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India’s Christians Ask for Prayer as Virus Overwhelms Crematoriums

Severe oxygen shortage one of many challenges as India suffers the world’s worst surge of COVID-19 cases and deaths.
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India’s Christians Ask for Prayer as Virus Overwhelms Crematoriums
Image: Altaf Qadri / AP Photo
Multiple funeral pyres of Indian victims of COVID-19 burn in a New Delhi area converted for mass cremation on April 24.

With life-saving oxygen in short supply, families are left on their own to ferry people sick with COVID-19 from hospital to hospital in search of treatment as India is engulfed in a devastating surge of infections. Too often, their efforts end in mourning.

On social media and in television footage, desperate relatives plead for oxygen outside hospitals or weep in the street for loved ones who died waiting for treatment.

India has been setting global daily records of new coronavirus infections, spurred by an insidious new variant that emerged here.

On Friday, the number of new confirmed cases breached 400,000 for the third time since the devastating surge began last month. The 414,188 new cases pushed India’s official tally to more than 21.4 million, behind only the United States.

The Health Ministry also reported 3,915 new deaths on Friday, bringing the confirmed total over 234,000 (behind only the US and Brazil). Health experts believe both figures are an undercount.

Leaders of Christian churches and ministries in India have been overwhelmed by cases and deaths among their staff and congregants amid the unavailability of treatment. In response, today was jointly declared a day of prayer and fasting by the leaders of the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI), and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI).

The current crisis is one of the darkest times in the history of the nation, according to Prabhu Singh, principal of the South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies (SAIACS), an evangelical research institution in Bengaluru.

“One of the heartbreaking results of this intense second wave in the country is the tragic loss of senior leaders of Christian organizations and seminaries as well as church pastors and lay leaders,” he told CT. “The other leaders are also experiencing severe strain as they struggle to cope with the impact of the pandemic.”

“We estimate 350 to 400 pastors, evangelists, and bishops have lost their lives—and that is a conservative figure,” said Vijayesh Lal, general secretary of EFI, citing tallies in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Delhi, and other states.

“The church has lost a lot of leadership,” he told CT. “And when you consider that it takes time and effort to build up leadership, I believe we are headed for a leadership vacuum.”

“The leadership crisis has already hit the church in India,” said Richard Howell, principal of Caleb Institute, a seminary in Haryana, and former general secretary of EFI.

“Nearly 2,000 theologically equipped workers—a conservative figure, given the news that regularly pours in through social media—are dead in cities,” he told CT. “However, in the villages where most Indians live—in poverty, without a proper health care system, and the church is experiencing both growth and persecution—the number is almost the same. And the increasing number of dead servants of God is just the beginning of the woes.”

“We have never seen something like this in the country,” said Finny Philip, an Indian board member of the Lausanne Movement, in an urgent video appeal for prayer. He explained:

Mass cremations and burials are happening. Dead bodies are lined up for the funeral pyre for hourseven on the footpaths,before they are cremated. Corpses are piled up inhumanly in hospitals, outside health centers, and in ambulances due to a shortage of space in the mortuary. Yesterday in the city of Bengaluru, the administration has assigned 265 acres of land for burial and cremations to cope with the desperate situation. Local government bodies are converting city parks, car parks, and footpaths as cremations spaces.

“We lost 11 of our key leaders, including two spouses of pastors,” Philip, a Udaipur pastor and principal of Filadelfia Bible College, told CT. “Pastors are struggling to meet the treatment expenses, and believers are going through financial challenges amid partial lockdowns” and the resulting loss of jobs and steady income—espeically in rural areas.

“We have lost many pastors and members of our congregations,” an evangelical church planter in Chhattisgarh, who requested anonymity due to religious sensitivities in his state, told CT. “Many are unable to pay even the cemetery fee to bury their loved ones.”

“A high number of pastors have been affected by COVID-19,” Naveen Thomas, senior surgeon and CEO of Bangalore Baptist Hospital, told CT. “The very nature of their work and ministry where they interact with people may be a big reason. They need much prayer.”

Christian hospitals like his as serving as best they can.

“While acknowledging we are unequal to the task ahead, we must draw upon the reserves only faith can engineer,” said Thomas. “There is a sense of defeat when one has to say ‘Sorry, there are no more beds in the ICU’ and turn away some. But at the same time, it is heartening to see faith in action—making a difference when we can.”

Ambulances carrying COVID-19 patients line up waiting for their turn to be attended to at a dedicated COVID-19 government hospital in Ahmedabad, India, on April 22.
Image: Ajit Solanki / AP Photo

Ambulances carrying COVID-19 patients line up waiting for their turn to be attended to at a dedicated COVID-19 government hospital in Ahmedabad, India, on April 22.

The unfolding crisis is most visceral in India's overwhelmed graveyards and crematoriums, and in heartbreaking images of gasping patients dying on their way to hospitals due to lack of oxygen.

Burial grounds in the capital New Delhi are running out of space. Bright, glowing funeral pyres light up the night sky in other badly hit cities.

In the central city of Bhopal, some crematoriums have increased their capacity from dozens of pyres to more than 50. Yet there are still hours-long waits.

At the city’s Bhadbhada Vishram Ghat crematorium, workers said they cremated more than 110 people on Saturday, even as government figures in the entire city of 1.8 million put the total number of virus deaths at just 10.

“The virus is swallowing our city’s people like a monster,” said Mamtesh Sharma, an official at the site.

The unprecedented rush of bodies has forced the crematorium to skip individual ceremonies and exhaustive rituals that Hindus believe release the soul from the cycle of rebirth.

“We are just burning bodies as they arrive,” said Sharma. “It is as if we are in the middle of a war.”

The head gravedigger at New Delhi’s largest Muslim cemetery, where 1,000 people have been buried during the pandemic, said more bodies are arriving now than last year. “I fear we will run out of space very soon,” said Mohammad Shameem.

In Bengaluru, a multifaith group called Mercy Angels helps with burying and providing dignified funerals for deceased COVID-19 victims at no cost to bereaved families. “We work for 20–22 hours in a day. My mind has become numb,” said Anne Morris, a Christian volunteer who spoke to CT between burials. “We are all physically and mentally exhausted, but we are just pushing ourselves every day.”

“Cremations are happening everywhere. In many cases, the relatives leave their dead and run away,” Howell told CT. “Thus, the sanctity of death is lost.

“Helping people of all faiths or no faith in cremation is a Christian duty to show the love of Christ in action to all, especially in grief.”

“It’s very Christian to come forward at this time, especially in this atmosphere of fear, and to give the body a decent funeral or cremation,” Lal told CT.

“It is to love your neighbor even after your neighbor has passed away,” he said. “It is a sacrificial service, because you are putting yourself at risk, and it is a commendable thing to do.”

The situation is equally grim at unbearably full hospitals, where desperate people are dying in line, sometimes on the roads outside, waiting to see doctors.

Health officials are scrambling to expand critical care units and stock up on dwindling supplies of oxygen. Hospitals and patients alike are struggling to procure scarce medical equipment that’s being sold on the black market at an exponential markup.

The drama is in direct contrast with government claims that “nobody in the country was left without oxygen,” in a statement made last Saturday by India’s Solicitor General Tushar Mehta before Delhi High Court.

People stand in queues to refill oxygen in cylinders in New Delhi, India, on April 23. Scores have died in hospitals in India’s capital amid suggestions that low oxygen supplies were to blame.
Image: AP Photo

People stand in queues to refill oxygen in cylinders in New Delhi, India, on April 23. Scores have died in hospitals in India’s capital amid suggestions that low oxygen supplies were to blame.

The breakdown is a stark failure for a nation which had declared victory over COVID-19 in January and boasted of being the “world’s pharmacy,” a global producer of vaccines and a model for other developing nations.

Caught off-guard by the latest deadly spike, the federal government has asked industrialists to increase the production of oxygen and other life-saving drugs in short supply. But health experts say India had an entire year to prepare for the inevitable—and it didn’t.

Instead, the government’s premature declarations of victory encouraged people to relax when they should have continued strict adherence to physical distancing, wearing masks, and avoiding large crowds. The government is also facing mounting criticism for allowing Hindu festivals and attending mammoth election rallies that experts suspect accelerated the spread of infections.

Even with targeted blocks of such criticism on Twitter, horrific scenes of overwhelmed hospitals and cremation grounds spread and drew appeals for help.

President Joe Biden said the US was determined to help. “Just as India sent assistance to the United States as our hospitals were strained early in the pandemic, we are determined to help India in its time of need," Biden said in a tweet.

The White House said the US was “working around the clock” to deploy testing kits, ventilators, and personal protective equipment, and it would seek to provide oxygen supplies as well. It said it would also make available sources of raw material urgently needed to manufacture Covishield, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine made by the Serum Institute of India.

Help and support were also offered from archrival Pakistan, with politicians and citizens in the neighboring country expressing solidarity. Pakistan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said it offered to provide relief including ventilators, oxygen supply kits, digital X-ray machines, PPE, and related items.

Leaders at SAIACS have been busy providing groceries and cooked meals to thousands of people in several states through the seminary’s alumni network.

“The challenges we face are innumerable,” Singh told CT, noting that faculty, staff, students, and their families have been affected by the virus. “We have lost some of our dear alumni as well. … In the light of this crisis, a focused development of the next generation of Christian leaders has become all the more imperative.

“As we continue to navigate tough terrains and unchartered territories, we need the sustained prayers and support of the global church so that we can continue to be the salt and light of the nation during this grave hour.”

Indian seminaries from Nagaland in the far northeast to Kerala on the southern tip have allowed dormitories and other parts of their campuses to be converted into COVID-19 quarantine and recovery centers, Paul Cornelius, regional secretary of the Asia Theological Association, told CT.

“We’ve discovered the importance of neighborliness, a sense of responsibility to the community regardless of religion,” Ken Gnanakan, a theologian and founding president of the ACTS Group of Institutions, told CT. “This has brought us close to people in need and an opportunity to demonstrate Christ-like love.

“We’ve extended monetary help where needed. Our kitchens are being used to provide food for many in dire conditions,” he said. “We’re fighting our battles, and we’re urging our friends all over the world to pray for us as we cope with these increasing threats.”

“In Deuteronomy 31:8, we are reminded that God will never leave us nor forsake us. We are exhorted not to be afraid nor discouraged,” wrote the leaders of EFI, NCCI, and CBCI in convening Friday’s day of prayer.

“We are people of hope,” they wrote. “So let us at this time not only pray for our nation but also reach out in the love of Christ and in compassion to help our fellow citizens, even more than we are already doing. The love of God dispels all fear.”

Christina Martin reported for CT from Bengaluru. For the AP, Sheikh Saaliq reported from New Delhi and Aijaz Hussain reported from Srinagar.

[ This article is also available in Indonesian. ]

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