Covid-19 Response in Darjeeling Province

By Fr Joe Victor SJ  

As the coronavirus pandemic reached India, the federal government enforced a three-week lockdown from the midnight of March 23, giving the citizens barely four hours (8 pm to 12 midnight) to buy essential things, travel or make any arrangements, if at all they could. Almost everything was shut down from the 24th. It created a myriad of problems to millions of migrant workers, outstation students and teachers, daily wage earners, tea workers, fisher folk, transport and tourism related workers.  It took a few days for the vulnerable population to recover from the initial shock and feel the pinch of the forced isolation.

When the lockdown was extended by another 19 days, the pain of hunger and starvation began to manifest in different parts of the country including the areas that comprise Darjeeling province. In order to respond to the distress of the suffering people, Fr Provincial sent out a circular on April 7, 2020 asking each community and institution to reach out to the most needy people in their neighbourhood. At the province level, he commissioned Fr Pascal Xalxo (Director of HLDRC) and Fr Julius Kujur (Director of Jesu Ashram) and Fr Stanley in Darjeeling, to identify families who are in dire need so that we could reach out to them with relief work in the plains and  in the hills. He also allotted necessary funds for this purpose. Fathers Pascal and Julius are collaborating with the Bishop of Bagdogra diocese while Fr Paul D’Souza (Director of Hayden Hall) is coordinating relief activities with the Darjeeling Diocese. We are reaching out to those who don’t get government help because they don’t have government ration cards for various reasons, but often for lack of documents.

Since April 7, all our social centres, institutions and Jesuit Communities have been reaching out to the needy, mostly in tea gardens in North Bengal, with relief materials – rice, pulses, sanitizers, face masks, onions, cooking oil, soap, etc. So far we have supported well over 2000  families in the Hills and the Plains. There are more requests. The Province Treasurer is also trying to mobilize resources through the alumni of our age old institutions. The doctors and nurses from Jesu Ashram, the volunteers from HLDRC in the plains and the Jesuits, with staff members of St Joseph’s School at North Point and at Mungpoo, are working tirelessly in meeting the needs of the sick and the hungry.

So far, in the Darjeeling hills, we have helped the families most in need in Soom, Singla, Lepcha Busty, Dawaipani, Harsing Busty, Kainjaley, Tukvar, Pathebong tea gardens and Sittong; thanks to the Jesuits of St Joseph’s school, St Joseph’s College and Hayden Hall, Darjeeling. In the plains of Darjeeling district, we have reached out to Gangaram, Bhoj Narayan, Kamala, New Chamta, Puttingbari, Atal, Matigara and Hatighisa tea gardens and Patherghatta in Darjeeling district, and Balaigach, Manuaganj, Kheripara, Pabnikhadi, Kelabari, Dhumchipara, Dharnipur, Carron, Loksan and Totapara tea gardens of Jalpaiguri district. Tomorrow, there will be distribution of rations to 70 poor families in Gorubathan, Kalimpong district. And the efforts will continue, as long as our intervention is needed, to the best of our resources and ability.

Relief goods are distributed to families in need in Hatighisa, Darjeeling.
(Photo: Darjeeling Jesuit Province)

Relief goods are distributed to families in need in Soom, Darjeeling.
(Photo: Darjeeling Jesuit Province)

The situation in the projects supported by the CJI:

1. Hayden Hall:

All the staff members are safe and healthy. Their needs are taken care of. Though the institute is closed, a few staff members come to distribute basic medicine, masks and food materials to people in need in Darjeeling town assigned by the government as well as the rag pickers who are unemployed now. They also reach out to closed tea gardens, Kaleej valley and Dhateria, as well as the faraway Jesuit mission areas in the hills and plains. Fr Paul D’Souza, Director of Hayden Hall, is also coordinating the relief work on behalf of the diocese. So lots of work is going on here.

2. Gandhi Ashram:

As the school is closed due to lockdown, some study materials are put up online for the students to follow. The staff and students are not affected by the virus. Here, the local government and some NGOs are actively helping the needy people.

3. SASAC-I:

All the staff are fine. Some limited work is going on here. Relief work is done in a small scale with distribution of vegetables to the poor. More distribution is planned later this week. Since a doctor (a Sister) is stuck in her hometown, Kurseong, Fr Pramod is planning to organize a small medical camp for the local people and supply medicine free of cost for the poor.

4. SASAC-2:

All the staff are keeping well and safe. Very little work can be done here as most of the staff come from far away. So they take turns to attend to the essential work. Medical help is needed for the people as the hospital is practically closed. Morning Star Home has 10 students who could not go home. They are doing some studies and spend some time for prayer.

Fr Pascal’s relief works are sponsored by the province through HLDRC.

This pandemic and the lockdown have given us an opportunity to pause and reflect deeper on the meaning of our life – the fragility of humanity, inability to tame the invisible virus, the economic meltdown, felt-need to cherish human relations… in a way this great leveller has brought people closer, giving an opportunity to share our resources with the most needy ones in spite of the restrictions, risking one’s life to care for the afflicted… hopefully people are spending more time with God, the ultimate Healer of this wounded humanity. Each Jesuit community of our Province is holding an hour of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament every evening, praying for the whole world and for an end to this pandemic. Most of us made our personal or online retreat during this period, very well arranged by the Jesuit Conference of South Asia, New Delhi. Over 15,000 men and women from different parts of the world made this Lifeline retreat. The online retreat materials are still available in the website www.jcsaweb.org.

Thank you very much for your concern in our wellbeing, even as Canada is also affected by this disease. We pray that God will lead us all out of these difficulties.

No doubt, all of us experience darkness and in this darkness we tend to experience God concealed. Our hearts go out to all those who lost their lives and all those suffering in various ways due to this lockdown and loss of livelihood. But today we also see the transforming light of God through some generous people doing excellent humanitarian work and others, like Pope Francis, remarkably leading the people towards God and towards one another… we do not yet know how all this will unfold in the future. But we do know that the Risen Christ is here, walking with us on our way to Emmaus!

In solidarity with the suffering humanity,

– Fr Joe Victor SJ
Treasurer and Development Director
Darjeeling Jesuit Province