'I priest, in the Dharavi slum against the pandemic'
by P. Christopher D. Jeyakumar

The media exaggerate the Covid-19 emergency in Asia's largest slum. Coronavirus has been contained despite the inability to respect social distancing. The slum is "periphery of the city’s consciousness". The help of the Catholic Church.


Mumbai (AsiaNews) - Dharavi slum, the largest in Asia, is a true success story in India's fight against coronavirus. Father Christopher D. Jeyakumar, parish priest of the local church of St. Anthony, recounts the problems of the population during the pandemic crisis, and the work of the Church to help them. He recalls that poverty has never affected the great dignity of the local population.

It is truly God’s blessings and grace that I am in Dharavi.  In the initial stages there was a kind of fear spread that Dharavi is spread with the Coronavirus. It all began at the two opposite ends of the great slum: Shahunagar, near Mahim, and the labor camp near Zion.

For the most part, people traveling abroad for work live in these two areas. They come from outside Mumbai and are passing through. They only stay here until they find employment, usually in some Gulf country.

After the first cases of contagion, the authorities imposed a ban on the movement and assembly of more than five people across the slum, the largest in Asia. But the virus had spread only to the two peripheral areas.

Dharavi is a slum on the periphery of the city’s consciousness and governance systems. From my point of view, for a number of years the people of Dharavi have got fed up of the administrative powers and Government because basic civic amenities, like sanitation and water are lacking, there is no cleanliness anywhere within Dharavi. The number of rats and other insects are so prevalent that scientifically speaking they have already developed a very high immunity to all types of infections which does not happen anywhere in the world.

Dharavi is a reality on the periphery of consciousness and the system of government. Its inhabitants are fed up with the inefficiencies of administrative power. Basic structures such as the water network and sanitation, including that for the waste collection, continue to be lacking in the slums. There is dirt everywhere. The number of rats and other insects is so high that, scientifically speaking, the inhabitants have already developed a certain immunity to all types of infections existing in the world.

It is a fact that coronavirus has not affected the central areas of Dharavi. There have been some cases, but there have been few infected doctors. In fact, the media initially exaggerated the pandemic danger in the slums. Now they are saying that Dharavi is a prevention model.

If the government or international bodies have asked for compliance with precautionary measures, such as social removal, washing hands, staying indoors, etc., this is not at all possible in Dharavi. In other areas of Mumbai, where the infection has spread more, perhaps yes. But in the slum, lifestyle and the socio-economic situation lead people to be together.

Card. Oswald Gracias, archbishop of Mumbai and president of the Indian Bishops' Conference, is very worried and calls me to encourage me, "touching the wounds of Jesus".

 

In the early days of the lockdown, the Canossian nuns donated food rations to the population of Dharavi. There are 5 thousand faithful in our parish. We have started to distribute aid to the Catholic community. Then the word spread, and we extended the distribution to everyone, regardless of caste and religious belief: in the face of this tragedy we cannot help only Catholics.

Even with relaxations, no one from Dharavi is being allowed to return to their jobs, our people are suffering economically.   It is like a stigma for people from Dharavi. Wherever they go work they are told not to come as they are from Dharavi. Why should this be? The Media has hyped up about the Coronavirus in Dharavi and as a matter of fact it is not so. Now they are saying the Dharavi is a model.

For the past three months, the people have looked up to the Church. The people of Dharavi are very grateful for the help they receive and know it was not Fr. Christopher but in the minds of the people it is the Church.

Finally, this has trampled on the dignity and self-esteem of my people in Dharavi, our people are very hardworking, but this is being crushed under this pandemic and lockdown, one cannot understand the gravity of the poverty and issues of dignity.

One of the safest places today is Dharavi.

(Nirmala Carvalho collaborated)

 

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