diadà / flickr

The whole of Italy is now practically in quarantine. The COVID-19 infection has spread very quickly, particularly in the northern regions of Italy, but leaving untouched virtually no zone of the Peninsula. Moreover, as it was first diagnosed in one of the largest Italian cities, which is also the most international and productive (Milan), it provoked an economic collapse, which is very worrying at the moment but could become even more frightening on the long run.

Yesterday the Italian government has issued a law limiting very seriously the freedom of movement in the country; though it is a bitter pill for us all, we are also very conscious that we simply have to swallow it. However, many people who work or study in Milan but come from different regions of Italy abandoned the city in the preceding days, potentially contributing to the virus’ spread in other zones of Italy.

In certain cities, such as Cremona (the city of Stradivarius), the hospitals are already full, the doctors are working around the clock, and a picture has become iconic: a nurse falling asleep on an office desk at the end of her exhausting watch.

What is especially worrying is that intensive care units are already applying the triage rule to their potential patients, giving privileged access to those who are most likely to survive (for their age and general health conditions). This is not eugenics proper, of course; similar evaluations are normal when, for example, donated organs have to be implanted, and the criteria are not simply “first come, first served”. However, it is particularly shocking to hear this kind of news, since Italy is (as MercatorNet readers know well) a very old country.

A large part of our population is over 65, and while many of them are in good health, most have one or more health issues; combined with Covid-19, they may become lethal. But these elderly people have families, have stories, have dreams (yes, many elderly people still have beautiful dreams for their years to come), and it is really frightening to think that they may be “left behind” if the trend continues.

Most Italians are trying to protect their elderly family members, by avoiding all physical contact and social occasions. In my own home, where I live with my 80-year-old parents, I take meals at a separate table, and force myself not to hug them even though I can see that they particularly need some kind of physical expression of tenderness right now. Sometimes I even become harsh with them, when they inadvertently forget to respect some of the rules we have been given, and which are not always easy to learn when you’ve done things differently for your whole life. (For example, it is rather difficult never to touch your eyes!).

Churches are closed, of course, even on Sundays. It is particularly painful as we really need a help from above, for stopping the infection but also giving us strength for facing it. And many are wondering what will be left after the epidemic is over. Economic consequences are predictably worrisome; we don’t know how many people will be affected, suffer and even die of this virus; and how we’ll have to re-learn not to avoid the “other”, not to walk away when you see another person on the same pavement, not to restrain ourselves in our manifestations of affection.

We are worried for the many elderly people who live alone; one of my friends, for example, is an elderly widower whose only contact with the outside world was daily Mass; what is he doing now? I phoned him today, and he seemed reasonably cheerful, but how will he feel in a fortnight’s time?

Will this experience help us to think about the true meaning of life, of love, of prayer? Some of us may die of COVID; how do we think about this? What does love mean: to care for the others? To have them with us? To protect them even when this means being cold toward them? And what is prayer? Why is it so difficult to pray when there is no community with whom to pray? What are we praying for? Are we thinking of the afterlife?

And other questions arise in this situation. Among those who disregard the safety rules we’ve been given are many teenagers and young people, who are enjoying an unforeseen and long school holiday, and who spend their time together, crowding the bars and walking in a bunch in the fashionable streets. Why are they doing this, in spite of the recommendations which many famous music, TV and cinema stars are issuing?

When you’re twenty it is normal, of course, to think you’re immortal; but have we taught them to care for others, not just for themselves? Have we spoken about responsibility, have we encouraged them to be, at least minimally, “heroic”? Have we educated our young men and women, or are they simply a mass of overgrown babes who only care for their immediate needs?

These are just a few of the questions that can torment us after yet another day of worries and loneliness. But today it was such a fine day that I could not help thinking that the trees in blossom were as beautiful as last year or the year before; they bloom in spite of everything, and they rejoice for being alive. As we all do.  

Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician and theologian moonlighting as a journalist. She writes from Italy. Visit her website.

Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician and theologian moonlighting as a journalist. She writes from Turin in Italy. Visit her website at www.chiarabertoglio.com