A few days ago, I called up a Jesuit priest in Bihar (an eastern state of India) to know his thoughts on the conditions of Christians during the ongoing pandemic. He was bemused by the question and emphatically stated—the rich survive and the poor die, that’s the story of the pandemic. Christians, like all others in India, are privy to this rule. According to him, there isn’t a “Christian angle” to the pandemic. His answer was understandable. Having worked in one of the poorest, ill-resourced states of India—all his life—the faultiness of class and caste are too apparent to him. Thus, talking exclusively about Christians or Christianity, especially during a pandemic, isn’t a priority.
Less than three percent of Indians are Christians. Yet, their absolute numbers are comparable to the Christian populations in Spain, Kenya, Poland and Ukraine. In fact, there are more Christians in India than Venezuela. Christians are not uniformly spread across the country. Half of them are concentrated in the southern peninsular states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh (Kerala alone makes up 22% of the total Christian population). Out of the remaining half, nearly eighty percent are spread in eastern and north-eastern states and the rest in the western, northern and central states of India. The population is further divided along confessional and caste/ethnic, linguistic lines, with varying class interests and political affiliations. All these factors make religion-based generalization on a national scale a problematic terrain. Owing to the confessional variety, Christian populations are linked to different civil society groups and global circuits.
By now, it would almost be commonplace to observe that the COVID pandemic has created (or perhaps, rather, it has apocalyptically exposed) a cultural rift within the contemporary Orthodox Christian community. As a pastor, I have experienced this division firsthand, and I know of other clergy who have lost parishioners as a result of it.
On the one side stand those who have wholeheartedly embraced government-sanctioned restrictions and measures to reduce the spread of COVID. They accept the closure of churches as a matter of course, and once gatherings are permitted, they welcome mitigation strategies such as multiple spoons for receiving communion. On the extreme end, these folks tend to get anxious when they observe any failure to comply with the letter of the health regulations.
On the other side of the rift are those who resist attempts to restrict or shut down access to in-person Church services. They view attendance at the services as an unavoidable risk, inherent to Christian faith. The most extreme of these folks accuse other Christians of moral capitulation or worse, while yearning for the days of the early Church when Christians supposedly took all manner of risks to gather for the Eucharistic liturgy.
The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has struck India with more than 400,000 COVID cases per day, the death toll reaching its peak, to the point where people are dying in the streets, and hospitals are at maximum capacity with limited resources and overflowing. Rural areas of India are disproportionately affected, with limited resources, and people are dying due to lack of access to medication and a severe shortage in equipment and oxygen. Due to India’s dense population, the number of cases continues to rise and, in turn, so does the death toll.
One of my parishioners from St. Mary’s Orthodox Church, Suffern, New York told me that his aunt who was critically ill with the coronavirus had contacted the Indian Prime Minister’s office in an effort to seek admission to a hospital in New Delhi, to no avail. Due to lack of beds and equipment available at hospitals, and not receiving medical care, she died at home. Even those who are lucky enough to gain admission to a hospital are not able to receive appropriate care, due to severe shortages of antiviral drugs, medical oxygen, and ICU beds.
One of the greatest impacts of the current pandemic is the effect it has had on interpersonal relations. The inability to embrace or hold a friend’s hand, the need for “social distancing,” and the knowledge that anyone we meet is potentially the carrier of a deadly disease all contribute to a feeling of suspicion and standoffishness, while masks interfere with clear communication and human connection.
The Orthodox Church has faced a slew of challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, not least in regard to the mode of distribution of Holy Communion. In conversation with priests of various churches I’ve learned of alternate methods being used, including “disinfecting” spoons between communicants, intincting the Holy Body with the Blood, the use of tongs, disposable spoons, even toothpicks to transfer the Eucharist from the chalice to the mouth of the communicant. In Canada the most common alternate method seems to be the use of multiple metal communion spoons, one per communicant. The response to this change on the part of a small but vocal element within the Orthodox community has been heated, with accusations of “heresy” or “blasphemy” being levelled against bishops and priests promulgating or following this practice.