Columban Response to Covid-19 in Chile

Photo: St Columbans Mission Society

Photo: Columban Associate priest from Korea, Fr. Francisco Jung

The Covid-19 Pandemic has been a severe blow to the nation of Chile which is used to having some of the highest ever recorded earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and on-going forms of social unrest, protest and disruption. Now, like all nations across the world, it has been dealt with this recent tragic blow.

Chile has one of the highest per-capita rates of confirmed cases of the virus and deaths from it, in Latin America and all the world. Yesterday, the 01st of September, for example, there were 1415 new cases of Covid-19 with 32 deaths.

The unemployment rate has now soared to 13.1%, as tens of thousands of jobs have lost. All kinds of businesses, big and small, have had to close. Low-income families, living in overcrowded conditions, find social distancing practically impossible. They do not have the luxury to be able to work from home either. Many feel they have to choose between either catching the virus or having no food or accommodation for their families.

In Santiago, non-essential workers are allowed to leave their homes with special permission, only three times a week, to do shopping and pay bills. After six months of lockdown and a strict nightly curfew, the rates of mental illness, alcoholism and domestic violence have increased considerably.

Our Columban parish communities in Chile have responded to the Covid-19 crisis in many ways. Soup kitchens have been organized in each parish to provide one good meal per day to the unemployed and their families.

In the parish of San Columbano, we have a Soup Kitchen operating four days a week, from around 12.30 pm to 2.30 pm, providing about 300 takeaway meals. The meals are provided as takeaway only, to avoid close sit-down person to person contact.

A team of parish volunteers, including Columban Associate from Korea, Fr. Francisco Jung, spend many hours each day preparing the meals. Food and the gas needed to cook it, for the 300 meals comes from a variety of sources, such as by asking for donations in the local fruit and vegetable market, donations from the parish itself and donations that Fr. Francisco receives from the Korean Catholic Community in Chile.

The Health Department of the local Municipal Council regularly inspects the kitchen area to ensure that all the sanitary restrictions are in place. Testing for Covid-19 by the Health Department is also being offered at the parish church where the soup kitchen operates.

As well as our Soup Kitchens, all Columban parishes provide deliveries of particular parcels of groceries to hundreds of unemployed families in their homes. In San Columbano parish, this programme is called, “The Hands of Mercy” outreach and is run by Fijian Columban Fr Martin Koriciri. Where families are infected with Covid-19, as quite a few are, their food parcels left at the front door. Special needs such as winter clothing, baby’s diapers, children’s clothing are also covered in this programme.

Due to the restrictions on gatherings, San Columbano parish offers the Sunday Eucharist on YouTube every Sunday. Each week the different parish communities take responsibility to record the different parts of the Eucharist that has been assigned to them such as the reading, the prayers of the Faithful and the music. The three priests and the permanent parish deacon take turns at giving the homily. Columban Fr. Martin Koroiciri celebrates the Eucharist.

Photo: St Columbans Mission Society

Photo: Columban priest, Fr. Martin Koriciri, from Fiji

Another special outreach during this Covid-19 crisis is to our migrant communities in all our parishes. Migrants were some of the first to lose their jobs as the crisis developed. The Columban parishes of San Columbano and San Matias both have Migrant Houses of Hospitality for single migrant men needing accommodation. Many of these Venezuelan and Haitian residents were previously homeless. Some of them had been living on the streets after losing their jobs and being unable to pay their rent, were forced out onto the street.

A group of Haitian men from San Columbano parish travelled 400 kilometres south of Santiago to work in the harvest of grapes. They became trapped there as the Covid-19 restrictions took hold. Our parish keeps in contact with them, trying to support them, as they live with no income, surviving on meals from their local parish soup kitchen. They hope to find work as the spring harvest of strawberries, and other crops begin in the next few months.

Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc on Chile. According to the latest figures from the Ministry of Health, (01/09/2020), a total of 11,321 persons have died from Covid-19. Almost half of all deaths in the Metropolitan Region (Santiago) come directly from Covid-19 or are associated with it. During the last six months, Covid-19 has become the major cause of death in the country.

Our Columban parish communities will continue to do everything they possibly can, to actively respond, to this crisis. They are more than ever conscious of the need to reach out to those individuals and families who have received the hardest blows from this Pandemic.

Fr. Dan Harding is the parish priest of San Columbano parish, Santiago, Chile