Voices From the Pandemic: Unmasking our Humanity

The following post comes to us from the Rev. Abraham Areeparambil, director of the Malnad Social Service Society in India.

Quarantine, COVID-19, coronavirus, social distancing, hand washing, face masks, sanitizer — these words are everywhere these days in the southern Indian state of Karnataka.

In the fourth week of April 2020, our office received a phone call; a feeble voice asked, “Can you shift me and my family to a quarantine camp?”

With trepidation, one of our staff members asked, “Do you have symptoms of COVID-19?”

The answer shocked us. “No, but at the camp we will get fed three times a day; but here, now, we are almost starving.”

Another call came from almost 70 miles away, telling us that no support had reached them. Immediately, we rushed to them with dry ration kits.

The present scenario reminds me of the aphorism that “Behind every mask there is a face and behind that, a story.” As of now the whole world is veiled and concealed in order to protect and defend it in its combat against this dreadful pandemic. My heart throbs in pain with hope as my faith reminds me that God is our refuge and strength, and that he is ever-present in our needs.

I recall vividly one moment months ago, when I was listening to someone praise the steep scale of economic growth and the overall positive development of the world, issues on which I had a different opinion. Now, hardly a year later, we are in a bewildered state without knowing what to do next. The whole of humankind is experiencing a relentless fear and anxiety of what is to come. The question that agitates and terrorizes us is: “Where will this unprecedented situation take the world?” I would like to remind those of us suffering from such a surge of apprehension that, although humanity has not yet contained the situation, God has.

This pandemic cannot be considered as only a medical phenomenon, for it has taken a severe toll on the psyches and emotional well-being of individuals and their communities worldwide. In addition, the pandemic has been a socioeconomic catastrophe for the whole world. All segments of society are affected, but it has ravaged the most vulnerable with particular cruelty, singling out those who are already hungry, the elderly and those with special needs. Lacking basic needs, such as food, water and shelter, aggravates their grave suffering in such an abject condition.

I remember one of my colleagues repeating a conversation that a friend of his had with an impoverished man: “Can you give me the coronavirus?” the man pleaded, begging the health care worker to admit him and his family along with people under COVID-19 quarantine so they could eat and thus mitigate their hunger.

“I am struck by the soul-stirring condition of the people around me — especially the poor, the elderly and the sick. For them, the necessary concept of social distancing has become social isolation.”

Rev. Abraham Areeparambil

It is hard to argue that we live in a world of paradoxes, where some hoard food and other items as others are dying of hunger. Yet, there are many generous people working for this cause by providing meals day and night for the needy. And even as we learn there are some evading quarantine and other public health protocols, and passing the virus to others, there are those isolating themselves so as to avoid any sort of transmission. Forgive me, dear reader — this is just a spontaneous overflow of my emotions as I observe all that is happening to our people in my part of India, without any intention to blame.

As per the governmental norms, the church is finding new ways to communicate and reach the needy during this critical time. Regular prayers, adoration and the liturgy are offered privately, without the participation of the faithful. With the help of catechists and volunteers, many activities have been organized through the internet, such as the regular posting of spiritual talks, Bible classes and quizzes to animate and invigorate the faith of the people.

With the permission of the local authorities, volunteers have joined the social service society of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy of Bhadravathi in packing and distributing to the needy food parcels and dry ration kits, which also include face masks and cleaning products, such as hand sanitizer. As we continue to care for the sick and those with special needs, there are new needs we have to address. Since schools are not functioning, the midday meals and nutrients provided by the government are not reaching the children. So in addition to providing nutrition to mothers of newborns, we are trying to reach children who need our care. These works of charity are gaining momentum, strengthening our identity as Christian missionaries and as true disciples of Jesus.

As I jot down these observations, I am struck by the soul-stirring condition of the people around me — especially the poor, the elderly and the sick. For them, the necessary concept of social distancing has become social isolation. The young are able to access digital technologies so as to connect with their loved ones. But for those most vulnerable to the coronavirus, access to technology is not possible, heightening their isolation.

I believe the post-COVID-19 world will not be the same spiritually, culturally, economically or technologically. This virus is a powerful reminder of our common and fragile humanity. It does not distinguish between race, religion or nationality; rich or poor; influential or discreet. All are the same for the virus and in its path all human beings are equals.

But the virus has enlightened us, too, with a number of facts that we would otherwise ignore. It has taught us to live a life of simplicity amidst all the luxury. It has restored the importance of family, and how family gives us foundational support for our lives. It has provided us with examples of what we call the domestic church. It has reminded us that, despite all our 21st-century advances, we remain vulnerable to invisible and unknown elements.

“Behind every mask there is a face and behind that, a story.” Someday, our masks will be discarded. And behind that? We see the face of a fragile humanity — and beyond that, the story of how this time changed us.

The moral of this story leaves us lessons for our future: to love and care for all; to recommit ourselves and treat everyone as equals; to humbly accept our limits and vulnerabilities, and recommit ourselves to God.

“Love your God and love our neighbor” should be our watchwords.

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