By Giorgio Bernardelli
Where are the thousands of rural, Indian migrants forced to leave the city because of the lockdown? Bishop Vijay Rayarala, PIME Missionary and Bishop of the Diocese of Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh, India, explains the situation. “There are families from our parishes who arrived here on foot after having traveled thousands of miles. Now the disease has spread here, too.”
“They have walked thousands of miles, returning to the village because the lockdown has cost them their jobs and everything that went along with them. They told us crazy stories. Initiatives of solidarity from those they met along the way and places that barred their doors so they could not get in. This village is their home; it is the only thing that they have left. Now, together, we find ourselves facing COVID-19 in Andhra Pradesh.”
He recently celebrated the first anniversary of his nomination as Bishop of Srikakulam, a Diocese in the far north in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. It is an anniversary that Bishop Vijay Kumar Rayarala, PIME, is living amid the Coronavirus emergency. India is setting new records of infection today, but the crisis is no longer confined solely to metropolitan areas. With almost 60,000 confirmed cases (roughly 100 for every 100,000 inhabitants) and 758 dead, the pandemic is growing more significantly in India’s rural area. The reason is not difficult to understand. It is the great exodus from major cities to the rural villages that began with the lockdown in March. “In the beginning, the problem of COVID-19 only touched the metropolises; for a month and a half, we had no cases here,” Bishop Rayarala reveals. “The situation changed when these brothers of ours began to arrive.”
How is the situation today in the Diocese of Srikakulam? “On the one hand, the concern increases, yes, but on the other hand, life goes on as if nothing had happened,” the Bishop answers. “There is also a lot of confusion in the news. The tests here do not always give reliable results. You take a few pills to treat the symptoms and certain fatalism; whoever makes it heals, whoever loses this battle dies. The most alarming thing is that the peak of contagion is still far off, according to experts in India; some talk about November.”
Even more dangerous than the virus, is the poverty of those who have been forced to return to an unsolvable problem that already existed here. “This is an area that offers few opportunities. Thousands of people often travel back and forth, six months working in Hyderabad, other big cities, and six months at home. So did many Catholics in our communities. After traveling thousands of miles on their own, because all transport was stopped, they all find themselves stuck here with no prospects. The borders between Indian states remain closed; even within Andhra Pradesh, movement is difficult. The hope is that they can find work here, but it is not easy.”
It is for this reason that the Diocese of Srikakulam is on the front line. “As a diocese, we have given life to a program called ‘Hand to Mouth.’ In all 36 parishes, we help the families of returning migrants, reported to us by the local Caritas organization. We have already made three rounds of food parcel distribution; I participated personally. The needs remain very significant. In India, some areas more than others, despite the spread of the virus, activities have begun again because the country could not yet remain locked down. It will take time for work to start up again; it is a truly tragic situation.”
Meanwhile, the government of Andhra Pradesh has announced that schools will reopen in September. “Already this year, there have been great difficulties. The exams for the tenth and twelfth grades were canceled, admitting everyone to the following year’s courses. Here distance learning is a problem because many families do not have the tools to allow the children to follow the lessons. Therefore the local government has forbidden it. Now we will see how we will recover. It will also be a challenge for our ten diocesan schools, hoping that the virus situation will improve,” the PIME Missionary concludes.