I had the opportunity recently to meet Scot and Maurine Proctor at a dinner in Salt Lake City. Naturally, Maurine’s first question was how our leprosy-affected families were fairing during the Covid crisis in India?  As we talked, she suggested that perhaps I ought to take a short break in my series of articles about adopting Thomas and Jolanta from Lithuania and do a quick update to Meridian readers about the deadly second Covid wave in India.  Many of Meridian’s readers have donated to our work in India, and she felt there would be a lot of interest in an update.  I agreed, so here it is!  (I’ll continue Jolanta’s story next month.)

India seemed to recover remarkably quickly from the first Covid wave.  In the first wave, the biggest threat to life for many people was actually the Covid lockdown, which was announced with only four hours’ notice.  The lockdown was very strict, with people not allowed to even leave their homes to purchase food. Because people in the leprosy colonies typically do not have refrigeration, they buy food for only one day at a time.  And because the lockdown caught people unprepared, in the colonies starvation quickly became a far bigger concern than the virus itself.

During that lockdown, Rising Star Outreach responded to desperate pleas from leprosy colony leaders to provide food, medicines and bandages.  In fact, we delivered food, medicines and bandages to roughly 62,000 people in 196 leprosy colonies spread across 9 states of India!  This relief was made possible through literal miracles which occurred.  Many lives were saved.

As the initial wave declined and Covid deaths eased, it seemed as if India became convinced that the threat was over.  People were eager to quit wearing masks as businesses and services opened back up.  Few people thought it was necessary to get vaccinated.  To be fair, vaccinations were pretty hard to come by.  The theorized common thought was that since Indians were normally exposed to more pathogens than other populations, the assumption was that Indians just naturally had a higher resistance to the Covid-19 virus. 

The relaxation of Covid precautions extended to public events such as stadiums packed with cricket fans, religious holidays and even the elections. Since Indians were somehow immune, there was little need for masking or social distancing.

At our campus at Rising Star Outreach, going against the popular trend, we insisted that social distancing protocols continue to be observed.  Our leaders protested, saying it was no longer necessary, as India’s infection rate was going down dramatically. Never-the-less, we insisted and so our Indian leadership complied.  This may be one of the things that protected our teachers and students.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long before India was hit with what quickly became the worst Covid epidemic in the world.  The infection rate rose so quickly that it was impossible to respond to the huge number of cases.  The following is from the WHO:

India was already short-staffed in health care. India had about 17 active health workers — doctors, nurses and midwives — per 10,000 people, according to the Indian Institute of Public Health-Delhi and the World Health Organization. That is far below the W.H.O.’s threshold of 44.5 trained health workers per 10,000.

The distribution is unequally concentrated in urban centers. About 40 percent of health care providers work in rural areas, where more than 70 percent of India’s population lives. Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, has only 0.24 beds per 1,000 people, less than one-tenth of the world average. (For India’s Medical Workers, Danger and ‘Heartbreaking Decisions’, NY Times, May 25)

Of course, for the leprosy-affected, the effects of the pandemic are even more dire.  Leprosy-affected persons are not generally accepted into regular hospitals, but instead have to use “leprosy hospitals.” These hospitals are spread very far apart and are not typically equipped to handle complex medical issues.

Even for normal (non-leprosy-affected) people, within just a few days there were no hospital beds available in the big cities where Covid was causing tens of thousands of deaths.  Oxygen became scarce, with some hospitals even running completely out, causing unnecessary deaths.  As the numbers continued to climb sky-high, Covid variants began to emerge.  There are a number of variants that played into this disaster commonly referred to as the British variant, the South African variant and the Brazilian variant.  Then an even more deadly variant emerged in India (now called the Delta variant).  It began killing people of almost all ages, instead of just the elderly.  It also attacked people who had previously survived a Covid infection. 

As doctors and hospitals worked feverishly to treat the many patients, the commonly used vaccines in India (AstraZeneca and COVAX) proved ineffective against the new variants.  Even fully vaccinated doctors and nurses began to be infected and to die.  According to the head of the Indian Medical Association, as of last week, more than 40% of India’s doctors were suspected to have been affected, with more than 1,000 doctors dying. (NYTimes, May 25)

A number of hospitals soon ran out of both critically needed oxygen and medicines.  The deaths were occurring so rapidly and in such great numbers that it became extremely difficult to deal with all the bodies of the deceased.  India is roughly 90% Hindu.  In the Hindu religion, at death the body is cremated to release the Spirit from the body, so that it can continue its existence.  Thus, cremation is a very important, final rite.  But crematoriums were quickly overwhelmed. Wood for cremations became terribly scarce, driving the price of a cremation up radically. In Mumbai a typical cremation went from $27 to over $200, an almost impossible amount for the poor to pay.

Unable to cremate the bodies of their deceased beloved family members, desperate people began dumping the dead bodies in the Ganges River, or other rivers, or even in shallow graves, with only a thin layer of dirt over the bodies. The bloated bodies in the rivers then began washing up on the shores. In one area alone, more than 1,000 bodies washed up, polluting not only the area, but the water systems as well.

During the first Covid wave the leprosy colonies were mostly spared.  Being Dalits (previously called Untouchables) turned out to be a blessing, as the leprosy-affected were typically more isolated from the general population.  As noted, during the first wave, starvation rather than the disease, was the biggest threat to the colonies.

During this terrible second wave, however, the leprosy colonies have been much more directly affected by Covid.  In some areas of the country entire villages have been decimated. Hundreds of thousands have died.  As many epidemiologists believe the numbers in India are vastly underreported, some estimate the true number of deaths from Covid are more likely in the millions. (Just How Big Could India’s True Covid Toll Be?, NYTimes, May 25)

There is also a new threat that has emerged.  Many people who were infected with Covid, but survived, have now been hit with a black mold infection.  It appears that those suffering from diabetes and treated with liberal doses of steroids are extra susceptible to this mold. The mold appears to be even more deadly than the Covid disease and has a death rate of 50% of those infected.  Many more are dying.

Our staff has also been hit.  In spite of our strict social distancing protocols, we have had a few staff members get infected.  Thanks to the head of our medical team, Dr. Seetha, a highly respected doctor, we have been able to procure hospital beds for our infected staff members.  While those hospitals had no oxygen, we were able to supply the lifesaving oxygen from our own medical clinic supplies.  Consequently, thanks to the grace of God, so far, we have not lost any staff members.

We have, however, lost some members in the leprosy colonies we serve.  While we’ve not lost any students yet, we have lost some of their family members.  One young student’s family asked for assistance to cremate her mother, as the cremation costs had risen to a staggering $270.  This is an astronomical sum for a leprosy-affected family!  By getting all extended family members to pitch in, and with some help from us, the family was finally able to cremate their precious mother.

As a result of this second wave, all schools in India were closed again.  We had to send our students home.  Unbelievably, only one student has been infected so far, but again, thanks to Dr. Seetha and God’s tender care, this student has recovered.

We have been in touch with our Indian leadership every day during this second wave, trying to assess the need for intervention.  We have hesitated to intervene until circumstances became impossible for our families to overcome.  We strongly focus on creating self-reliance and are very hesitant to create any sort of dependency. 

We also have no idea how long this wave may continue or how many people may end up being infected.  Not knowing what the ultimate needs may be, we want to carefully use our resources to the greatest need and greatest effectiveness.

We have now reached a point where we absolutely need to step in.  The leprosy colony leaders have been petitioning us for help.  We’ve sent our Colony Development team to these colonies to assess the need.  In a number of colonies, the need is now dire.

Typically, what happens when a Covid case is recorded in a colony is a containment team sets up a barrier to block off the colony.  No colony member is allowed to leave, and no one is allowed to come in.  To me, it is a bit reminiscent of the great Bubonic plague when houses were barricaded and whole households were quarantined, only in this case, it’s an entire village. For us, the greatest concern is how the people in that colony will obtain food or medicines?  

This week we began a relief effort to get desperately needed food and medical supplies into affected colonies.  We’ve started first in the states of Tamilnadu and Maharashtra.  You may recall that Maharashtra was hit with a deadly cyclone and terrible flooding two weeks ago (May 17), on top of its mind-numbing Covid deaths. This has been a deadly double whammy.

We have been entreated by colony leaders in ten states for assistance.  We will give this assistance in stages.  Tens of thousands of lives are at risk, so we have planned this relief carefully.

If any of our readers would be interested in helping, you can contact us at www.RisingStarOutreach.org or at 801.820.0466. 

This is a unique time in this worldwide pandemic.  The U.S. just reported its first case of the Indian variant.  If we can reach out and help India get its needed vaccinations, needed oxygen, medicines and other items, I believe we also help to stop the creation of even more deadly variants. The world needs to come together for the good of all.

The B.1.617.2 coronavirus variant originally discovered in India last December has now become one the most — if not the most — worrisome strain of the coronavirus circulating globally. Recent research suggests it may the most transmissible variant yet and has fueled numerous waves of the pandemic around the world. B.1.617.2 has already spread to more than 60 countries, including the U.S.

The Delta variant has multiple mutations that appear to give it an advantage over other strains. The most important apparent advantage is that the mutations may make the strain more transmissible, which would also make it the most dangerous variant yet. One study indicated B.1.617.2 may be up to 50 percent more transmissible than the B.1.1.7 (U.K./Alpha) variant, and B.1.1.7 is more transmissible than the original strain of the coronavirus, which emerged in China in late 2019. (What We Know About the Dangerous Covid B.1.617.2 (Delta) Variant, Intelligencer, June 1, 2021)