Police personnel wearing face masks amid concerns over the spread of the coronavirus speak with Indian nationals who had returned from Spain at an isolation facility in Amritsar on March 16. (Photo: Nariender Nanu/AFP)
The Catholic Church's healthcare network in India, acclaimed to be the largest after the government sector, is preparing to face coronavirus challenges amid experts' warnings of a deteriorating situation.
Catholic officials are busy enhancing their hundreds of facilities in the towns and villages of India as the virus starts to spread, with 160 positive cases and three deaths as of March 19.
"We are preparing our facilities in our hospitals, particularly aiming to help ordinary people living in the villages," said Father George Kannanthanam, national secretary of the Catholic Health Association of India (CHAI).
CHAI coordinates the activities of 3,537 institutions including 300 hospitals, five medical colleges, small clinics and dispensaries.
These facilities, mostly in small towns and villages, have more than 50,000 beds at any given time.
"Besides, we also have hundreds of trained doctors, nurses, counselors and social workers to support us in any emergency," said Father Kannanthanam.
"We need to be ready for any eventuality in case the epidemic spreads among India's villages. It will not be possible for the government to manage it alone."
Until this week, tests for Covid-19 infections were done only in state-owned medical facilities. But as the virus began to spread, the government changed its policy.
Balram Bhargava, director-general of the Indian Council of Medical Research, said 51 private laboratories would be allowed to test for Covid-19 in addition to the 72 government-owned functional laboratories in the country.
"It is a timely move from the government to allow private labs to test the virus. We are prepared and are ready with our facilities. If the government permits, we will also get our labs accredited for this testing," Father Kannanthanam said.
Epidemic experts say the low number of cases in India and much of South Asia should not make governments complacent as the virus could suddenly enter a "surge stage," spreading to communities and infecting millions.
Millions of India's 1.3 billion people live in thousands of congested slums and cities, just as millions live in remote villages where experts say no practical solutions exist to stop the virus at the stage of "community spread."
"It is our moral and social responsibility to equip ourselves. Now, we have a few cases at hand, but it is challenging to contain its spread unless people voluntarily take precautionary measures at this stage," Father Kannanthanam said.
Caritas India, the social service arm of the Catholic Church in India, is also taking stock of the situation.
"We are keeping watch on developments and are in constant touch with our stakeholders. We will soon chalk out a plan to deal with the situation," said Father Paul Moonjely, executive director of Caritas India.
The health commission of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India has asked all regional bishops to work out a mechanism to deal with the situation locally.
"We have asked regional bishops to take necessary steps to contain the spread of the diseases locally," said Father Julius Arakal, secretary of the bishops' health commission.
"We have also issued an advisory to our hospitals to ensure maximum care. Christian hospitals are keeping half of their staff at home as a precautionary measure to replace those in the field in case of an emergency."
India witnessed its first case of coronavirus in the last week of January. The virus reappeared in the second week in March after three Indians who returned from Italy tested positive in the southern state of Kerala.
Most cases since then have involved tourists or Indians returning from affected countries. But health experts suspect the virus could have now infected thousands across the country, and the coming three weeks are crucial.