Five Catholic priests in Indian diocese die of COVID-19 in 10 days

A worker refills medical oxygen cylinders for COVID-19 patients in New Delhi, India. A worker refills medical oxygen cylinders for COVID-19 patients in New Delhi, India. | Exposure Visuals via Shutterstock.

There are seven priests currently hospitalized with COVID-19 from the archdiocese of Ranchi in one of the states in India with some of the poorest medical infrastructure in the country, according to a local bishop.

Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, an auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese located in Jharkhand state, took each of the priests to the hospital because there were no ambulances available.

He held back tears as he described the dire health situation in his diocese in an interview with Colm Flynn of EWTN News.

“I have seven priests in hospital right now, and those are the lucky ones who found a hospital bed. I have another seven seminarians who are sick, lying in their beds in a house close to the hospital. I took them to a house for the aging because there was no place in the hospital,” Mascarenhas said.

“I lost a priest, 30 years old, just one year of ordination ... five days ago. And it hurts,” the bishop said, recalling that he was with the young priest and “fed him coconut water until the last.”

The neighboring Diocese of Dumka, also in Jharkhand state, lost five priests to COVID-19 in 10 days, according to the bishop.

“But what hurts more is what is happening all around us. There is a shortage of hospital beds. There is a shortage of medicine ... People cannot find a place in any hospital in the city, and you can imagine what is the state of the poor. They can’t even think of rushing their sick to the hospitals,” Mascarenhas said.

India’s official coronavirus death toll passed 200,000 on April 28 after 3,293 people died of COVID-19 in 24 hours.

The country, which has a population of 1.3 billion people, has recorded more than 300,000 new cases each day for the past week. Many believe that the actual infection and death rates are likely higher than the official statistics show.

Indian media have reported that at least 14 Catholic priests died of COVID-19 in India between April 20 and April 23, and five Catholic priests died in 24 hours in the western state of Gujarat on April 17.

World Health Organization spokesman Tarik Jasarevic has said that higher rates of transmission could be due to a new COVID-19 variant that was discovered in India.

The death rate has been so high in some parts of India, such as Delhi, that crematoriums are running out of space.

“Jharkhand is one of the states which has the worst health structure, infrastructure, it is among the poorest in the country,” Bishop Mascarenhas said.

"At least I could take my priests, my seminarians. The poor very often must rely on their villages. They are lying in their own homes -- even if they come to the hospital, there is no place for them,” he said. “And if those who get into the hospital, there is no oxygen.”

The bishop said that although he has directly cared for those who are sick, he has not been afraid.

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“I keep telling my seminarians ... we were ordained to serve and if that service can be like the Lord’s service then there is nothing like it,” he said.

More than 500 miles away in Hyderabad, Fr. Noel Maddhichetty has also been working to help those affected by the pandemic.

Maddhichetty is the director of Bosconet, a Catholic association with 500 centers across 28 states of India.

In the first wave of the pandemic, Bosconet reached 3.28 million people with some sort of support, including hot meals, weekly rations, and health kits to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

But Maddhichetty said that the organization was caught off guard by how quickly the situation deteriorated in this second wave with an acute shortage of oxygen.

"We are not capable of supplying oxygen. We don’t have an oxygen supply chain,” he told EWTN.

The priest said that Bosconet was looking into how it could help prevent the further spread of COVID-19 and what kinds of support it could provide for people who are sick and quarantined at home.

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“Also we are now trying to promote the vaccination … and the Don Bosco centers are trying to give some space for vaccinations centers,” he said.

Less than 2% of India’s population has been fully vaccinated, as of April 28.

“It is really an irony or … a big contradiction that the country that produces the highest number of … facilities for the production of vaccinations is not able to vaccinate its own people,” Maddhichetty said.

Bishops across India have been calling on the government to do more to ensure that medical resources are reaching those in need.

Cardinal George Alencherry, the major archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, made an appeal to the Indian government to declare access to medical oxygen a human right amid worries that the poor who are sick are being left without any options.

“Treat the availability of medical oxygen as a basic human right and take all necessary measures immediately to make it available to the people who are struggling hard to hang on to their lives in hospitals and healthcare centers,” he said April 25, according to UCA News.

“There are many who cannot afford to buy medical oxygen from the open market because of exorbitant prices. What is important is that, at this critical juncture in our country, it should be made available to all our citizens,” he said.

Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay (Mumbai), president of the Indian bishops’ conference, has called for all dioceses in India to hold a day of prayer and fasting on May 7.

“The second wave has hit us like a tsunami and we are yet to reach the peak,” he said April 22.

“Added to this is the apparent lack of planning, resulting in a shortage of hospital beds, antiviral drugs, oxygen, and vaccines. It could get worse before it gets better.”

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