India exemplifies problems facing Southeast Asia as COVID-19 spreads

A priest celebrates Mass in a chapel of the cathedral in Manila, Philippines, March 15, 2020. The Mass was livestreamed on Facebook following the suspension of large gatherings due to the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS photo/Eloisa Lopez, Reuters)A priest celebrates Mass in a chapel of the cathedral in Manila, Philippines, March 15, 2020. The Mass was livestreamed on Facebook following the suspension of large gatherings due to the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS photo/Eloisa Lopez, Reuters)

MUDGEE, Australia (CNS) -- South and Southeast Asia have a combined population of over 2 billion people, and India could be an example of the whole region at large.

Like India, many countries are characterized by huge cities containing neighborhoods that contain millions of people living close together in often highly unhygienic conditions. Even the most basic protocols for warding off COVID-19, such as hand-washing and social distancing, are all but impossible to practice.

"India is a hugely populous country. The future of this pandemic will be determined by what happens to densely populated countries. It's important that India takes aggressive action at the public health level and at the level of society to control and suppress this disease," Mike Ryan, World Health Organization emergencies program director, said March 23.

In India, the world's second-most populous nation, churches across the country finally closed their doors March 23, more than a week after the Vatican decided to have Holy Week services behind closed doors.

[Don’t miss the latest news from the church and the world. Sign up for our daily newsletter.]

On March 24, the Indian government ordered people not to leave their houses for three weeks.

Yet already, many have chosen to ignore government directives, underscoring the task Prime Minister Narendra Modi has ahead of him. Assuming the World Health Organization's 3.4% fatality rate compared to confirmed infections, India could have almost a million confirmed cases by the end of May, with more than 30,000 deaths. Some estimates are as much as double those numbers.

Other countries -- including Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar -- also canceled Masses. As of March 24, Myanmar had no official cases, but with a 1,000-mile-plus porous border with China to the north, few believe that no one has contracted COVID-19.

In East Timor, where the population is nearly 98 percent Catholic, the "health system is underresourced at the best of times," said Michael Leach, professor of international politics at Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia.

[Want to discuss politics with other America readers? Join our Facebook discussion group, moderated by America’s writers and editors.]

"On the positive (side), it has, for a long time, received support from Cuban doctors, training up Timorese doctors. It also doesn't get as many incoming visitors as other regional countries, but if there is a major outbreak it will be a huge challenge for the health system," Leach told Catholic News Service.

After East Timor confirmed its first case of COVID-19 March 21, churches suspended public events for a week, reported

In the Philippines, where about 80 percent of the nation's 100 million people are Catholic, the bishops' conference took action earlier by closing churches and canceling Masses. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered a lockdown of the nation's capital, Manila, March 15.

Some Asian Catholic churches have continued to hold services, despite clear evidence from South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia that religious gatherings can prove hotbeds for the virus. Many parishes and dioceses have moved to provide online Masses and prayer services.

"People are going online to participate in the Mass, and it's working fine," Sheldon Perriera, 36, of Margao, India, told Catholic News Service. "People here are taking all precautions after looking at what's happening in Italy and other places around the world. They are being very careful."

Perriera said there is strong faith in his town about the power of prayer, adding "the Catholic and Christian community has started online prayer groups and is declaring in faith that the COVID-19 pandemic will pass before Easter."

Although the Vatican never officially announced a September trip to Indonesia, East Timor and Papua New Guinea, church officials in Asia said that trip had been canceled.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

We don’t have comments turned on everywhere anymore. We have recently relaunched the commenting experience at America and are aiming for a more focused commenting experience with better moderation by opening comments on a select number of articles each day.

But we still want your feedback. You can join the conversation about this article with us in social media on Twitter or Facebook, or in one of our Facebook discussion groups for various topics.

Or send us feedback on this article with one of the options below:

We welcome and read all letters to the editor but, due to the volume received, cannot guarantee a response.

In order to be considered for publication, letters should be brief (around 200 words or less) and include the author’s name and geographic location. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.

We open comments only on select articles so that we can provide a focused and well-moderated discussion on interesting topics. If you think this article provides the opportunity for such a discussion, please let us know what you'd like to talk about, or what interesting question you think readers might want to respond to.

If we decide to open comments on this article, we will email you to let you know.

If you have a message for the author, we will do our best to pass it along. Note that if the article is from a wire service such as Catholic News Service, Religion News Service, or the Associated Press, we will not have direct contact information for the author. We cannot guarantee a response from any author.

We welcome any information that will help us improve the factual accuracy of this piece. Thank you.

Please consult our Contact Us page for other options to reach us.

When you click submit, this article page will reload. You should see a message at the top of the reloaded page confirming that your feedback has been received.

[Explore all of America’s in-depth coverage of the coronavirus pandemic]

The latest from america

The new cardinals will bring the total number of cardinal electors to 128, of whom 73 will have been appointed by Pope Francis.
Gerard O’ConnellOctober 25, 2020
Many are wondering after the lack of response by the Vatican to questions raised about what Pope Francis actually said about civil unions.
Gerard O’ConnellOctober 24, 2020
Saying that his parents "taught me the importance of faith and prayer from a young age," Trump went on to say that "Melania and I have gotten to visit some amazing churches and meet with great faith leaders from around the world."
Blessed Carlo Acutis, an Italian teenager who used his computer programming skills to spread devotion to the Eucharist, was beatified in Assisi, Italy, Oct. 10, 2020. (CNS photo/courtesy Sainthood Cause of Carlo Acutis)
Acutis’s beatification is a beacon to all those who live their lives, for better or for worse, increasingly online.
Mike SeayOctober 24, 2020