O King, the woods are ashes,
No spots remain at crematoria,
O King, there are no carers,
Nor any pall-bearers,
No mourners left
And we are bereft
With our wordless dirges of dysphoria
— from the poem ‘Shabvahini Ganga’ (‘A Hearse Called Ganga’), by Parul Khakkar, translated into English by Salil Tripathi
As things began to return to normal in much of the Western world over the last two months, a second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic overwhelmed and devastated India, which has only vaccinated 5% of their population to date, and whose official tolls recently topped 400,000 deaths from the virus. Back in early June, India reported more than 6,000 deaths in a single day, the highest level recorded anywhere in the world. But these numbers might just be the tip of the iceberg, because many experts believe the number of deaths in the country have been dramatically undercounted. For one thing, even before the pandemic, only 92% of deaths in India were officially counted by the government, according to an article in Foreign Policy. The article goes on to describe some of the systemic challenges India faces in getting a grasp on the true scope of the problem:
In Bihar, a state of 123 million people, just half of all deaths are registered in a given year. A third of all people who die receive no medical attention at all after death. And 4 out of 5 deaths are not medically certified, meaning that the cause of death is not medically established
Journalists and concerned citizens in India are challenging the official numbers. For example, according to a Reuters report, in the city of Surat (with a population of over 6 million), more than 6,520 bodies were buried or cremated in April 2021, compared to about 1,980 in April 2020. Yet, in April 2021 the city only recorded 585 Covid-19 deaths in the entire district. An AP News article pointed to estimates from the University of Minnesota suggesting that India’s real death toll could be higher than 1.1 million—almost triple the official number.
Meanwhile, a new variant of the virus, “Delta Plus,” has emerged, which threatens to be even more deadly and contagious than earlier strains. Cases of mucormycosis, an aggressive fungal infection that causes blindness and infects facial tissue, have plagued Covid patients and those who have recovered from the virus. India has begun developing their own vaccines, but the supplies are low and have run out quickly.
Sadly, this tragedy strikes close to home for readers of Where Peter Is. You might remember that back in November 2020, Stephen Walford wrote an appeal for the World Day for the Poor on behalf of his friend, Father Nirmal Daram. Fr. Daram was the parish priest of Kotapdu, in the diocese of Vijayawada, India. The parish had no Church building. Stephen wrote:
Mass is celebrated outside. Father also looks after many orphans and educates them. Recently, terrible storms left the entire area submerged and the coronavirus has also ravaged the area.
It is Father’s dream to build a Church, and to be able to support those entrusted to his care, especially with good quality education for those beloved children who have suffered much in their young lives.
Unfortunately, we didn’t raise very much for the community. Maybe the timing was off, or we were just not organized. I suppose we could have done more to get the word out.
But then, today, Stephen shared with me the shocking news that Fr. Daram, who was only 37 years old, lost his life to Covid on June 6. According to his bishop, he was the fourth priest of his diocese to pass away in two months. Stephen said the last he heard from him was from the hospital in late May, and then he heard nothing.
Often we see and hear reports of crises around the world: earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, pandemics—we hear the numbers, look at the images, and most of the time we just move on with our day. Certainly we can’t live productive lives if we allow ourselves to be emotionally affected by every single tragedy on the globe. But part of being a Christian and a member of the human family is remembering that the world doesn’t revolve around us and that we have a responsibility to our brothers and sisters around the world. And there is a lot of suffering out there. Occasionally we must stop and reflect and pray when a tragic story comes across our screen, and on the poverty and sickness that afflicts so many people in our human family.
I had also become Facebook friends with Fr. Daram, and we corresponded occasionally. He wrote several direct messages to me in May to ask about the welfare of my sister Katie and to assure me of his prayers. In one of them, he wrote, “Dear brother Mike, I am with you through my prayers. May the Lord heal her and grant her good health. Take courage. I sincerely offer my prayer to God for your sister.”
His final message to me was on May 12. The situation by then was getting scary in India—Fr. Daram had mentioned that many of his parishioners were dying. His final message to me was to share the words of Pope Francis to the Catholic community and people of India in that critical moment:
To Cardinal Oswald Gracias
Archbishop of Bombay
President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India
At this time when so many in India are suffering as a result of the present health emergency, I am writing to convey my heartfelt solidarity and spiritual closeness to all the Indian people, together with the assurance of my prayers that God will grant healing and consolation to everyone affected by this grave pandemic.
My thoughts go above all to the sick and their families, to those who care for them, and in particular to those who are mourning the loss of their loved ones. I think too of the many doctors, nurses, hospital workers, ambulance drivers and those working tirelessly to respond to the immediate needs of their brothers and sisters. With deep appreciation I invoke upon all of them God’s gifts of perseverance, strength and peace.
In a particular way, I am united to the Catholic community in your country, with gratitude for its works of charity and fraternal solidarity carried out in the service of all; I think especially of the generosity shown by so many committed young people. I join you in commending to the Lord’s infinite mercy the faithful who have lost their lives, not least the great numbers of priests and men and women religious. In these days of immense grief, may we all be consoled in the hope born of Easter and our unshakeable faith in Christ’s promise of resurrection and new life. To all I send my blessing.
Rome, from Saint John Lateran, 6 May 2021
Fr. Daram also had a YouTube Channel. Some of his videos are in English, including this reflection on Jesus feeding the multitudes. He concludes this reflection with a spontaneous prayer for the sick and hungry.
In your charity, please pray for the repose of the soul of Fr. Nirmal Daram and all who mourn him, especially the children of his parish who have lost a spiritual father.
Lord Jesus, our Redeemer,
you willingly gave yourself up to death,
so that all might be saved and pass from death to life.
We humbly ask you to comfort your servants in their grief
and to receive Fr. Nirmal Daram into the arms of your mercy.
May he rest in peace. Amen.
Pray for the people of India and all those around the world who are suffering from this pandemic. It is always the poor who suffer the most. We have written before about the human right to vaccine equity. Wherever you can, do acts of charity and raise your voice in favor of justice for the poor. We are a human family, and we must care for one another.