In May, more than 120,000 people in India died due to COVID-19 — the nation’s worst month on record. Total COVID-related deaths have topped 355,700, the third-highest worldwide. However, multiple sources estimate actual losses in India are several times higher, likely well over one million.
“India is reeling from the crisis at this point,” Dr. Beryl D’Souza-Vali told Faithfully Magazine via Zoom. “I work in a medical facility where almost every staff member has lost a family member to COVID. Today, we’re coming downhill from the peak, but the consequences have been really hard.”
Born in Mumbai, pediatrician D’Souza-Vali today serves as director of Good Shepherd Health, a ministry of Dignity Freedom Network, currently led by her father Bishop Joseph D’Souza. From the nonprofit’s headquarters in Hyderabad, the doctor coordinates hundreds of health care workers serving across India.
In Bangalore, one of the nation’s worst-hit cities, the Rev. Gavin Cunningham leads First Assembly of God Church, a congregation of 600 people. He also has regular contact with 112 affiliated churches that operate in 10 provinces across India.
“It’s been very bad here in Bangalore,” Cunningham said. “Hundreds of ambulances have been lined up outside hospitals to take the deceased to burial grounds. So we did not have ambulances to help the sick. Then people have started throwing bodies into the Ganges River.”
Dozens of Cunningham’s own congregants contracted COVID-19, with a few of them dying. The reverend spoke somberly of Brother Murli, a 55-year-old father of two daughters, including one who had recently married.
“He was an amazing man of prayer and a dynamic leader for one of our local home groups. Coming from a Brahmin Hindu background, he personally had evangelized more than 3,000 people. It was a big blow to our church,” Cunningham said.
Story after story of tragic deaths echo the immense trauma seen worldwide over the past year. Yet, Christians have been working faithfully on the frontlines, bringing light into an otherwise dark situation.
Heartbreaking losses from ‘nasty virus’
Five months ago, it appeared that India had successfully dodged the worst of the pandemic. During a January speech at the virtual summit of the World Economic Forum, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed their efforts had “saved humanity from a big disaster by containing the coronavirus effectively.”
However, India’s situation soon changed. Thousands rallied at election-related events in the spring. In the Hindu majority nation, Modi endorsed attending the popular Kumbh Mela festival, calling it “clean” and “safe.” In April, millions from across the nation made the pilgrimage to wade in the Ganges River.
Soon after, hospitals began to be overwhelmed by COVID-positive patients with complications — not only the elderly, but many in their 40s and even 30s. Recently, experts have identified the Delta variant of COVID-19, which has been “prevalent here and quite lethal for younger populations,” according to D’Souza-Vali.
Hospitals have faced a widespread lack of oxygen compressors and steroid drug remdesivir, two key elements of COVID triage treatments. Losses have been even more acute in rural areas, where community health centers were few and poorly resourced.
Speaking of her colleagues working in rural villages, D’Souza-Vali lamented that many treatments began too late. “COVID-19 is a nasty virus,” she said. “The onset is so fast, patients may not know they’re sick, then suddenly collapse.”
Recently, the Biden administration announced that it would release 7 million surplus COVID vaccine doses to Asian nations, including India.
With India currently only three percent vaccinated, some worry that favoritism and bureaucracy could play into the rollout of donated doses.
“Will the marginalized get it?” Cunningham asked. “The poor constitute a large majority of our society.”
As some Indian Christians have debated whether to get vaccinated, D’Souza-Vali has an unequivocal response. “Besides the grace of God, the only reason why I’m here today is because I’ve had the vaccine,” she said. “At Good Shepherd, we advocate for vaccination. This is a major way we can prevent getting infected as well as prevent the spread of the infection.”
Without mass vaccination, she fears future waves of the pandemic are on the horizon.
How churches, Christian ministries are saving lives
Cunningham, of First Assembly of God Church, admits that his congregation “took COVID lightly” last year, and he noticed some members did not follow safety protocols. However, the church has since set up its own COVID task force to assist COVID-positive members — and many more in the wider community.
“Ninety percent of those we’ve helped have been outside the church,” he said. “The task force found medications. They called all the hospitals to see where people could be admitted. Some in the church had political connections, and we used those to help get results. Always we prayed.”
This spring, at least 20 house churches gave up their buildings to be used as hospitals, according to what Cunningham learned from his affiliated churches.
“Two of these former homes have become facilities with hundreds of beds available for care,” he said. “They welcome anyone, and people who come say they feel incredible peace. I believe the grace, comfort and mercy of God are at work during this crisis.”
As for Good Shepherd Health, the Christian nonprofit has distributed thousands of COVID rescue kits, which include an over-the-counter pain reliever, rehydration solution, and a pulse oximeter to measure oxygen saturation.
These are vital resources in rural settings, D’Souza-Vali explained.
“A health worker can monitor patients with COVID symptoms and say, ‘Your saturation levels are critical. You need to go into the hospital before severe lung damage has happened and before it’s too late,’” she said.
In addition to their own field team, Good Shepherd Health has given hundreds of these rescue kits to government health workers, most of whom did not have access to such resources.
D’Souza-Vali recounted a common scene at the facility in Hyderabad, the popular capital of southern India’s Telangana state, where her staff offers oxygen treatment for almost nothing.
“People are strangely surprised and ask, ‘What’s the catch?’ We say, ‘We just want you to live. Your life is so precious,’” she said.
“There’s no secret agenda in giving good medical care, love and affection,” she added.