Father Victor David, parish priest of Our Lady of Happy Voyage in Howrah, India, died from COVID-19 last Thursday at the Mercy Hospital hours after Sister Pranita Rai, principal of St. Teresa’s School in Kidderpore, died from the virus too.
The two missionaries of the Catholic Church died as the faithful were observing the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, according to The Times of India. And as more than 4,000 people die daily from the virus in that country, more than 160 priests have reportedly died in the past five weeks. Some 120 of them died between April 1 and April 15, Father Suresh Mathew, the editor of Indian Currents, told CRUX.
“I wanted to know the extent of the tragedy and the reasons. With journalistic interest, I began compiling the list of priests who died in the second wave (of COVID-19 pandemic in India). I approached the deputy secretary general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, and he gave me around 20 names of priests. But Jose Kavi, the editor of Matters India, gave me the names of numerous priests who succumbed to the virus,” Mathew said.
Those names amounted to a list of 117, and Mathew reached out to individual bishops in India regarding the deaths and was surprised by what he found.
“Within 24 hours, my inbox was flooded with messages of names of priests who died. A few in the list were not COVID casualties. Right now, I can say more than 120 priests died in India between April 1 and April 15,” he said.
“The number of deaths of priests is higher than the national average of COVID deaths and we should do a deep study into the reasons for the deaths,” he told CRUX. “Importantly many priests were around 40, and died in their prime. More than 20 were Jesuits. We need to make a study of this: Why are so many young priests dying in this coronavirus second wave? Our brother priests should not remain mere statistics.”
Mathew further told Vatican News that from April 10 to May 17 he compiled a list of at least 160 diocesan and religious priests who died. He suggested that the death toll among priests could be higher because not all COVID-19 related deaths have been reported from India’s 174 dioceses.
“Many priests are dying for want of timely medical care. It is a horrific situation,” Bishop Gerald Almeida of Jabalpur in central India’s Madhya Pradesh state told the publication. “I am shocked to know that so many priests have died when priests and vocation to the priesthood are very scarce in the country.”
Almeida noted that many priests and nuns who work with the general public had experienced heightened fear of death and isolation as they work through the pandemic.
“Our priests have given their lives in service, to the people. Many of our young priests who died were actively serving their communities, administering the sacraments — with due social distancing and wearing masks — during Easter,” Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay, the president of the bishops’ conference, told Crux.
“Our priests out of pastoral zeal gave their lives in service and succumbed to the virus. Many of our young priests with their missionary zeal, and even with the necessary precaution, paid with their lives: A heavy price for their devotion in the fight against virus,” the cardinal said.
Some priests have also died after attending large church gatherings, according to The Times on India. At least three priests died from COVID-19 after attending the Church of South India retreat at Munnar from April 13–17 the publication reported.
India is the world's largest vaccine-producing nation, and while 141.6 million people have received at least one vaccine dose, that's roughly 10% of its population of 1.35 billion, according to health ministry data cited by Reuters. Just over 40.4 million people, or 2.9% of its population, are fully vaccinated.
Koshy George and John Prabhudoss, president and chairman, respectively, of the Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations of North America, called on President Joe Biden in a letter Sunday to help charitable organizations get beyond government restrictions they say are worsening the crisis in India.
“As the world is witnessing, the pandemic in India is proving to be a much deadlier affair. Unfortunately, we are realizing that the government of India does not have the infrastructure or the resources to effectively manage this pandemic. We are afraid that poor planning and management by the government of India has exacerbated the current situation,” George and Prabhudoss wrote.
“Further, some untimely implementation of government regulations and restrictions on private charity organizations in the middle of a pandemic have added to the problem by severely hampering the relief effort on the ground,” they added.
Among those onerous restrictions, the charity leaders say, is a new regulation requiring them to open a new bank account in Delhi and obtain clearances from the Ministry of Home Affairs.
“Some charities have indicated that few officials are refusing the needed clearance demanding bribes. We also understand from the bank officials that many of their staff are infected by the virus and with few staff they are unable to handle the workload resulting in a huge backlog,” they said in their letter to Biden.
“We are asking you to please intervene with Prime Minister Modi and suggest that he lift or suspend the new regulation requiring the charities to open a new bank account and obtain clearances from the Ministry of Home Affairs in the middle of a pandemic. We ask that these bureaucratic hurdles are suspended or lifted for a minimum of 12 months so that charity organizations and health care providers in India could receive the much needed funds already available to them in a timely fashion to help the people who need it the most,” they urged Biden.