A Letter From Italy’s Coronavirus Epicenter: “Coffins Pile up in Churches, People in their 80s Die Alone

Editor’s Note: The following is an abbreviated version of a letter to Mr. Gideon Levy, a correspondent with Haaretz, from a friend of his, Rosita Poloni, who is presently a residence of Italy.  Complete Article here.

 An article in the Washington Post reaches conclusions similar to those reached by Ms. Polini.  Italy’s coronavirus deaths are staggering. They might be a preview and not an anomaly: “Doctors and health officials say other countries should regard Italy not as an outlier or an example of missteps, but as a warning of the hardships that could soon be at hand. By Chico HarlanStefano Pitrelli and Claudia Cavaliere.”

N. B.  CRE notes that any number of states (and possibly hospitals within a state) are working on guidelines dealing with the allocation of scarce medical equipment among particular patient classes; these triage guidelines could determine which patients live and those that die. Many might designate the said guidelines as “binding” and at times are based upon mathematical models. These guidelines are of paramount interest to the public.  CRE will continue its work to promote the input from a comprehensive set of stakeholders during the development of triage guidelines.
 Mr. Levy’s article begins with the following statement made by Ms. Poloni in the letter to him:

“I thought it would interest you to read my letter, since you loved my city so much,” Rosita Poloni wrote me earlier this week. She’s a social worker and a peace activist from the city in Italy that’s been among the hardest hit by the coronavirus epidemic.

Bergamo is a city of about 120,000, planted on a Lombardy hilltop between Verona and Milan, with a splendid old city surrounded by a 16th-century Venetian wall. There’s a dance named after Bergamo, the food in the restaurants is superb (of course) and the city’s beauty is pervasive.

Polini lived in Israel for about two years during the second intifada. She is a frequent visitor here and in the territories and has been active in the Italian Friends of Neve Shalom since she wrote a research paper about that Jewish-Arab community, located in the Judean Hills. Here’s what she wrote me this week:


Bergamo, my town, is the most affected by the COVID-19 in Italy nowadays. What does this mean?

It means that something like 319 people died yesterday [Rosita’s figures are updated to March 18] in my district of Lombardy (10 million inhabitants, more or less). There were 330 deaths during the last week, compared to 23 in the same week in March last year.

To give you an idea, the local newspaper L’eco di Bergamo usually publishes two pages of death announcements every day, and now there are 10.

In three days last week, four of my friends or colleagues lost a parent of theirs. This has meant – once the person was hospitalized – not receiving updates on their condition because no visitors are allowed into the hospitals (but thanks to the willing medical staff who are doing their best to pass on messages); not being able to stay with them at the very end; and no possibility of burying them. Now it seems that it’s not easy to have a cremation either. Coffins are being gathered in churches for the time being.

And what else does this mean?

It means hearing ambulance sirens every five or 10 minutes, for hours, for days. Always. And the [tolling of] bells, the ones sounding low and slow to let us know someone’s died. This is our sad soundtrack.

Luckily the health system here in Lombardy is one of the best in Europe, but still an emergency is an emergency and resources are limited and definitely not enough. Family doctors work hard to treat people who tested positive in their homes, until serious breathing complications arise.

In the hospitals, we cannot properly take care of everybody; medical supplies and staff are not sufficient. Yesterday, 27 doctors and four nurses from the Italian Army came to give support to the ones on duty. And doctors and nurses get sick too, of course; a 47-year-old nurse died last week. In recent days, we have started to send patients out to other regions and …..

The toll of infected people still increases every day: 4,305 in Bergamo district as of now (545 more since yesterday). The increase is natural since the lockdown just started a week ago – so we need to wait another week to check whether it has been effective or not. And we wait, while time is taking on a completely new and unusual shape.

What does this mean for our everyday life?

Now, only grocery stores, pharmacies and banks are open. Most workers are now home, on paid or unpaid leave. Many work from home; many are not working at all.

Now more than ever, we know here in Europe and elsewhere that we are all connected, and all of us connected to our planet and its well-being.

I wonder what more we need to understand.

I hope other countries will learn from our experience and will be as cautious as possible now.

It is painful, shocking and tough, for medical staff, for families losing their loved ones. It is heartbreaking to think of the generation in their 80s dying alone. They have sacrificed so much to build their personal lives and our country during a century that was not always kind to them.

Tragedies happen every day everywhere in the world, in places with fewer resources and options for response. My hope is that the virus won’t spread where there are more vulnerable people in less favorable circumstances. And while I write this, I simply think of some refugee hotspots in Greece, for example. It is just around the corner.

We in Italy are trying our best to stop the spread of the virus and to manage our emotions, which are even more intense than usual. There’s a lot of solidarity among people and creativity being used to find solutions to everyday problems and to the isolation. Enduring all this will not be easy, but it’s not impossible either. I think that we have to be awake and clear about getting information and developing our own ideas, but I also believe we need more tenderness and understanding these days.

It is sweet and powerful to think that today, the more you take care of yourself the more you exercise your duty and right as a citizen to take care of those who are around you. And “around” is a wide, wide, wide concept.


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