The parish of Saint Anthony in the area of Dharavi, in the archdiocese of Bombay, is offering its contribution to stem the spread of the Covid-19 virus in Dharavi, one of the largest slums in the world, in the Mumbai area (western India), and for the sustenance of the local population, which is in conditions of extreme poverty. Fr. Christopher D. Jeyakumar, parish priest of Saint Anthony, told Agenzia Fides that it is “a good result in the fight against coronavirus and in the work of social solidarity”.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has appreciated the various initiatives put in place to contain the spread of Covid-19 in Dharavi, an area of great concern, which covers an area of 2.5 square kilometers and houses a population of 650,000. People live in shacks and dilapidated buildings with narrow alleys and open sewers. WHO said that the coronavirus is currently under control in Dharavi thanks to community participation and the joint commitment of public and private entities, including that of the Catholic community.
As Father Jeyakumar states, “the people of the slum have found themselves experiencing very difficult times during the pandemic and the Church has mobilized to help, but the population has always lived with great dignity in conditions of poverty”. In Mumbai, the first case occurred on 11 March and the first Covid-19 case in Dharavi was reported on 1 April. “In the initial phase – the parish priest notes – there was fear that Dharavi would be a hotbed of coronavirus. The infection started in two areas that are located at opposite ends of the enormous slum. Usually, people from Mumbai, who intend to move abroad for work, temporarily stay in these two areas. They stay here until they find work, usually in some Gulf countries”, he explained.
Having ascertained the first case of Covid-19 case, the government has prohibited the movement of people and any gathering. But physical distancing is almost impossible in Dharavi since people live in high-density areas. For example, a family of five lives in a small one-room shack.
However, according to observers, in Dharavi, where basic civil services such as sanitation, water, waste collection are lacking, residents have developed some immunity to all types of infections present in society. The fact is that coronavirus has not spread like wildfire in Dharavi, as feared, and cases of infection are limited, although there has been great difficulty in following precautionary hygiene and spacing measures.
The local Church of Mumbai has supported Father Jeyakumar and his parish of about 5000 Catholics, in many forms: the Canossian nuns and several other communities have given food to the population of Dharavi. “We have started to distribute aid, the help of the Center for Social Action, which deals with the social and charitable service of the archdiocese of Bombay, without any discrimination of faith, ethnicity, caste”, said Father Jeyakumar. “We cannot help only Catholics: in the past three months, people of all faiths have looked towards the Church and the people of Dharavi are grateful for the help they receive”.
Today the population of Dharavi, observes the parish priest, suffers from lack of work (most are day laborers or engaged in the so-called informal economy) but, moreover, suffers from a stigma that depends on the place of origin and also on the fear of contagion: “Wherever residents go to look for work, they are refused because they come from Dharavi”, notes Father Jeyakumar. In this situation, the welcome and support received by the Church of St. Anthony are extremely precious and crucial for survival.