This past spring, we watched the coronavirus pandemic hit the world around. At the time of this writing, the globe has seen over 7 million people affected by this pandemic and over 400,000 have died. My own country, India, has crossed the 200,000 mark of cases and over 6,000 people have died. America has almost 2 million cases and over 100,000 people have died. Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, Germany, and other parts of Europe have also been badly affected by this pandemic. Death seems to be all around us, and the fear of death seems to have gripped the hearts and minds of almost everyone. People are anxious and afraid of what will happen to them if they are infected by this virus.
This plague has also affected the lives of millions of daily workers in India who have had to try to return to their villages, fleeing the cities since there is no longer any work or money there. Some have been successful, some were stopped on the way, and some died from this arduous journey by foot. What we see all around us is death, fear of death, and anxiety about the lockdown and how long it will last. It is like the end of the world.
In India, there are several fronts this pandemic has greatly affected. In his article “The Darkest Hour,”1 Indian historian and economist Ramachandra Guha identifies six crises, which we will discuss below.
A Medical Crisis
First, we see that this pandemic has brought about a medical crisis that has exposed the raw underbelly of the healthcare system in our country. Even though the government of India claimed that adequate arrangements had been made during the high tide of the first wave of the pandemic, the on-the-ground realities proved differently. News reporters in Bombay showed that almost ten of the COVID-19 designated hospitals had no beds available for new patients. There were also medical providers who were complaining of the lack of PPE kits, and many have now contracted the virus. At the time of this writing, the virus is steadily increasing rather than decreasing.
An Economic Crisis
Second, it has also been an economic crisis. Because of the virus, the entire nation had to go into a lockdown mode. The small to midsize enterprises (SMEs) have taken a big hit. People in these industries could not sustain themselves, as they did not have large reserves. They were not able to sustain the wages of their workers beyond a month, and many closed down and laid off workers. Subsidiary units that provide auto parts all took a major blow, as hardly any cars were sold during the lockdown period. This led to many people losing their jobs and having to sit at home with little or no reserves.
A Migrant Crisis
Third, we have a migrant crisis. Millions of daily wage earners are out of jobs, and their companies are paying them nothing during this lockdown period. Most of them had migrated from different villages in India, coming to the cities for better living conditions and to send some money home. When the lockdown began, there was hardly four hours given for its implementation. Migrant workers were stuck in their cities with no money or food, so they decided to march home. Millions of them took to the roads because all vehicular traffic, buses, cars, trains, and flights had come to a grinding halt. Many lost their lives trying to walk the journey of 950 to 1,250 miles. There were also heroic stories, such as that of fifteen-year-old Jyoti, daughter of Mohan Paswan, who took her father on a bicycle from Gurugaon (near Delhi) to Dharbhanga (Bihar), covering a distance of over 800 miles.2
But there were also many tragic stories of people dying on the road. Some died in accidents when they got on trucks carrying essential goods into the city. Others died on trains that had finally, though inadequately, been arranged for migrants. Many died out of exhaustion and starvation as they took this journey. There were deeply disturbing pictures of the migrant laborers packed in like sardines into any form of transportation they could find. Many were stopped at the border and not allowed to pass.
A Psychological Crisis
A fourth crisis is the psychological crisis caused by numerous factors. The virus first and foremost has caused a deep sense fear, anxiety, and stress in most people. A twenty-two-year-old nurse from Kerala who tested positive for COVID-19 attempted suicide.3 Many people who lost their jobs and don’t know what to do next end up depressed.
The Weakening of Indian Federalism and a Democracy Crisis
The fifth crisis Guha cites is the weakening of Indian federalism. Under the Disaster Management Act, the Center (the central government) arrogated to itself extreme powers, and in the initial period, the States (the various provinces) were hardly consulted—everything was a top-down model. Thankfully, the Center realized that the States and their chief ministers needed to be consulted, and greater freedom has now been given to the States.
The final crisis Guha mentions is the weakening of Indian democracy. Under the guise of the pandemic, the Center has arrested many intellectuals and activists under the Unlawful Assembly Prevention Act, and ordinances are being passed without any discussion in Parliament.
How the Christian Community Can Respond
In such a time as this, what can the Christian community do? I would like to suggest five ways to engage: (1) provide medical help, (2) participate in social action and intervention, (3) work toward reconciliation, (4) speak out against injustice, and (5) pray for their nation.
Although all religious institutions have been closed due to the lockdown, Christians are positioned in all walks of life: bureaucrats, doctors, nurses, educators, judges, and so on. Wherever God has placed us, we are called to engage. Christians have always been in the forefront of medical missions in India. The Christian coalition of hospitals, which represents a network of over 1,000 hospitals, has offered 60,000 beds for COVID-19 cases,4 and many of the people in nursing are Christians.
Christians are called to witness in times like these, not just through our words but also through our service. We need to reach out to the economically weak within and without our community. The church can make arrangements for people to receive a substantial number of dry rations for the poor people in and around their locality, or it can put money into their accounts so they can survive through this difficult period.
Migrant workers have been one of the biggest crises in this pandemic, and the church needs to come together to address this issue. Whatever has been done so far has been on an individual basis or by the effort of a local church. To address this issue, there needs to be a concerted effort at the church leadership level, and churches across denominations need to come together. Whether it be to provide food for migrant workers waiting at the interstate bus terminus or around railway stations, we need to map a clear path of how to help them.
This kind of social action comes with its fair share of trouble, however, particularly in the present context. In India, all social action by the Christian community is viewed with suspicion, as though their only agenda for helping people is to convert them. In fact, Christians in Andhra Pradesh have recently been accused of large-scale conversions because of the help they offered during this crisis. Engaging with the poor and supporting them in times like this is part of the mandate to which God calls us in and through Jesus Christ. When Jesus was in Palestine, he broke down social barriers and formed around himself a community drawn from the marginalized of that society. The outcasts Jesus befriended experienced God’s extravagant love and acceptance. Many of these were virtually “untouchables” of that time and not very different from the lowest castes in the Hindu social system. Similarly, we too are called to show God’s love to the poorest of the poor and to the outcast, particularly in this time of crisis.
A third area where the Christian community can engage is in being reconcilers between communities. When rhetoric against the Muslim community plays over and over again in our media, we are to build bridges between the Hindu and Muslim communities. Because we are children of God, we are to be peacemakers. We cannot be idle spectators, watching while a particular group of people destroys the secular nature and fabric of our country.
A fourth area where the church is called to engage is to be a prophetic voice. We are called to speak out against all the injustice that is happening around us. When flights were arranged for stranded Indian migrants from other countries, very little was done for them. Adequate trains were not provided, which led to a large-scale reverse migration that is unprecedented in the history of India. Women carrying huge trunks on their heads, with children as young as five or six following them, were the graphic scenes we witnessed. We need to speak up for the underprivileged, the poor, the migrant worker—those who are not being taken care of. We must also speak up against the government when it hastens to arrest intellectuals, activists, and students who raise their voices against the government’s policies.
A fifth and final area is for Christians to pray for their nations. There is tremendous power in prayer. As followers of the Lord Jesus, we can turn to God in prayer and plead for our countries. God has promised us, saying, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chron. 7:14). As followers of Christ, we are called to be the light of the world. Even as our world moves through this dark and dreadful period, may we as followers of Christ help everyone to move from darkness to light. And may God help us to be active intercessors for our nations, so that we will see positive change and the blessing of our lands.
Rev. Dr. Paul Swarup is Presbyter in Charge of the Cathedral Church of the Redemption, Diocese of Delhi, of the Church of North India.
- Ramachandra Guha, “The Darkest Hour,” https://www.telegraphindia.com/opinion/coronavirus-a-six-fold-crisis-confronts-india/cid/1775032?ref=author-profile.