It is a never-ending tragedy: nearly 50,000 people have died throughout the world, in Italy over 13,000. are in Italy. In Lombardy, northern Italy, alone, there 7,500 deaths, compared to 10, 000 or so in the entire country of Spain.
Empty streets and roads around Milan and other important cultural and mercantile cities in Lombardy are only trafficked by big lorries for food transportation, ambulances with wailing sirens, and military trucks full of coffins. In small towns, such as the one where I live, a few worried people walk and queue outside the bakery; you can only hear spring sounds. The queue at food shops reminds us what happened to our grandparents during the World War: the government gave people a card that allowed them to get bread, flour, butter and milk. Now there are the same queues and problems, but with one major difference: we cannot hug and greet one another, but must wave, distrustful and worried, keeping distance.
The Italian government was not ready to face this emergency, not prepared to react to it; and now the restrictive measures it has imposed limit our civil and democratic liberties and remove the right to religion freedom. For all of us, mostly Catholic like me, going to Church is not only visiting a place, but a meeting with a Person, Jesus Christ, alive and present in the tabernacle. But it seems the government ignores this important fact that our country is mostly a Catholic one. The Church is silent on this injustice, but vocal about ecumenism, saying that a Buddhist temple or a mosque are also places of prayer and worship. But we think of our Churches differently: be it the beautiful Sanctuary of Our Lady in Saronno or a small church in the countryside, the Church is a place where you can find Jesus Christ. Last week, on the day recalling the Annunciation (March 25), the world prayed together the “Our Father”; and on March 27, people all over the the world stopped and watched together as the Pope delivered an extraordinary blessing and granting special indulgences to the faithful in the current pandemic. Some even believe that the Virgin Mary appeared in the sky above the Saint Peters. For those who do believe, it’s a symbol of closeness that increases the wish that this tragedy and plague should end soon.
Since February 23 in Lombardy we have been living closed in our homes, according to restrictions; social and professional life stopped more than a month ago in order to avoid the spread of the virus. Had the Lombardy regional government asked to stop “non-essential activities and stay at home” at the end of January, we would have been able to avoid deaths and tragic events that we live now. But then we read that in New York, the mayor, Bill de Blasio, and the Governor Andrew Cuomo have different positions; maybe they do not understand how tragic the experience has been here in Italy. Mayors and regional governments have strongly urged isolation; civic education and our sense of communal duty prevent protests and revolts. Are revolts expected in New York? Is it maybe the status of New York as a “sanctuary city” that causes the problems and delay? I find it ironic and sad that two Italian Americans, Cuomo and de Blasio, instead of moving towards a policy of protection of people health, prefer controversies and polemic populist debates. New York and other states where the plague is spreading should demand isolation and border closures, as President Trump suggested, rather than engaging in partisan wars of words. All these political quarrels will only end in tears over many more dead people. I think this ridiculous and criminal behavior. Look to Italy as an example! do what Lombardy, Veneto and other region in Northern Italy have done, rather than looking to the central government in Rome and its hesitations.
In this report “from the trenches,” I can share from a dear friend of mine—a healthcare professional who works in one of the biggest hospital in Milan (Policlinico)—who has had the courage to share with me his daily experience of pain, hope and fatigue. Here is part of what he has to say:
“We had 20 beds in the hospital, but made 250 in just a few weeks for Covid-19 patients. Daily surgery activities have been stopped. The virus has started to affect not only old but also young people. The first day, it was like entering a new world: nurses dressed up like “frogmen”, patients wearing oxygen helmets. No one who does not see it personally can understand how bad this tragedy is. Patients are alone, they stare at you; under the helmets, they cannot hear or be heard well; they cannot understand the instructions we give of the doctors’ and nurses’ words of support.
Patients are worried: “Will I survive?” “When will I be able to go home?” “I hope I do not die because I have a family, wife and children.” “How long can I live?”
They ask for attention; they need someone who will listen to them. Death arrives too often, and the patients are alone. Their last moments are terrible: no relatives, not even a priest to talk to. From the moment they arrive at the hospital, they do not get to see their family anymore; they can call them, but only so long as they have the strength to do so with the disease. People who die will meet in Heaven; for those who survive, they see their families after three weeks of care and treatment. When death is close, people are sedated; doctors and nurses are there for their last breath. A caress, a handshake with the doctor can calm down the patient and make the passage from life to death easier. However, there is always an emptiness left because friends, family and their pastor are not there. When a person dies, the body is put in a bag and then right in a coffin. It is like Vietnam.
A light came when on Annunciation day: our Bishop in Milan delivered a special blessing to all the hospital from outside; some patients could stand up to receive it. Many doctors, health care professionals and nurses then took part in a service at the hospital chapel. A relief, a fresh breath in this daily fight. It not good to die without human, spiritual and familial comfort, but at least in that moment we had a little hope in the hospital.
Many people die, wards look like battlefields; when you walk in the corridors, you do not know what to expect behind the next door. There is no time to put women and men in different places. But Providence still surprises. A few days ago, a man and a woman were hospitalized together in the same room: they were a priest and a nun. Coincidence, or Divine will? That room is now a point of reference not only for doctors and nurses but also for other patients. We all know that in that room there are people who pray, people of God. And this is a strength to everyone.
There is hope for everyone.
I send you our embrace from the front lines, the trench in Lombardy. Be well. And thank you, to President Trump and to all Americans, for your medical donations.