As India’s healthcare system struggles with COVID-19, Catholic hospitals are on the front line

Bhagaa Ram, a 67-year-old cart vendor from the Indian city of Mumbai, had to queue for more than three days in a government hospital to be tested for the new coronavirus.

Ram had been suffering from severe breathlessness and an inability to swallow food. When he was finally tested, he was told he had the virus which has infected more than 366,000 people in India and swamped many of the country’s hospitals. 

Instead of being admitted for treatment, Ram was told to go home. 

“There was no space available at the hospital. Doctors administered some medicine and told us to have my father quarantined at home,” Ram’s eldest son Keval Krishan told

But Ram’s situation worsened and a relative suggested he be taken to St. Mary Hospital in the city.

“The situation there was far better than the other places. Tests were once again conducted, and father was shifted to a separate ward. Thank God, he is now recovering,” Keval said.

Not all are as fortunate as Ram. Like the government-run hospital in Mumbai, many other state-run hospitals in areas hit hard by the virus are struggling. According to the BBC, some three-quarters of the COVID-19 deaths in India have been reported from three states — Maharashtra, Gujarat and Delhi.

A woman watches as healthcare workers wearing personal protective equipment check the temperature of residents of a slum during a check-up camp for the coronavirus disease in Mumbai, India, June 17. (Photo by Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters)

Dilip Banergee, an IT professional based in the Indian capital New Delhi said his uncle died last week of COVID-19 after a government-run hospital didn’t take him in.  

“My uncle had breathing problems and a high fever. We pleaded to the hospital authorities, but they refused his admission citing lack of space. He died by the roadside a few hours later,” Dilip said.

His uncle is one the 12,000 plus Indians who have died because of the virus that originated from China last year.

Imtiyaz Aksar, a research scholar in health sciences, told that the speed with which the virus is spreading in the country — despite a nationwide lockdown — it is feared that 60 percent of country’s population of 1.3 billion may become infected.

“If the government hospitals are ill-equipped, there is a need for availing the services of non-profit organizations, private health care institutions to help tackle the present crises or else the situation is going to be very dreadful even to imagine,” Aksar said.

Father Mathew Abraham, director general of the Catholic Health Association of India (CHAI), said that given the complexity of the country and the emerging COVID-19 situation it’s not easy to estimate the problems while tackling the virus at the same time.

“About 20 of our CHAI hospitals are collaborating with the government in the war against the coronavirus,” Father Mathew said. “Most of these hospitals have signed an MoU with the local government authorities and are being supported by them to some extent,” he said.

“In one of our hospitals in Mumbai, we are treating on average about 125 patients every day, 25 of them are on ventilators. There is a lot of demand and the situation is very challenging in some parts of the country,” Father Mathew said.  

“Some of our staff, including nuns have got infected while treating COVID-19 patients,” he said.

Father Mathew said that CHAI has more than 500 hospitals and 50,000 beds across the country.

“Currently our efforts are more focused on states where we are witnessing a serious surge of COVID-19 patients,” he said.

Treatment is free in Catholic hospitals. A patient only pays an admission fee of Rs 100 (US$ 1.50).

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