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Opinion: 'We are in the midst of the worst crisis since World War II'. An Irishman in Italy on the Covid-19 nightmare

John McCourt says it’s simple: by leaving your home you are causing more deaths.

John McCourt

THIS, WITHOUT DOUBT, was the longest, most difficult weekend I’ve lived through in almost 30 years in Italy, having come here from Dublin.

On Friday, Covid-19 claimed 627 lives, on Saturday, 793, on Sunday, a further 651 bringing the official death toll to 5,476.

I believe the real number is higher. People are dying in old folks homes who have not been tested for Covid-19 and are not registered among the Covid-19 dead. They are dying at home, waiting for the health services to come to bring them to the hospital.

It’s also believed here that people are dying at home because they are choosing to stay there so they can die with loved ones around them. Yes, many of the victims were old and had health conditions but not all were. By no means.

claudio Claudio Polzoni, a member of the Italian Carabinieri law enforcement who died from coronavirus, aged just 46.

Saturday’s front page of the Eco di Bergamo (Bergamo is currently the epicentre of the Covid-19 crisis) carried a photo of Claudio Polzoni, a member of the Italian Carabinieri law enforcement who died aged just 46.

He had worked until 29 February when he took time off to come to terms with the death, also of Covid-19, of his father-in-law. He wanted to be with his wife who needed his support as she dealt, from a distance, with the death and burial of her father who, like the other victims in Bergamo, was given no funeral.

On 5 March, Claudio started to show flu symptoms and was hospitalised on 13 March. He died 72 hours later. His wife and 10-year-old daughter were not allowed to see him after his hospitalisation. Now she has to mourn him alone. Unlike most of the victims, he was young and in good health.

So too was the still-unnamed shop assistant in Brescia who went home earlier in the week with a high temperature and died at home three days later. She too had tested positive for coronavirus. She was 48.

Think what it must be like to know a loved one has died within a mile or two of their own home and then to know that he or she will be buried alone. What must it mean today for a family not to be able to come together to mourn, to support each other, to commemorate their dead? That is the reality now in Northern Italy not just for one family but for hundreds of families.

This is on your doorstep

As you read this you may think that Italy is far away. It is not. And Covid-19 travels fast. A version of this reality could come to Ireland.

While the impact of Covid-19 will be different in every country and Italy has a particularly old population, people in Ireland would do well to remember that Lombardy, the most affected region, is one of the wealthiest parts of Europe and has an excellent health service and significantly more intensive care beds, pro capita, than Ireland.

Despite this Lombardy is on its knees. Doctors and nurses are working 18-hour shifts and many of them are contracting the virus. As things stand well over a dozen doctors, many of them GPs have died.

italy-virus-outbreak-italys-epicenter Local newspaper Eco di Bergamo features several pages of coronavirus obituaries in its March 17, 2020 (AP Photo/Luca Bruno) Source: Luca Bruno

On 23 February, just one month ago, Italy had just three registered deaths from this coronavirus, three fewer than Ireland has as I write. Now we are in total lockdown and, in the words of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, in the midst of the worst crisis since World War II. Everything except non-essential factories and businesses is closed. We go out once a week to shop. And that is how we will beat this thing.

Here in Italy, we despair at seeing other countries take even longer than Italy took to go into lockdown. We despair that other governments are not learning from Italy.

Ireland needs to pay attention

Ireland is no exception to this and at both government level and individual level has got to act far more decisively. Seeing pictures of crowds on Irish beaches and at parks as though this was just an extended bank holiday is an affront to those working in the front-line, the medics, the hospital staff, the shop staff.

I am a university professor with no medical qualifications but I see what is happening around me in Italy and I read the papers. I talk to friends and increasingly hear of friends of friends, or parents of friends, who are dying of this scourge.

I say this not to frighten people but to urge them to look to Italy and be responsible. By leaving your home you will cause more deaths.

Each one of us is called to presume that we are actually infected and not trying to avoid infection, to wash our hands like we don’t want to transmit the virus, to self-distance and to stay home.

This is our fight and our responsibility. We can beat it by doing the simplest thing ever – staying within the comfort and safety of our home. How difficult can that be?

John McCourt is a professor of English literature in Università di Macerata, Italy and author of Writing the Frontier: Anthony Trollope between Britain and Ireland (Oxford University Press, 2015).

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