During the lockdown the smoothly running timetable was rescheduled, breaking the chain of routine. The daily Holy Mass in the morning was replaced with Adoration. Slowly I started feeling a sense of meaninglessness in life and the feeling got stronger each passing day. Like any sensitive human being concerned about the humanity, I started thinking that spending time in front of the Blessed Sacrament and praying for the corona victims is not enough. I should do something concrete for mitigating the suffering of humanity as a Religious and a Christian. At times, I was exasperated and asked why no one is taking lead and making any collective effort.
I began to realize that each drop contributes to the ocean; therefore I must do what I can instead of waiting for others to start. After assessing material and monitory resources of our organization, Prerana Service Society, I along with the team members decided to reach out to the people in whatever possible way. In the course of time, help started coming from unknown sources as well as from my own congregation, Society of Benedictine Sisters. We made available food grains and grocery items to the neediest in our area in Bhopal.
Meanwhile I was extremely happy to know the appeal of CRI on behalf of Archbishop of Bhopal, asking the Religious to volunteer for a survey of Covid 19 affected areas of Bhopal city. It was to be conducted under the auspices of the Health Department of Madhya Pradesh Government. Without any hesitation I volunteered to join the survey team, leaving the food distribution task to my team members.
The Bhopal CRI (Conference of Religious of India) unit was part of the COVID- 19 survey along with other NGOs. Assistant Collector Mr. Chouhan requested Archbishop Leo Cornelio to collaborate with government for the success of the survey. CRI Bhopal unit subsequently contacted the Religious superiors and a good number of Religious responded to the invitation. The purpose of the survey was to plug the spread of the pandemic. As per the information given to, there were 175 total corona positive cases in Bhopal city and 119 containment areas at the time of survey. The survey was conducted on April 20, 21 and 22.
On the first day, 62 Religious volunteers gathered in JP hospital’s Ayushman Bharat wing. Archbishop Leo Cornelio and CRI Bhopal unit president, Sr. Francis Regis, were present, ignoring the age bar set for the COVID -19 relief work, in order to boost the morale of the team. His Grace made a small prayer and gave his paternal blessing to the entire group. Participation of Fr. Justin Akkara, the CMI Provincial, in the survey team was a great encouragement to the team members. He was leading from the front.
We had to go around the containment area in small groups with two set of questionnaires to be filled. After instructing us how to fill the formats, we were given a demo on how to wear the PPE and the procedure to be followed while removing it for disposal.
All participants were given a set of PPE (Personal Protection Equipment), but there was a practical problem. A good number of Religious, who had volunteered their service, were in their Religious habit or uniform saree and they could not get into the PPE. The Health Department had made mandatory to use the PPE as a precautionary measure. As a result, almost of half of the Religious volunteers had to go back without taking part in the survey. The remaining 40 members were divided into small teams of three or five and various localities were allotted to each team. The experience of wearing PPE left a good feeling initially, but gradually one could feel the suffocating heat drenching the clothes and making the movement sluggish.
As instructed we were carrying our own water bottles for safety sake. Food stuff was discouraged during survey. From 9.00 to 5.00 there was no question of eating anything. Walking in the scorching sun and going for door-to-door survey without any washroom facilities was an experience I have not experienced before.
On the first day we visited the Ashoka garden area of Bhopal. People were very welcoming and cooperated with us well. They were sympathetic to our adventurous venture. Many of them offered water, tea and even food and asked us to come inside, but we refused their hospitality with the same manner of warmth. We had come across some of the neighbours of COVID-19 patients who had developed panic syndrome.
On the second day our group had five members and we were directed to Rustum Kha area of Shyamala Hills. This was a Muslim dominated area and it looked like a sort of chawl. It has congested habitats with high density of population. The environment appeared unhygienic with open drainage filled with filth and dirt all over. Anyone who makes a maiden visit to this area will be flabbergasted and wonder whether this area is also part of the capital of Madhya Pradesh. I stood wondering at the immunity of the people residing in that area to withstand the common sickness and remain healthy.
The respondents were very cold in their response to the questions. All of them said in the same tone that by the grace of God they were all fine in their homes. I presumed that the reason behind their cold answers could be the blame the Muslim community had to bear after the Tablighi Jamaat conference in the Nizamudin area of Delhi. Consequently they were branded as villains of spreading the pandemic. The residents of the area appeared to be scared of alienation from the mainstream society. After conducting survey of around 60 houses we decided to wind up the survey in that area and moved to Rachna Nagar. It was a posh area and People cooperated well and responded to our questions.
On the second day, while returning home my companion, Sr. Bency and I were alone in the vehicle provided by the Health Department. We had a conversation with the driver and we came to know that he is a Muslim from the area we visited that day for survey. I observed that he was not happy and comfortable and I tried to know the reason for his uneasiness. While doing the tabulation of the data collected, sitting in the vehicle, some inadvertent comments were made by one of the teammates about the population of the Muslim community. It had offended him. I tried to make up for his ill feeling by providing him sufficient ration, as he was not getting any help from the government.
The final day of the survey was bit disappointing because we visited four zones and wherever we went it was informed that another team had come there the previous day and the residents were reluctant to respond to our queries. We could do the survey of only a few houses. All the three days, after the survey we returned to JP hospital for disposing the PPE and we were sanitized. On the first day we saw in the hospital premises an unattended dead body laying on the structure and few meters away a young woman gasping for breath and they seemed to be corona victims.
At the end of three days survey we thanked the Assistant Collector Mr. Chouhan who coordinated the survey. He was on duty from 9.00 am to 9 pm and made his office in the Board Office premises. It is hard to see such dedicated souls. He was very gentle and concerned about the workers and drivers functioning under him. After handing over the collected data to Mr. Chouhan we were permitted to leave for home daily.
I had great desire that the Church should work with Government hand in hand and remove the prejudices of the officials and politicians about Church and its personnel. The initiative of Archbishop of Bhopal and the CRI in this regard was praiseworthy. A good number of Religious came together. The Catholic Church in India has got large and committed human resource and if she could put together the resources, it will be a greater miracle than the multiplication of bread. We can make the Church relevant now when the Hindutva waves sweep across the country.
I have realized that the obsession with the religious uniform is a serious block in the mission of the Church. Corona virus attacks every one irrespective of their small identities like religion, caste, culture etc. The Religious who had volunteered for the survey should have thought of wearing civil dress in view of using the PPE and becoming part of the mainstream. Giving up small identities is needed to make our mission effective like salt to the earth and light to the world, as Jesus envisaged.
The middle class, especially those who live in the cities, are very much influenced by Hindutva ideology and they are blind admirers of the Modi led BJP Govt. Against this backdrop, the aggressive presence of the Religious in their uniform can be misinterpreted and misunderstood.
I have great appreciation for the leadership of Fr. Justin CMI who was leading from the front as a model of servant leadership. Archbishop’s presence really boosted the morale of the participants and sr. Francis Regis initiative is praiseworthy. The leaders in the Church should take initiative to collaborate with the government.
Often we become insensitive and inadvertently indulge in labelling particular communities. This can increase the religious divide that already exists in the Indian society. The driver who listened to our unwarranted prejudicial comment was hurt.
The last day’s survey was not fruitful against our expectation. I am reminded that I should learn to take success and failure with equanimity. I should not expect only success, but taste failures with the same dignity and grace.
In my absence my team members did the food distribution to the needy responsibly. I should continue to delegate to my team members tasks with authority and trust them. Delegation with authority should be my way of functioning as a team leader.
Many people, including my sisters and family members, cautioned me and dissuaded me from venturing into the survey that was very risky. But I found that God has given me immense courage and strength to face such trying times. After completing the survey I thanked God that He blessed me with sound health and mental stamina for the service of the humanity. I have decided to use my talents for the greater good and wellbeing of humanity.
(The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org )
(Published on 04th May 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 19)