Coronavirus in Italy: Solidarity in the time of disease
March 18, 2020
Italians affected by the coronavirus outbreak are describing the situation as "being in a war." With parts of the country in virtual lockdown, young volunteers are providing a little solace, especially for the elderly.
Rome's up-and-coming neighborhood of Pigneto, just like other rapidly gentrifying areas in the city's east, has two souls that coexist but seldom mingle.
There are the long-term residents of the council homes built decades ago, who hang out in the local bars or read newspapers on benches in the pedestrian areas. As the coronavirus began spreading from the north of Italy to the rest of the country, they were the first to disappear from sight as the government advised older citizens to stay indoors.
Then you have the young artists, creatives and freelancers that normally crowd its cafes and bars. At first, they attempted to get on with life as normal as an astounded Italy struggled to come to terms with the necessity of stopping all social contact. A strict lock-down was then imposed last Wednesday, closing all non-essential shops and services.
While keeping them physically apart from each other, COVID-19 has also brought the two somewhat closer together, in a country that has become the worst-affected in Europe with over 2,500 deaths.
Volunteers out in force
Young people aged between 25 and 30 from a local cultural association called Sparwasser, set up an initiative to help elderly residents — who are following the most stringent self-isolation rules — with their shopping and other errands. Other groups in Rome and elsewhere around the country soon followed in their footsteps.
"We launched the call for volunteers in the neighborhood before the shutdown, when the elderly were being encouraged to stay at home, but we could see many people were still out on the streets," said Diana Armento, one of the project's coordinators. "In just three days, more than 200 people signed up. We went from four to five calls a day to 20 and more," added the 30-year old, who works for a publishing house.
She explained that volunteers are usually matched with an elderly person who lives nearby, both to keep track of movements in case of contagion, and to ensure that the volunteer does not have to travel too far to deliver the shopping.
"We also try to keep the person's habits unchanged by going to their favorite supermarket, or asking them what brands they prefer," said Diana. There is no physical contact between the volunteers and those they assist, as the shopping and any change due are left on their doorstep.
"A lot of them really want to see your face, they wish they could hug you. They come out to the balcony instead," Diana said.
Lonely and confused
There's a basic need among the elderly to communicate, Diana said. "On the phone, you can tell they really need to talk. The spend all day in front of the television and either they get scared, or they don't believe what's happening. I know an elderly woman who spends the entire day praying, thinking it is a punishment from God."
Other groups of volunteers in the city and beyond have set up similar initiatives.
"There is a huge need, and the local authorities alone are unable to respond adequately," said Alberto Campailla, who heads an association to help the city's poor with legal and material assistance, including access to food banks. Its volunteers are now delivering food in Ciampino, on the outskirts of Rome, while the association is coming up with ways to keep its food distribution going through home deliveries. Some local authorities in the capital have opened telephone helplines and Facebook groups where citizens can find relevant local initiatives and information.
In Biccari, a small town in the region of Puglia in southern Italy, 2,800 people usually live in close contact. Children play in the town square and the elderly sit outside local bars, while passers-by stop to talk to shop owners.
Getting through it together
"There is a strong sense of community here," said Gianfilippo Mignogna, the town's mayor. "Every encounter is an occasion for a greeting, a question. The interruption of all contact is felt very much."
The town has set up a number for the elderly to call should they need help with groceries, medicines, and other errands. The service, which was started by a local 200-member cooperative, is now supported by the municipality. While there are no known cases of coronavirus among the town's residents, there are concerns for what might happen should the disease take hold here. The nearest hospital is 30 kilometers away in Foggia and the health care system in southern Italy is not as efficient as in the north, where it's also reached its limits.
In San Leo, a tiny hamlet with a medieval fortress perched on top of a rocky spur in Emilia Romagna, one of the worst-affected regions, solidarity in a very close-knit community helps the elderly get through isolation.
"We started by delivering shopping and medicine, but the other day someone wanted a crossword puzzle and the local newsagent was shut," said Marta Ciucci, a 32-year-old architect who runs a tourism cooperative. She says that the four shops that have stayed open in the town's historic center — where only about 100 people live — are working mostly on credit.
"The idea is to make sure everyone knows that there are people who are available and willing to help," she said.