COVID-19 as felt by partners in Southern Asia

COVID-19 as felt by partners in Southern Asia

First, a story from Delhi that resonates with the sighs of millions in the region.

Baby Devi has already lost 80% of her monthly earnings to the spread of the coronavirus – and the worst in India may be yet to come.

The 38-year-old mother of four, who cleans homes for a living, lost jobs with two of her three employers. Like many relatively well-off Indians, they’ve begun social distancing to fight the highly infectious virus.

For Devi, who is now taking home about $0.67 a day, her diminished earnings are as much of a concern as her living conditions. As India races to break the chain of transmission of the illness known as COVID-19, her family – living in a cramped single room and sharing a bathroom and toilet with two other households – is among those most at risk.


Rev. Albino de Costa, East Timor

Today our government announced that one person has tested positive. As you may know, Timor Leste is a very young country and has very limited health facilities to detect and prevent the spread of the virus. People are panicking. Ports have been closed and this means they cannot receive essential supplies from Indonesia. When I hear that some developed countries like Iran, Italy, and the UK are in a crisis situation, how can a small and developing country like Timor Leste cope with the danger ahead? Our hospitals are ill-equipped to handle such a huge crisis. We depend upon on Indonesia for ventilators and oxygen.

Dr. John and Dr. Karen Campbell Nelson, Kupang, Indonesia

As support staff to GMIT’s Unit for Natural and Humanitarian Disaster, I (Karen) experience quite directly GMIT’s scramble to respond. The challenges are numerable:

  • GMIT comprises about a million members, 2000 congregations, and 1300 pastors spread over six large islands in two different provinces plus a few congregations scattered even further west. Many of these congregations are in rural villages with poor roads, poor water supplies, and a shifting climate that contributes to failed harvests. The logistics of sharing accurate information quickly is indeed a challenge, even with the advantages of social media, but also the prospect of implementing protocols that have been developed for contexts with better infrastructures.
  • GMIT has already issued several messages and a YouTube video, urging its members to postpone marriage ceremonies and church services for the next several weeks and to practice protocols of social distancing and hand washing. It has canceled GMIT’s annual Easter parade that is a very popular event among the youth in Kupang. Surgical masks and hand sanitizer in and around the provincial capital of Kupang are sold out, so there are plans to circulate short videos with instructions for homemade versions, even as access to rubbing alcohol for homemade sanitizers is also difficult to get these days, especially in rural areas.
  • Holy Communion may shift to home-based “agape communion” that would not require a change to the GMIT church order.
  • And there is more. For a church in which a major percentage of its income for pastors’ salaries and church programs (made even more expensive by the costs of transport between islands) comes from the weekly collection plate, the decision to move weekly worship to homes may have a large financial impact on GMIT, not to mention the impact on wealthier urban churches whose members will also begin to feel an economic crunch as offices, schools, and shops begin to close.
  • There is much resistance to the disruption of social norms in this culture where the exchange and chewing of betel nut, and “nose kisses” are among the many physical expressions of everyday greetings. Timorese, Rotinese, Sabunese, Alorese (and I include myself as one who has been deeply shaped by years living and working with these people of eastern Indonesia), are not reserved. In general, they (and I) laugh loudly, argue even louder, speak with passion, and have eloquent and forceful verbal skills (I am still working on the verbal skills). Extended families have all manner of shared child care and sleeping arrangements. A traditional economy of barter and exchange allows for large funerals and weddings in which the costs are shared communally. How can the urgency of self-quarantine, especially in an anticipatory way, make any sense?
  • On top of it all—the need to communicate the dangers, translate government calls into language and images for isolated rural communities, impress the urgency to begin living drastically differently—there is also the challenge to address harsh push-back from a pietistic stream within GMIT, members who feel that prohibitions on church-based worship are non-biblical, interfere with freedom of religion, and are a serious threat to their faith. The messages are many: God the Almighty will protect, measures of precaution are a sign of fear and weak conviction, do not compromise your faith because of a virus, etc. So GMIT is also engaged in producing sermons, Bible studies, and other theological statements to support its moves towards self-quarantine and self-isolation, along with liturgies for home worship. And should the self-quarantine advice extend beyond the next few weeks, which is likely, celebrating Easter at home will present its own challenge.
  • This morning a few families who held Sunday morning worship in their homes shared photos over Whatsapp. A number of amazing individuals are seeking creative ways to respond as a community of faith to a deadly virus that none of us fully understands. We continue to grow, alone and together, as we come together, a community of saints and sinners, to support each other, engage in sometimes bitter theological debate, and seek to always be sensitive to those around us who are in need of support.

Bishop Paul Sarkar, Dhaka, Bangladesh

The death toll in the developed countries is shocking and fearing. It has come to Bangladesh now with the Bangladeshi immigrants and tourists. Bangladesh is a small country with about one hundred eighty million people. The government doesn’t seem serious enough to face this pandemic. There are a lot of declarations and announcements but ordinary people are not giving attention to them and not following the instructions. We understand that for a large class of laborers, garments workers and poor people who live on daily wages, it is not possible for them to follow all these instructions.

We express our solidarity and offer the assurance of our prayers for all who are infected and affected in your countries. We learned that we are so helpless without the grace of our loving God. I have written a short prayer, as you find below, in my simple English.

Almighty God,

We praise you, Lord, for all your blessings and love for all human and creation of your world. We humbly pray for the COVID-19 as it is spreading as a pandemic in the whole world.

We don’t know the cause of this worse disaster. Forgive our sins O, Lord, and guide us by your spirit that we may able to protect ourselves from this peril of COVID-19.

We pray for the doctors, nurses and all others those who are risking their lives to take care of the infected ones. We express condolence for those who lost their friends and family members because of this deadly virus. Comfort them O, Lord and we pray for healing and grace for those who are infected and affected.

Guide also the leaders of all nations and of the world that they may come together to help each other and commit themselves to find a way by your wisdom to save the people of your world from this deadly virus. Shine your light over the darkness of this world, O Lord.

We ask all these petitions in the name of our Lord Jesus! Amen

Ms. Farzana Mahmood, Dhaka, Bangladesh

People in the rural areas and the daily wage workers are not able to cope with this new reality. Most of them are daily wage workers. Healthcare professionals are not many, and the healthcare infrastructure is very inadequate. The government is doing its best, though the rural communities are not able to practice social distancing because they don’t understand that concept.

Rev. David Das, National Council of Churches in Bangladesh

The numbers of those dying and infected are rising. Educational institutions have been closed, and employees of most administrative services are being asked to work from home. However, the garment factories which are the lifeline of Bangladesh’s economy are still functioning. But the government may soon order them to close.

We have already organized a whole day of prayer on March 20 and we are doing this again on March 26. It is being called “Prayer Chain of 24 hours” on the 26th of March which is the day of our National Independence. We strongly believe that God is in control.

Rev. Thevanesan, Church of American Ceylon Mission, Sri Lanka.

We asked our members to remember all the victims and people who are in need at this moment in their daily prayers at 9 pm every day. Our government imposed curfews throughout the country from last Friday 20th to 24th morning and again the curfew will be imposed at 2 pm tomorrow 24th. The government also asked people not to travel from one district to another. Vulnerable communities depending on daily work are badly affected. The leaders from the trade unions of the hill county and other sectors appealed to the government authorities to consider giving dry rations. But so far, there has not been any response. Our church members in rural areas are facing many hardships and challenges in Wanni, Eastern, Jaffna, and the hill country regions. As you rightly said our Lord and Saviour will not forsake us. He will protect us. He will take care of all His children in His shelter. Please continuously uphold us in your prayers. 

Roy Wijeratnam, Church of American Ceylon Mission, Sri Lanka

Our country is better than some other corona affected countries. There are centers set up by the government to isolate corona suspected people. So far 86 suspected people are getting treatment in special wards. 19 are diagnosed positive and no deaths are reported yet. The good news is some are getting cured. Islandwide curfew is imposed now to control the virus spread. CACM has closed all their daycare schools and church gatherings have been stopped. Prayer is the only answer. 

Rev. Charles Detha, Protestant Church in Sumba (GKS), Indonesia

Indonesia is also infected by this virus and there have also been some deaths. Our government is trying to conduct mass tests and to impose lockdown. Our President Joko Widodo has announced that Chloroquine, an antimalaria drug, for combating the corona. We understand that this is not the specific drug for corona. There are no magical drugs for corona at this moment. The people of Sumba are afraid of the corona. Even though no one has died, there are about 100 people in quarantine. We do not know what is going to happen but the number of infected people in Indonesia is increasing. Schools and businesses are closed. People are advised to stay and work from home. In GKS, all church activities are restricted/postponed, excluding Sunday services and funerals. Our church and members are committed to the global movement to slow down the spread through social distancing. Our big problem is if there will be an escalation that is followed by the lockdown, people will face difficulties for food because we do not have the capacity to supply to the demand and the crops have failed us this year again. Pray for us as we keep praying for you. Keep strong because God will not let us alone. Psalm 121:1-8 is presented for you and all friends in GM, UCC, and DOC.

Rev. Suryaningsi Mila, Theological Seminary in Lewa, STT, Sumba, Indonesia

I hope this email finds you well. Thank you for sharing these encouraging words and for remembering us in your prayers. We are also thinking about your condition right now. Even though we are far away, but we are close through prayers. We trust God for the time of hardships that He never forsakes those who are seeking Him. We also remember those who are suffering from this deadly virus. May God heal them and strengthen their family during this difficult season. Up to know, Sumba is still safe but we don’t know what will happen in the coming days. To be honest, we are very worried about the rapid spread of this virus amid the limited health facilities in Sumba. Just to let you know that for the next two weeks, all people in Indonesia are staying at home and working from home. Once again, May God help us to overcome this situation. 

Bishop Sharma Mariyan, Church of South India

We are very concerned about the vulnerable people who are on the peripheries. We are not equipped well to overcome this crisis. We are densely populated and there are not many hospitals with ventilator facilities. We have asked our congregations to refrain from attending prayer meetings and to stay in their homes and have their own family prayers. We have closed the homes and hostels till the 31st of March. We are asking people repeatedly not to come out from their houses. We are asking the affluent congregations to distribute napkins, tissue paper, soaps, and sanitizers. We have displayed corona awareness posters in front of our church buildings.

Dr. Ajit Singh, Evangelical Hospital in Khariar, Odisha, India

We thank you for your very kind mail of concern and prayers for our wellbeing and the wellbeing of all the staff and all the communities within the hospital, the Church and the town. We are in a state of all most complete lockdown including the stoppage of interstate traffic which is regulated very strictly. Many flights have been cancelled, trains also cancelled, and bus services have reduced to a bare minimum. This Sunday, the pastor gave the message on the loudspeaker and those who wanted to hear, could hear from home. The hospital is functioning because we can’t refuse the sick but there is a separate place constructed to see the patients with cold, cough, and upper respiratory tract infection. Essential commodities like hand sanitizer, N95 masks have gone out of the market and those available products are very expensive even to 500 times the cost of one bottle or the mask. We are most grateful to you for your care and concern for all of us in Evangelical Hospital and its community and the community in Khariar. Please be assured of our prayers for your personal wellbeing and wellbeing of those who are continuing to work with Global Ministries and our Christian brothers and sisters at the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). We also pray to God that he would help sustain the people to fight against the COVID-19 which is now a global disease.

Ms. Beena Pallical, National Dalit Human Rights Campaign, New Delhi, India

Thank you for reaching out and for your thoughts and prayers, this means a lot to us considering that this tsunami has hit us and still finding ways to cope with this disaster. It has been a difficult few months here in India, with the citizenship law and then violence as a result and out of nowhere the coronavirus. Maybe this is telling us that we need to pause and look at what we have done to the earth literally, everyone suddenly seems to have so much time on their hands. It is incredible that a virus like this does not discriminate and hits even the richest and that cannot do anything about it. What an irony! The impact of this will be hard on our communities who are dependent on daily wages, sanitation work, informal labour, bonded labourers, and many others. I can’t even begin to think about how they are coping and how we can support them. We are slowing inching to get people to organise and demand inclusion and better mechanisms to address the concerns of the communities where physical distancing means staying hungry, it means lack of medical care, it means also having no alternatives. Thank you once again for your care and concern.

Faith Home for Children, Adoni, Andhra Pradesh, India

These are the most uncertain times, not just for Iraqis, Afghans, or Indians, but for the entire humanity. We have no clue how we are going to face the resulting universal economic impact. But, nothing ever changes for those in the fold of Jesus caring and praying for one another. I am keeping all the 22 HIV-infected children at home against district magistrate’s orders because they are more vulnerable to Corona because of their weak immune system. Home is better than their one-room tenements and poor nutrition they get at their relations’ homes. We started this Home with Faith and we have completed 11 years, I am sure the good Lord will continue to provide for the children in the future as well.

Ms. Lucy Shyamsundar, Pravaham Community College, Vellore, India

Pravaham was closed and all the students were sent home on the 17th of March as per the Government orders. Just before that, the staff and students of Pravaham community college went to villages around Pravaham and to the villages of our students and shared awareness information on coronavirus. They explained about the virus, how it spreads, and how to protect themselves and their families. We believe our students will be spreading awareness to their families and communities around them and keeping themselves and the communities safe.

Mr. Daniel Kirubaharan, Family Village Farm MBKGP, Vellore, India

We are strictly following all the preventive measures and guidelines set by the government. As per the Vellore district collector’s orders, we have sent to their parents those children whose parents could afford to keep them until March 31. Some remain at FVF. But myself, wardens, and mothers are on duty to take care of the children and elders. By God’s grace, so far there are no cases in Vellore.