The crisis created universally by the pandemic Coronavirus, the lockdown after that, the aftermath of these two unexpected events have altered the life of individuals, families, communities, countries and the globe once for all. It appears that life is not going to be the same any more. As the days proceed, the expectations of the people are getting converted into depression, faith giving way to frustration, marriages being cancelled, plans beings postponed for ever, dreams being destroyed.
As Church personnel, we are called upon to respond creatively to this situation. Some of us were in the forefront at least trying to provide some relief to the affected people; some of us were there reaching relief packages to the most needy; some traced the migrant labourers walking or lost on the way and tried to get information about their whereabouts and followed up on them. But there were also many of us who remained stay put in our presbyteries and residences, seminaries and sanctuaries, trying to be cozy and comfortable, irrespective of all that were happening around us.
But there were priests, religious, bishops, formees, students, youth, who risked their lives and were on the streets to be of some service to the affected population of the country. The central and state governments, district administrations, medical personnel, police personnel, civil society organisations, private enterprises, educational institutions, corporates, film world, daily wage earners and common masses of this country are already discussing and deliberating upon this. It is our pastoral, spiritual, religious and humanitarian obligation to search for lockdown exit strategies and share with others and work with all to achieve these strategies.
Celebrating one of the most unusual Holy Thursday Masses of all time, which took place in a nearly empty St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis remembered priests living and dead amid the coronavirus pandemic, saying they along with the doctors and nurses represent the “saints next door” during the crisis (CRUX, 9th April, 2020). We draw inspiration from the Holy Father.
Similarly, while celebrating the Holy mass on 18th May, 2020 he assured the faithful, “God loves his people and he visits them...in difficult times”. He expects his followers to visit people in distress like God would visit them.
1) It is great to acknowledge that from the time lockdown was imposed without proper planning by the government, most of the citizens of the country have been trying to follow the guidelines provided by the government. Due to this it appears that the country has been able to control this pandemic. With the extension of the lockdown up to 31st May, it was hoped that the country will be able to face this crisis better and return to ‘normalcy’. But the ever rising virus cases caution us not to be too hopeful.
2) Due to the lifting of lockdown, either partial or full, there could be rush of people for various reasons. It is important to continue with social distancing as far as possible and also invite others associated with us to do the same. As conscious, committed and concerned citizens, we are called to prepare our people to deal with the exit strategies which the government hopefully will come out with. If not, we need to come out with exit policies for those people who are associated with us so that the spread of the virus can be contained and more harm is not done to our fellow being.
3) There are institutional set ups within the Church to respond to crisis. If these institutions are able to respond to the crisis, it is well and good. If some of these institutions are not able to respond then it is time to encourage and permit individual initiatives so that the affected people find help. Later these individual initiatives can be institutionalized. It is not the time to uphold the sanctity of institutions when those who man these institutions are not able to respond appropriately and adequately.
4) Instead of expecting the entire body or different ministries or different institutions to respond to this crisis or be involved in lockdown exit strategies, it is expedient to invite, initiate and permit institutions and individuals who would respond immediately and in a planned manner. As one proceeds, it would be good to call for meetings of various sectors and arrive at some common minimum policies and programs and leave the rest to the individuals and institutions to carry out to be at the service of the high risk persons, families and communities.
5) In this extremely grim, depressing and unsure situation, most of the Christians – lay faithful, priests and religious - have been able to take all the precautionary measures and remain safe and healthy and also have been trying to respond to the most affected and needy people. With our limited resources and personnel, we have done well in collaboration with the local churches, our collaborators and coworkers, alumni and people associated with us we have tried to accompany the affected people in their massive and crucial struggles to survive. But this is not the end of the story. This crisis is going to continue for a long time and it is essential to get ready to cope up with the emerging situation and to prepare others for the same.
6) It is mandatory to be attentive to the guidelines and directives of the government starting from the national, state and district not only in the lockdown phase but in the post lockdown exit phase. Most of these guidelines could be most unconventional, out of the ordinary, not of the beaten path. Some guidelines could be restrictive and obstructive. But it is important to pay attention to them and see how these can be adhered to.
7) Finally, a massive and unprecedented crisis like this cannot be responded by a few individuals and institutions. It is imperative that all of us have to put our heads and hearts, personnel and resources, institutions and contacts to respond to this crisis in a more humane and humble manner so that not even the scar of this crisis remains to haunt anyone. We ourselves and our people have to move on leaving behind the crisis.
8) Pray, fast and services are the three mantras that need to become part of us. Pope Francis has reinvented this as a way of life for all the Christians and people of all religions. It is ultimately in our faith that we seek and search a lasting answer to the crisis and the sufferings that it unleashed on us and on our people.
Possible Church Responses
1) Pastoral Response to Exit Strategies
Ø Organise Eucharistic Celebrations at different times, in different places and for different groups in addition to the one time parish mass. People have been starved due to lack of opportunities to participate in the Holy Eucharist. The pain and agony of the lay faithful due to lack of opportunities to participate in Eucharist and other spiritual practices in the Lenten and Holy Week is unimaginable. Hence, it is important to feed them with this spiritual nourishment.
Ø Encourage People to organize and get invited for Holy Eucharist and other forms of worships at their convenience and place of their choice. Catechism classes have been affected. Hence, we need to device ways and means to work out religion and moral science classes.
Ø Organise the Sacrament of Reconciliation for all the parishners or in mass centres. Every pastor is aware of the importance lay faithful place on the Sacrament of Reconciliation during the Lenten Season and Holy Week. They did not have this opportunity hence it has to be planned and programmed in our pastoral activities in the coming days and weeks.
Ø Utilise every opportunity to celebrate different sacraments in the parish, mass centres, homes of the faithful, Basic Christian Community locations, institutions, etc. Expecting the faithful to come to where one is, cannot be the mode of operation now on. Going out to where the faithful is the only way of being the Church.
Ø In addition to the homilies, ask, allow, invite the faithful to share their spiritual and religious experiences during the lockdown. Both lights and shadows will strengthen the people and will energise them to face the dilemmas of exit strategy and get ready for ‘normal life’.
Ø Organise catechism and faith formation classes for the children and youth. Let it not be based on the routine content and method. Let it for the time being focus on the crisis generated by the coronavirus crisis.
Ø The lay people devised many spiritual, religious and meaningful Lenten practices, liturgical services, way of the cross, blessing of the palms, washing the feat, veneration of the cross, veneration of the pascal candle, reading cum meditating on the passion narratives etc. To give an example, in some families, the washing of the feet of the elderly person was done by the family members. This brought the family together. This was maintained keeping the social distance wherever possible. It is important to encourage the lay faithful to continue these practices so that in eventuality of similar crisis and lockdown and closure of the church and worship places, they have the alternative forms of worship in their own places so that they do not suffer guilt of not participating in religious worships and spiritual practices.
Ø Those pastors, shepherds, priests and religious who were conscious of the situation arising out of the lockdown, creative, committed to the pastoral care of the lay faithful were constantly in communication with the lay faithful, parishes, religious communities, etc., regarding indirect, informal, non-institutionalised and non-clericalised forms of worships and liturgical practices. We the pastors, priests and religious need to continue with this new form of being church of the people and train ourselves further so that in future too these become readymade responses to crisis. This should also become part of the formation of seminarians and formees.
Ø The first Sunday after the lockdown is lifted, organize a well planned Eucharistic worship involving people much more as active participants than silent spectators as it happens often. This is the first Eucharist they are attending after the lockdown is imposed. For weeks and months, they did not have the opportunity to participate face to face in the Holy Eucharist. Hence, plan this well and in advance. Not too much homilies and speculative speeches about Covid-19 but more a personal, emotional and spiritual experience it should be.
Ø With all these pastoral responses, it is also good to explore the possibility of providing relief to the poor catholic families who are affected. In addition to them, it is also good to explore the possibility of providing relief to poor families who are from other faith. When the relief phase is over, explore with them the possibilities of livelihood options. Wherever Catholics are better off it is good to motivate them to support the less privileged Catholics.
Ø It would be great if the Bishops of each diocese take a lead in this to work virtual now without delay to prepare and inspire parish priests, pastors and pastoral teams to innovate means and methods to enable the faithful to handle the lockdown, the spiritual blockade due to this and the need to organize special and specific programs once the lockdown is lifted. This would be in the line of Pope Francis who had wanted his pastors to be the ones who ‘can smell their flock’. If not, we have utterly failed our faithful, our people, our faith, our pope and our God.
2) Exit Strategies for Socio-Development Works
Ø Christians as individuals and as members of Church institutions have been responding to the needs of poor people affected by the coronavirus crisis and the lockdown. Till these people are able to get back to their lives and livelihood we may have to carry out food supplies to the high risk families in whatever way possible.
Ø As done in crisis like this, it is important to identify the needy people most affected by the lockdown. From the past crisis and from this exceptional crisis, we have learnt that the following in different situations are the segment of people who are at high risk: widows, women headed households, domestic workers, rickshaw pullers, ragpickers, migrant workers, daily wage earners, head and pull-cart vendors, brickkiln workers, sex workers, transgenders, people with disability, leprosy patients, poor and deprived Dalits, Tribals, Muslim, slum dwellers, support staff of our own institutions, etc. Among these those who migrated from some other place due to lack of ‘documents’ are not counted ‘eligible’ to receive relief and rehabilitation packages. If they are Dalits, Tribals, Muslims and women, they suffer doubly. Hence, they should get the priority of place in all our efforts.
Ø Special focus has to be on the migrant labourers who are either still in the camps lodged by the government, or on the roads trying to reach their homes. It is really a tough task but we need to explore. If we already have migrant cell in our areas of work it would be easier or at least now we need to think individually and collectively of being at their service.
Ø It is time that Dioceses and the religious collaborate so that duplication can be avoided, limited resources can be utilized well for the needy, lessons can be learnt for better response. Keeping aside ego problems, it is time to respond as one believing community.
Ø Explore the possibilities of networking with other NGOs and civil society organisations so that there is a wider platform to address this massive issue. Niti Aayog of the Government of India has issued guidelines to all the district administration to work with NGOs and civil society organisations and identify one of them as the nodal agency to lead this joint venture. The Church can be a nodal agency in those districts where the church has a strong presence and where its track record is good.
Ø Every country is affected by the COVID-19 crisis. But inspite of this, many of the funding agencies are providing small and big help for those organisations who are doing credible and innovative responses. Caritas India, CRS, Manos Unidas, Misereor, Missio, Caritas Germany are some such donor agencies who are willing to provide some support. But some well thought out projects have to be sent to them for their consideration and action.
Ø The Diocesan Social Service Society in consultation with the Bishop and the religious need to take a lead to work virtual now without delay to prepare and inspire and to share information and innovative ways of being at the service of our people.
Ø Skill development of the youth in collaboration with many agencies who are working already on this so that the youth who due to lack of mobility are frustrated do not remain in frustration but find some engagement. This will on the one hand will resist them from becoming anti-social elements and on the other will make them productive for themselves and their families.
Ø The Church need to seriously search for alternative livelihood options since now there are many more people who will be searching for work since those who migrated have come back to their villages. Already, there was less job. Now with more army of labourers there will be struggle for the limited livelihood. Hence, it is essential to plan in advance and search for alternative livelihood options.
Ø Set up Migrant Cell in each diocese. Covid-19 not only exposed the government’s total lack of preparedness to address it on medical grounds but it also exposed its total lack of political will to safely transfer the migrant labourers from one place to another. One of the reasons for this is that there is no accurate data with the state and central governments about migrant labourers. Due to this, proper planning could not be done as to how many are to be transferred back to their respective places from their places of work. To ensure that this tragedy is not repeated, it is essential to record migration from district to state to outside the state so that plans can be made for them.
3) Educational Response to Exit Strategies
Ø Education is one of the sectors that is most affected by the pandemic and even more by the lockdown. Millions of students and teachers are unsure of their future regarding education. It is clear that lockdown for educational institutions will continue until 31st May, 2020. In some states of north India, schools used to open only after June 15th. This date could be extended further. Since education sector is the one which draws large number of children, teachers, management and parents, our educational institutions need to plan in advance a three pronged exit strategy. They are: during the lockdown, during the exit phase and finally when the lockdown is lifted. Each of them would have specific responses and also continuity of some of these from one phase to the other.
Ø It is heartening to see many suggesting that the students and teachers should be encouraged to continue the teaching-learning through online classes. This will keep both engaged and this would also keep them from getting bored or depressed during lockdown. Using the available technology our educational institutions need to innovate modules and methods for this keeping the curriculum and syllabus in mind. Since we are used to traditional methods of teaching, it is imperative that we need to innovate these now.
Ø But having on line classes is only one way of engaging the students and teachers for education. We need to keep this fundamental fact that online classes cannot replace actual classes held in a school within a classroom. It is a face to face interaction in the classroom that forms not only the intellectual aspect but the emotional, behavioural, attitudinal, social, civil formation of a child.
Further, UNICEF has warned of two consequences: 1) Most of the children do not have access to the online classes; 2) Millions of children are at increased risk of harm as their lives move increasingly online during the lockdown. The internet exposure puts children at the risk of “online sexual exploitation and grooming, as predators look to exploit the Covid-19 pandemic”. Overlooking these facts many priests and religious are vociferously advocating online classes with no clarity at this juncture.
Ø During the lockdown phase and post lockdown, in addition to communicating the academic matters to the students, teachers and parents it is pertinent to share awareness on precautionary and preventive measures so as to block the spread of the virus.
Ø Offer facilities of our school and college campuses to the district administration for lodging migrant labourers who are on the move due to sheer frustration of being denied the right to stay in a dignified manner. It is this segment of the population which is the backbone of unorganized production sector but are denied of their rights and dignity. Our efforts to offer the facilities to place them in better condition would go a long way to alleviate their sufferings.
Ø We can also offer our campuses to prepare isolation wards so that the virus does not spread. Some of the state governments have already taken over some private schools by force. Our institutions have the necessary facilities like electricity, water, toilet, open space, play ground etc. These are the natural facilities required for those to be quarantined or isolated.
Ø Whenever schools or colleges open, it is expedient to invite only the teachers and support staff first and if need be late on they can go to prepare the classrooms and the campus. But more important is, to organize ‘sessions to process’ the impact made on teachers and their families due to the lockdown. If they have time to process the boredom, fear, sadness, loss of someone, depression, they went through, they will be able to help the students to process their experiences. First few days should be invested more on this and less on academics. This will enable everyone to be on the same board and then engage in academic pursuits.
Ø Greater effort should be made to address the issues in the rural educational institutions where the spread of the virus was less but the lockdown was severely imposed. Also these institutions do not have the facilities for online work. Hence, totally different methods should be worked out for these institutions.
Ø School management has to seriously consider the issue of fees without letting down the quality of education.
Ø It was heartening to hear that some of the Church institutions were producing sanitizers and making it available for their own staff and for the district administration. Due to lack of transportation, these could not be made available for wider public. Once the lockdown would be phased out, these colleges can think of negotiating with the district administration and produce sanitizers in a big way so as to make it available for the wider public at an affordable price.
4) Exit Strategies to Accompany and Involve Young People
Ø From many reports it is clear that the young people who are mostly mobile in normal situations are one of the most affected group due to lockdown. Since it was reported that the coronavirus affects mostly the seniors, the youth could neither go outside nor remain at home. If the space in the house was limited, they felt all the more disappointed. In this situation it is important that the youth commission has to plan programs from June-July onwards to accompany the youth and enable them to get out of this grim situation. Enabling them to process all that they went through during the lockdown will help them to get ready for any future eventuality.
Ø Also youth have the potent and power to be of service with the less privileged. It is time to explore as to how to get the young people involved in the lives of others as volunteers on specific projects. This would be therapeutic as well as socially productive. The government failed to utilize this youth force in responding to the issue of the migrants.
Ø Many of the youth were in the forefront in innovating spiritual practices, prayer methods, singing and creating creative clips and videos to move people from frustration to hope. How to keep this innovative strength of the young people should be our concern now.
5) Exit Strategies for Social Communication
Ø It is common knowledge that the lay faithful, priests and religious, dioceses and conferences all over the world innovatively responded to the spiritual and religious needs of the faithful both lay and clerical during this long lockdown. It is time to record and document them so that these are available for all not only in times of crisis but in other times as well.
Ø Many awareness programs like social distancing, keeping oneself clean, sanitisation and maintaining mental equilibrium helped all to prevent the spread of the virus, take precautionary measures and control this pandemic. Hopefully, these will also help us to come out of this crisis. It is good to continue to spread these awareness programs in more creative, user-friendly and meaningful way so as to handle any crisis in the future too.
Ø Lots of people either created short clips, quiz, documents, brief notes, etc., or shared the old ones with friends and all. These were used by people not just for time pass but for some meaningful messages and also for a therapeutic exercise. In India we lack clips, films, documentaries that are children and adult friendly, something that family can watch together, something informative, raising awareness and at the same time interesting. But during the COVID-19 crisis, people innovated some of these. It is time to document and record them and preserve these as treasures for the future.
Let us be united with the Holy Father, Pope Francis in his faith and hope. He reflected, “For many, this is also a time of worry about an uncertain future, about jobs that are at risk and about other consequences of the current crisis. I encourage political leaders to work actively for the common good, to provide the means and resources needed to enable everyone to lead a dignified life and, when circumstances allow, to assist them in resuming their normal daily activities’.
But he also strongly prayed and hoped, “May Christ, who has already defeated death and opened for us the way to eternal salvation, dispel the darkness of our suffering humanity and lead us into the light of his glorious day, a day that knows no end”.(Published on 25th May 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 22)