Indian priests keep close eye on pandemic in their homeland

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A woman mourns outside the mortuary of a COVID-19 hospital in New Delhi May 12, 2021, after seeing the body of her son, who died after contracting the disease. CNS photo/Adnan Abidi, Reuters

The Indian priests serving in the Diocese of Nashville are anxiously following a surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths in their homeland.

“When COVID first broke, out, India had the most stringent lockdown regulations in the world,” said Father Thomas Kalam, CMI, the associate pastor at Our Lady of the Lake Church in Hendersonville. “Prematurely, they declared everything is safe. Three months later the second wave struck.”

New cases in India went from 11,610 on Feb. 16 to 401,708 on May 7, according to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering. Deaths went from 78 on Feb. 8 to 4,529 on May 18.

Father Thomas Kalam

“With the second wave in India each day we have almost 300,000 new patients,” said Father Thomas, who served for eight years as director and chief executive officer of St. John’s National Academy of Health Sciences, one of the most prestigious medical centers and teaching hospitals in India. “In America, it’s now 27,000 new patients. We’ve reversed completely.”

At St. John’s, which has a 1,350-bed teaching hospital as well as a medical school, college of nursing, and a research institute, 1,100 beds have been designated for COVID patients, Father Thomas said. All the beds for coronavirus patients had been full, but the number has been falling recently. On May 20 “there were 700 patients there,” he said.

The first wave of the pandemic in India affected mostly people in urban areas, and strict government restrictions kept it from spreading, Father Thomas said. In the second wave, when the restrictions were eased, “whole extended families were affected,” he added.

“The second wave is in the rural areas,” Father Thomas said, where health care resources are limited and traveling is difficult, making it hard to get to a hospital when needed. “By the time they reach there, it’s too late,” he said.

The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on the Catholic Church in India. One-hundred-sixty-eight priests, 116 religious sisters, a bishop and two retired bishops have all died from the virus, Father Thomas said. “They are on the forefront” of India’s response to the virus, he said.

The death toll has also touched Father Thomas personally. “My public relations officer when I was director (of St. John’s), she was a student in our hospital administration course. She was one of our best students, so I appointed her as public relations officer. I worked with her practically every day,” he said.

Last week, the 39-year-old mother of two and her mother both died of COVID on the same day.

Father Thomas’ nephew also contracted the virus, but he received good care and recovered, he said.

Hampering India’s response is the country’s limited health care infrastructure. “In India, there is one doctor for every 1,500 people. For every 1,000 people, there are .7 hospital beds,” Father Thomas said. “For 1.4 billion people, we have 40,000 ventilators.

“We need 500,000 (intensive care unit) beds. We have only 90,000 ICU beds now,” he added.

Father Davis

The United States has provided assistance to India. “They are very grateful to America for sending ventilators and vaccines,” Father Davis Chackaleckel, MSFS, pastor of St. Stephen Catholic Community in Old Hickory, said of his family still living in India.

Although India produces more doses of the COVID vaccine than any other country in the world, the number of Indians who have been vaccinated is low, Father Thomas said. “That is the contradiction.”

The government set a goal of vaccinating 250 million people by July, but so far 117 million have received at least one dose and only 17 million have received two doses, he said.

“When the second wave started the government gave a grant of $600 million for producing the vaccine,” Father Thomas said. “They should have started it earlier as you did it here in America.”

“My emotion is mainly frustration,” Father Thomas said. “The people who can manage the pandemic well are failing there.”

He pointed to political decisions to lift the stringent restrictions that had kept the first wave of cases in check.

“The largest religious gathering in the world is in the River Ganges,” Father Thomas said. Nine million Hindus gather to bathe in the Ganges to wash away their sins during a weeks-long celebration.

“The government said nothing will happen,” Father Thomas said, but the gathering turned into a super-spreader event.

The government has once again put the country in lockdown, Father Davis said. The families of his brother and sister have all been vaccinated, but they are still not going out in public, he said. “They can’t go out.”

They need to have permission from the police to be out, Father Davis explained.

“They are struggling,” he said.

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