Italy isn’t singing on the balconies anymore. As time in quarantine goes slowly on, marked by the ticking of our family clock, we are receiving fewer and fewer coronavirus jokes, funny videos, invitations to sing or clap our hands or whatever our fellow countrymen’s fantasy suggested in the first quarantine days.
There is very little to joke about. There is a frightening, horrible and heartrending line of military trucks which bring out from the city of Bergamo dozens of coffins. The cemetery of Bergamo has no space for burying, for “storing” or even for cremating the unceasing line of the COVID victims.
In Pavia, a large storeroom has become a morgue; the caskets are lined side by side, supported by two chairs, one at either side.
People die alone; their relatives cannot assist them but are simply told when their father or mother has died.
There are luminous examples of generosity, which bring to my mind the heroism and holiness of Father Maximilian Kolbe.
Father Giuseppe Berardelli, a 72-year-old Catholic priest who was hospitalized with COVID, realized that there were too few ventilators available, and renounced this life-saving opportunity in favour of a younger person.
Piero Floreno, a patient with ALS who has two ventilators at home (one which he continuously needs, and one in case the first breaks down) has given one to the Turin hospitals, thus putting his life at risk.
There are also terrible stories of the “side-effects” of COVID: victims who are not literally infected but whose lives are affected deeply by what is happening.
Earlier this morning I heard the story of a 79-year-old man who had lost a beloved son last year. In despair, he had turned to addictive gambling, as happens to many broken people. Now that the Italian government has banned gambling (eventually establishing that it is a “non-essential” activity: it was high time!) this poor man went to the tobacconist’s, asked for the scratch&win cards, was denied them … and shot the clerk. It is a story of victims, in which there is just pity and compassion for all.
Yesterday a person I know had to go to the hospital for a very important health reason; she told me about unending lines of people waiting outside the hospital (and it’s very cold in Italy these days: about 0°C). Her oncologist was in despair since she could not operate, having half her staff infected, and so the women whose breast cancer surgery was scheduled to take place yesterday were sent home.
(I regret to say, however, that abortions are still being performed in Italy. These are considered as “essential services”).
A tragedy within the tragedy concerns those who cannot “stay at home” because they have no home. Heroic friars and volunteers are providing food bags to the homeless, but when you see these people crowding for fear of being left without food, you realize that they’re among the first who may be infected and die.
Another crucial situation is that of the retirement homes; there are some where dozens of elderly people have caught the virus, and there is no room for all at the hospitals. (At least there don’t seem to have been cases like those in some retirement homes in Spain where the staff simply abandons the guests, who are later found dead by the army.)
Italy is reacting with great sense of responsibility, with deep-felt grief and with profound worries; even when this is over, when it will be over, the process of reconstruction will be long, very long. Our economy is crumbling; economic and financial losses are terrible, and they will project themselves on the long run.
We are not singing. But we’re praying. Today, March 25th, we’ll follow the Pope’s invitation and we’ll pray together: for our families, for our friends, for our countries, and for the entire world. And, please: be very careful, more careful than your governments tell you. Only if the entire world fights effectively this pandemic we’ll start hoping
Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician and theologian moonlighting as a journalist. She writes from Turin in Italy. Visit her website.