during the monsoon season caused severe flooding, killing nearly 500 people and destroying property, estimated at $5.8 billion. A year later, floods and landslides devastated the state again; more than 120 people died and thousands were evacuated from their homes.
The socioeconomic and environmental challenges brought about by these natural disasters were exacerbated by the pandemic.
Sebi Anthony and his family are suffering the hardships that come with these compounded problems. Sebi, the only child of Mary Anthony and her husband, Anthony A.X., has not been able to work since March.
His mother, Mary, is the eldest of four daughters. She was raised in a poor home and, from the time she was a child, she helped look after her sisters. This once active woman had a stroke in 2017, which paralyzed her right side. Since her husband, who is severely asthmatic, is unable to work, the burden of supporting the family became Sebi’s.
Complicating matters further, a year after Mary’s stroke, the family lost their home during the devastating floods.
“The church paid to have our house rebuilt, so we could have a roof over our heads,” says Sebi.
Then, at the start of the pandemic, Sebi contracted the coronavirus, only to get it again a few months later. He believes he contracted it the second time while accompanying his mother to the hospital for one of her regular appointments.
“I haven’t been able to go to work for a long time because of the weakness from COVID-19,” he says. “The church has come to our rescue. They’ve been paying for medicine for my mother, visiting her regularly to keep her spirits up and to check her blood pressure and blood sugar levels, as she’s diabetic.”
Enos Ethikeddu and his wife, Sicily Enos, have lost three children in the past eight years. A son and a daughter died due to illness. Most recently, their 35-year-old son died of COVID-19. A cancer patient, they believe he contracted the virus at the hospital during an appointment for his treatment.
Eight-year-old Albina is still coming to grips with the enormity of her father’s loss. She speaks about how she wants to be a doctor when she grows up. Enos and Sicily’s eyes fill with tears, their pain all too evident.
“Everything is God’s plan,” says Enos, a gardener at St. John’s Hospital in Pirappancode, a small town on the outskirts of Kerala’s capital, Thiruvananthapuram. “There’s no other way but to believe and have faith in Jesus.”
Sicily, unable to get the words out, simply nods in agreement. She is recovering from the virus that killed her son. While she no longer tests positive, she feels weak and her body aches.
The Rev. Jose Kizhakkedath, the director of St. John’s Hospital, visits often with families in his parish who have lost loved ones.
“When a family’s breadwinner is lost, it is very hard for them. That’s when we have to help and support them,” he says. “Faith helps to survive and deal with challenges that life throws at us. It stops us from giving up and, instead, shows us the way in times of crisis.”
St. John’s Hospital has also joined the fight against the pandemic, opening 20 COVID-19 beds. Aid from various agencies helped fund P.P.E. kits for doctors and nurses and ensure that other hospital staff are not at risk.
“Initially, it was such a stigma,” explains Father Kizhakkedath. “The government hospitals were full and all we could do was arrange for ambulances to take people to the hospital. Those who died, their burial was also a major problem.”
The hospital then started its own COVID-19 ward. The priest’s experience in health care management came in handy.
“We vaccinated every single person on our roster as a matter of priority. We put sanitizers all around the hospital for patients and visitors,” he says. “The need of the hour is to get through this critical time with faith, as well as follow the practical instructions in place.”
Father Kizhakkedath says faith also has helped his parishioners deal with the sense of isolation and anxiety they have experienced due to the state-imposed full or partial lockdowns over the past year.
“People need to see their friends and relatives and meet others in church,” he says. “Loneliness also can kill. So, we are making sure we visit families; talk to them; counsel them that this, too, shall pass; be an emotional support for them; and be that person they can come and talk to when they feel down.”
The priest is concerned about the long-term impact on poor families in the parish and has been a witness to how families can crumble under the stress.
“When we say COVID-19, we’re not just talking about an infection,” he says. “Unemployment is on the rise and education is in doldrums.”
“We need to support parishioners, not just while they’re recovering, but also by giving them employment opportunities, supporting them through post-COVID-19 struggles,” he continues.
St. John’s Hospital Trust operates a home for children with H.I.V. and AIDS as well, which houses 33 young people between the ages of 10 and 23, and a center for those with Hansen’s disease, or leprosy. Although in 2005 the Indian government declared the disease had been eradicated, the country remains the leprosy capital of the world. Latest figures indicate that more than half of the 200,000 people in the world who suffer with leprosy reside in India. The World Health Organization attributes these numbers to a lack of awareness, social stigma and discrimination, which leads to low reporting.
The Malankara Social Service Society (M.S.S.S.) works in more than 200 villages in and around the state of Kerala, in Kollam, Pathanamthitta and in the capital city. They reach out to 7.8 million people, irrespective of religion, and work mostly to provide education, employment and women’s empowerment opportunities, as well as sanitation and housing in remote areas.
However, M.S.S.S. has shifted its focus to “giving aid and relief to families affected by COVID-19,” says the Rev. Thomas Mukalumpurath, who directs the society.
“People are suffering, lives and livelihoods are lost and, for some, survival is difficult,” he says.
M.S.S.S. has been providing food, hygiene and medical kits to people who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic and to families in remote pockets of the state who do not normally have access to facilities.
Food kits include flour, oil, rice, spices, sugar, tea, lentils and pulses. Hygiene kits include laundry detergent, disinfectant, sanitizer, hand wash, bathing soap, floor cleaner and surgical masks. Medical kits have an oximeter, thermometer, N95 masks and a vaporizer.
“All these things can help families get by,” says Father Mukalumpurath.
Thanks to grants and international aid, M.S.S.S. has been able to support numerous families, such as Bindhu S. and her daughter, Bijitha T.B., who receive their food kit from the local parish in Vellanikal. Bindhu’s husband is a daily wage worker and has been unemployed since he contracted the virus in April.
Sarla Suresh collects the M.S.S.S. food kits as well. Her husband is in isolation after having contracted the virus at work, where he is part of the office security team.
Pratheesh P.S., a daily wage worker, and his son, Prince Pratheesh, have also come to the church to pick up their food kit. Pratheesh has just returned to work while his wife and two daughters remain at home. They were all infected with the virus; all are now recovering.
Father Mukalumpurath says social media has helped the society to stay connected with people and respond to their needs more readily.
“So, anybody who needs help can put a message out and we reach out to them immediately,” he says. “We’re using all the resources we can to be there for families, whether they’re in our parish or not.”
Father Mukalumpurath, too, underlines the importance of faith amid the crisis.
“Christ asks us to be patient. We must walk with trust in him,” he says. “We must pray and know that Christ’s blessings are always with us.
“Everything, no matter what the circumstances, is in his hands.”
Anubha George is a former BBC editor. She is a columnist and writer for various publications. She is based in Kerala, India.
The CNEWA Connection
CNEWA has long supported initiatives to care for the sick in India — and the present crisis with COVID-19 is no exception. The director of CNEWA India, M.L. Thomas, writes:
“The local church, which is already playing a major role in the health care and education sectors, rose to the occasion. Church volunteers were on the ground wearing P.P.E., serving people affected by the virus and driving them to treatment centers. They brought food and hygiene materials, provided medicine and oxygen cylinders and even took the dead to crematories.
“More than 400 priests and nuns have died of COVID-19,” he reports, adding “they risked their lives to serve others. Most were infected while they were on hospital duty. Church volunteers still continue to reach out to the ones hit hardest by the pandemic.”
To build on this life-saving work, call 1-800-322-4441 (Canada) or 1-800-442-6392 (United States).