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Bangladeshi Catholics battle Covid-19 head on

A Catholic hospital and church-based groups provide medical and other services to people as the crisis worsens

Bangladeshi Catholics battle Covid-19 head on

A volunteer from Bangladesh Catholic Students' Movement (BCSM) distributes food to a poor woman in Khulna in southern Bangladesh. Catholic groups have been providing medical and other services to people hit by the pandemic. (Photo courtesy of BCSM) 

As the Covid-19 situation worsens in Bangladesh, the country’s tiny Catholic community has been playing a vital role in battling the outbreak with medical and aid services despite limited resources.

Church-run St. John Vianney Hospital in Tejgaon of central Dhaka, which started operating on Nov. 11, 2019, has served thousands of coronavirus patients since the virus hit the country in March last year. Some 700 patients have received treatment through hospitalization.

Hospital director Father Kamal Corraya said the hospital’s 20 beds have been reserved for Covid-19 patients.

“We have a central oxygen facility for 20 patients but have yet to arrange an ICU [intensive care unit] for the patients as it is expensive. We realize the ICU is very urgent for us,” Father Corraya told UCA News.

As the Covid-19 situation keep worsening with many patients failing to get treatment, the hospital decided to treat as many as possible with minimum costs, the priest said.

“When we get any critical patients, we refer them to other hospitals where they can get an ICU facility. In maximum cases, we succeed in arranging ICU beds through our connections in various hospitals. Our biggest obstacle is that our health workers are being affected, so we have to hire new staff and spend a lot of money to treat them,” added the diocesan priest.

I can say this hospital is not business-minded and prioritizes services. The cost is much lower than other private hospitals

Kishore Gomes, 36, a Catholic who received treatment for Covid-19 in the hospital and recovered recently, appreciated its services. 

“I can say this hospital is not business-minded and prioritizes services. The cost is much lower than other private hospitals. I thank the church authority for serving Covid-19 patients,” Gomes told UCA News.

However, he noted that the hospital needs more full-time doctors and an ICU facility to serve patients better.

The pandemic has hit the tiny Catholic community of an estimated 400,000 people in the Muslim-majority nation of more than 160 million.

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There is no exact data on how many Catholics have succumbed to the virus. Church sources say that some 50 Catholics including clergy, religious and laypeople have died from the virus.

Holy Cross Archbishop Moses M. Costa of Chittagong is the most high-ranking church official to have died from the pandemic. He died on July 13 last year.

Father Boniface Murmu, 66, an ethnic Santal Catholic priest from Dinajpur Diocese in northern Bangladesh, passed away on July 10 following weeks of battle with Covid-19.

Father Murmu, reportedly the first priest to die from Covid-19, was the spiritual director of young priests in his diocese.

Born in 1955, he was ordained a priest by Pope John Paul II in 1986 during the pope’s visit to Bangladesh.

Bishop Sebastian Tudu of Dinajpur said the death of the priest was a great loss for the diocese.

“He was a model priest of the diocese thanks to his spirituality, simple lifestyle, the way of teaching. His death is an irreparable loss to us. His spirituality will remain exemplary for young priests,” Bishop Tudu told UCA News.

Our priests need to run to villages for their pastoral work and I think that’s why they got infected

The prelate noted that 10 priests and around 20 nuns of the diocese had tested positive for Covid-19 but they all recovered after treatment.

“Our priests need to run to villages for their pastoral work and I think that’s why they got infected,” Bishop Tudu added.

Bangladesh is under a strict lockdown as the government struggles to respond to a crisis posed by the pandemic.

While St. John Vianney Hospital is playing its part, the Association of Catholic Doctors of Bangladesh has been providing telemedicine services free of charge. 

“In fact, it is risky to go to hospital because of the Covid-19 pandemic. We have launched this telemedicine service so that anyone can get the service from home for any kind of illness while they struggle for transport,” Dr. Edward Pallab Rozario, president of the association, told UCA News.

Meanwhile, Catholic charity Caritas Bangladesh's eight regional offices have reached out to vulnerable people whose livelihoods have been seriously impacted.

As of June, Caritas had mobilized funds equivalent to US$4.55 million for Covid-19 emergency interventions, according to James Gomes, director (programs) at Caritas Bangladesh.

“Since the beginning in mid-March 2020, Caritas has been providing emergency assistance to affected people through mobilizing funds from existing disaster risk reduction, recovery and development projects with prior approval of donors, mobilizing new funds from Caritas Internationalis member organizations, international and national NGOs, and private donors.” Gomes told UCA News.

The BCSM, which has 1,200 members across the country, has been assisting people to get food

Caritas has reached 94,764 households from 44 districts and 241,110 individuals with Covid-19 and hygiene awareness messages through billboards, leaflets, posters and other materials, he said.

A total of 1,378 families received food items and 551 street children were provided with cooked food for almost one year, especially during lockdowns, he added.

Gomes said the agency looks forward to alternative income-generating projects for people who lost jobs, to train young people to get better jobs and to protect the poor through social safety nets, but a lack of funds for such projects and long-term livelihood schemes poses challenges.

Meanwhile, Catholic youth groups such as Young Christian Students, Bangladesh Catholic Students’ Movement (BCSM) and some parish-based organizations have moved ahead to help the poor in their localities.

The BCSM, which has 1,200 members across the country, has been assisting people to get food by collecting donations, to register for vaccines and to reach out to hospitals for treatment, BCSM president Patrick Purification told UCA News.

Bangladesh has been struggling to contain the more lethal third wave of the pandemic in recent weeks due to the outbreak of the Delta variant.

The country has recorded 1.23 million cases and more than 20,000 deaths from the coronavirus. The government has rolled out a nationwide mass vaccination campaign with about 4.3 million fully vaccinated and more than 10 million doses distributed, according to Our World in Data. The age limit for vaccines has been lowered to 25 years.

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