Living with the Uncertainty of COVID-19

Having spent almost five weeks in isolation in the Joti Catechetical Centre in Mirpurkhas in Pakistan, Fr. Pat Raleigh reflects on his lock-down in Pakistan.

Introduction

2020 will remain etched in the minds of so many people as the year of the outbreak of Coronavirus. So much has been written to date and this will be the pattern for some time to come. When I first heard of the outbreak in Wuhan in late December my first reaction was that this is a problem for China. I did take some interest in it because of its location in Wuhan, a place very much steeped in Columban history. My first thoughts and prayers were for the safety of my fellow Columban living in the heart of Wuhan and indeed for the safety of the people affected by the deadly virus. I had every confidence that it would be controlled in due course by the efficiency of the Chinese and that it would be contained in China.

Setting out for Pakistan

It was with light heart that I set out on my journey to Pakistan on a very cold snowy morning on February 11, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. I did pray on that day for a quick end to what is commonly referred to as the pandemic. My main focus at the time was on the challenge that lay ahead of me in the forthcoming six weeks, in doing research on the Columban presence in Pakistan over forty years since they first arrived there in 1979. I gathered all the necessary materials to commence the research and I situated myself in the quiet surroundings of the Joti Catechetical Centre in Mirpurkhas in the province of Sindh, around three and a half hours by road from Karachi.  I did not want the finished product to be one of facts and figures but rather one that would in story encapsulate the presence of the Columbans. I had met and consulted with the Columban group in Karachi. I wanted it to be their story and I asked those who are currently in Pakistan as well as those who had previously worked there to write their reflections on various topics that would engage a wider readership. I requested that, in so far as possible, that they would weave into their reflections some personal stories from their different experiences over the years. I was quite pleased with the response and all that was left for me to do after the six weeks was to pack my bags and get ready for the journey back to Ireland towards the latter stages of March. Sr Rebecca Conlon, Columban Sister, Dan O’Connor from New Zealand and myself had even the opportunity to have a small St Patrick’s Day celebration not having any idea of what lay ahead. I was looking forward to returning home and getting away from the unbearable heat of the summer months.

Cancellation of Flights

I was all set to leave for Karachi when I received an e-mail to say that my flight with Emirates was cancelled due to the outbreak worldwide of COVID-19. This came as a huge disappointment and now I had entered an uncertain period not knowing when I would be able to leave. I kept following what was happening in Ireland and indeed elsewhere in the world. It really began to dawn on me that this was no ordinary virus as it was spreading like wildfire. There was no use feeling sorry for myself as so many thousands of people were in a much worse situation than I was. I had the luxury of being in a secure compound and was well nourished. I also had the security and backing of the Columban group even though they were geographically quite distant from each other. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my fellow Columban and host, Tomas King, from Galway.

Turning disappointment into something creative.

 The important thing was how to be creative while confined to the Compound for over a period of five weeks. The hardest thing that I felt was the uncertainty of not knowing when a flight would be available. During this period, a number of flights were cancelled, and I was preparing myself for a long period in Pakistan. During this time of isolation and social distancing in so far as it was possible, and in spite of the daily temperatures of over 40 degrees, I experienced many resurrection moments through the kindness of so many people particularly from the members of the staff in Joti. They were in a much worse situation than I was, living in very congested situations with very little space for social distancing. Each day they would be very solicitous of my situation and would always ask did I have any news of a flight back home. What stood to me in good stead was having the celebration of the Eucharist each morning for the staff who numbered no more than six and who observed social distance. Each day I would get news on how things were for them and indeed for the community. Each day I had the good fortune of being tutored and updated in social media by both Kheemoon and Matthew.

On the grounds of Joti there is a lovely grotto to Our Lady of Lourdes. In the late afternoons, a number of people would quietly come to pray for particular needs especially for family members who were ill. I was fortunate that I was able to engage with them from a distance. Thankfully, I was still able to make myself understood in my broken Urdu after a lapse of 25 or more years. The people who would come to pray at the grotto were for the most part materially poor, but they had a deep faith and trust in God. As I conversed with them, I was indeed very conscious of how lucky I was. In a certain sense I felt that I was rather hypocritical in that I had the freedom to leave Pakistan while they were stuck in very congested and overcrowded living situations. Yet they had something so valuable to offer through their smiles and hospitality. I always came away from these encounters very humbled and grateful. Prior to the outbreak of the Pandemic I had the occasions to visit a number of families in their very simple houses and was always treated with great respect and with genuine hospitality.

One of the big disappointments for the Christian communities this year was that they were unable to celebrate Holy Week and Easter ceremonies due to COVID-19. Living in a predominantly Islamic environment it means a lot for the Christians to be able to celebrate such occasions. It gives them a sense of their own worth and value. They were encouraged to pray as families in their own homes.

Lockdown

In a place like Pakistan with a population of over 200 million people I did not think it was possible that a lockdown could or would take place. Places become fully alive particularly at sunset when many people flock to the bazars. Tea rooms and open-air restaurants are alive with activity. People mill around and chat with each other and relax at the end of the day. Sadly, there are very few women around and if there were, there is a special place set aside for them to eat. It took me some time to resonate with this. I am not sure if I agree with it, but one has to follow the customs of the place. What amazed me was how many places became so quiet with the introduction of lockdown due to the virus. Pakistan, compared with other countries, seemed to be slow in taking the pandemic seriously and it took some time for the seriousness of the situation to register. With such a huge population it is very difficult to monitor the situation and the country would not have the facilities for proper monitoring or testing. It is difficult to gauge how many deaths have taken place and how many are affected by the virus. During my prolonged stay there a lot of progress was made. People became very conscious of the word Coronavirus and in very difficult circumstances were very compliant with the regulations and restrictions. It is very natural for the children to reach out their hands for a greeting or blessing. It was hard to refuse but they soon began to catch on and we would bow in greeting each other.

Lockdown means different things to different people. From my visit to Pakistan and this can be borne out by so many people world-wide, it is the poor who suffer most. Recently, I came across in Facebook an image by Alan Mason of a woman in a refugee camp drinking a cup of coffee, while her little child was sitting in a cardboard box. More than likely this is all she had to keep her little child safe. Attached to the image was the following phrase which deeply resonated with me ‘May I never complain when I am stuck at home when many have no home’. During my time in Pakistan it was certainly the poor who were suffering, although everybody was affected. This was brought home to me very forcibly by the plight of the daily casual workers who were not paid when there wasn’t any work. During lockdown there wasn’t any work. The same is true for many casual workers in so many countries who have no security. I also experienced this insecurity when I visited the brick kiln workers who work in terrible conditions and who are at the mercy of the money lenders. With the lockdown due to the Pandemic many were not able to get work, and this meant no income was coming into the family. As a result, many get deeper and deeper into debt. The Church in Joti and elsewhere were doing their best in distributing food packages to many people but this is not the long -term solution. The government in Pakistan has made money donations to people who are really in need but again not everyone is eligible. While in Pakistan, my fellow Columban, Dan O’Connor from New Zealand, told me of the very sad story of a poor Hindu couple in one of the areas in his parish in Badin, who for some reason were refused the money package. Sadly, they ended their lives not having the where with all financially to face the future leaving five young children behind. What a terrible human tragedy. Lack of work, no money will lead to many people being hungry.

Message of Hope from Cardinal Joe Coutts

It was indeed very heartening to read the message from Cardinal Joseph Coutts, Archbishop of Karachi, who said the following: “We must work in unity to overcome the challenges that people are facing and will continue to face in this COVID-19 pandemic. Let us open our hearts and work to reach and serve people in need, without making any difference, regardless of one’s faith, ethnicity or social status. The lockdown imposed by the Government is having an impact above all on the poorest families and on all those who are employed in ‘informal’ economy or ‘work by the day’.  He emphasised the great need to break the barriers of discrimination and move forward together to serve humanity. He goes on to say that  “the COVID-19 pandemic is not only a matter that concerns poor and needy people, but is also influencing professional life, people’s business, economy, spiritual life in society and around the world. It is therefore a favourable time to promote justice, love, peace, acceptance, interreligious harmony and work together for the development of humanity, and together defeat the challenges posed by the pandemic”.

A time for quiet reflection and gratitude

My extended stay in Pakistan afforded me the opportunity to think globally and to bring to prayer the countless brave people not only in Pakistan but all over the world who were putting their lives at risk by reaching out to those affected by the virus.  Here I am referring to the medical staffs, doctors, nurses, care assistants, janitors, the cleaning and catering staffs of the various hospitals and Nursing Homes. I also include many others who provide food and those who provide comfort to those who have been bereaved because of the virus. As I sat near the grotto each evening, I prayed especially for those affected by the virus. I remembered in a very special way parents of young children who were confined to their homes and those who live in high rise buildings and in overcrowded conditions. I particularly prayed for those who died as a result of the virus. It was also wheat harvest time in Pakistan and that meant long and gruelling hours for so many working in the fields for little pay. I thought of the brickkiln workers who were now out of work. In the best of times the conditions under which they work are so injurious to their health as they breathe in the very fine dust. These more than any others are forever in debt to the owners of the brick kilns. One evening as I was sitting near the grotto, two men who had found their way into the compound approached me looking for food and help. They were out of work and did not have money to buy food. I found this very stressful as their situation could be multiplied a million times. People survive from day to day. Pakistan still suffers from serious political, economic, social and cultural divisions together with blatant inequalities.

As I sat near the grotto each day, for the most part my only companions were the flies and the mosquitoes. Yet, I was filled with a deep sense of gratitude for having had the opportunity to have had time for quiet and prayer. I particularly felt a deep sense of gratitude for the many people who kept in touch with me through social media. Receiving a phone call from home, made such a huge difference. I prayed in gratitude for our many generous Columban supporters in Ireland and elsewhere, many of whom would have been affected by the virus. In gratitude I prayed for the people of Pakistan, especially those who were bearing the brunt of the pandemic. I saw my time in Pakistan as an opportunity to reflect on possibilities for the future. I kept asking myself, when all of this has died down will we return to our previous way of living which many would describe as normal? There will be no returning to what we were accustomed to and as we face the future we will be invited once to live more simply and to count the many blessings that we have been given by God. The pandemic has brought families much closer to each other and people, including myself, have used the time to be in touch with friends that we may not have spoken to for a long time.

Gesture of Tenderness from Pope Francis

During my time in Pakistan I was very touched by Pope Francis in his Urbi et Orbi messages as well as his Homilies. He spoke with such compassion and sensitivity. He wrote: “ We have realised that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other”. He has said that it is a very difficult time for everybody and on many occasions, he reiterated his closeness and affection to people. He encouraged people to be generous and to look out for the loneliest of people. He said what we need most today is ‘the creativity of love’.   Francis has been very aware of the generosity of those who have put themselves at risk for the treatment of this pandemic. He expressed his concern for the many people in financial straits and those who are worried about work and the future. He highlighted the situation of the homeless who do not have a home to protect them. In everything he said he has spoken with tenderness and compassion.

The Journey Home to Ireland

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Irish Consulate in Karachi with whom I had registered not long after my arrival in Pakistan. I did this so that they would know of my whereabouts should an emergency arise. Little did I think that an emergency would arise. My thanks to Tomas King for contacting them. When I thought that all avenues for getting a flight had closed the Consulate suggested that I would contact Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) who were operating flights out of Lahore four times a week to London until the end of April at least. I hoped this would be my third time lucky. With Tomas and a driver, we set out from Mirpurkhas on the fourteen hour road journey to Lahore as there were no flights operating out of Karachi Airport. While the drive was long it was at the same time very pleasant. We travelled on the new superhighway. It was an added bonus, as I had not expected to ever again see the lovely rich landscape of the Punjab. It looked particularly well as the wheat harvest had just taken place. The men, women and children were still working. They too are poorly paid. These scenes brought back many memories of my years in Pakistan and of the different Columbans with whom I worked. I particularly thought of the late Tommy O’Hanlon, Pat McCaffrey, Sean Rainey, Brendan Kennedy, Columban Sister Rita Deegan and Columban Lay Missionary Pilar Tilos from the Philippines, all of whom made significant contributions to Columban mission in Pakistan. Names of other Columbans who had worked in Pakistan also came to mind. It was most appropriate that I experienced a beautiful sunset on the journey to Lahore. In many ways I felt hypocritical as I was in a position to leave while many others did not have this choice.

 I was very happy when I finally boarded the flight from Lahore to London the following day and very relieved when it became airborne. While I greatly appreciated the kindness of everybody in Pakistan it was good to be on my way back to Ireland. I spent two weeks in isolation in a reserved section of Dalgan. I was indeed Lord of the Manor. While I always appreciated the beauty of Dalgan with its spacious grounds and its woodland and river walks, this year it was very special. How refreshing it was to be able once again to enjoy such beauty and to listen to the singing of the birds in a way that I had not heard before. A lot of preparation had gone into making sure that Dalgan was well prepared for any possible outbreak. We are very fortunate that everything has worked out well to date. Walking around Dalgan it is difficult to comprehend, in the midst of such tranquillity and beauty, that COVID-19 was still very present. I am indeed very grateful to all who made me so welcome and to the many people who wished me well on my return journey. Living with COVID-19 certainly took us all by surprise. It has caused much anguish and suffering to so many people and yet it has brought out the very best in so many. May that spirit of working together continue into the future. If we learn anything from this pandemic, I hope it will be to hold on to what really counts. May the pandemic teach us to slow down, to appreciate what we have and to thank God for every blessing.

Fr. Pat Raleigh is from Bruff, Co Limerick. He was ordained in 1967 and has served in the Philippines and Pakistan and was regional director of the Columbans in Ireland.