– Aurelio Porfiri

Everyone, the general public and the media are asking questions in these very strange days of the Covid-19 pandemic. As you all know, Italy was strongly affected, even though at the present time, that is from mid-April onwards, the numbers are constantly declining, except for the unfortunate deaths that are happening. In any case, we may safely assert that there is a downtrend. This is quite reassuring.

But people keep asking. One of them is about who is responsible for this pandemic, how it happened and if is there anyone to blame for it. More and more people are putting forth reasons about who likely is responsible for it. This will be a subject matter that will not leave us in the near future.

Then there is the question about the lethality of the virus. Just follow me on this. Counting the number of infected and the number of deaths, it seems the lethality in Italy is quite high, close to 10%. As I have already mentioned several times, the infection in Italy was not homogenous, it was very strong in northern Italy, especially in the Lombardy region, and milder in central and southern Italy, including Rome where I reside. But even if the number of infections was not so high, the psychological toll was homogenous in the whole country. Returning to numbers: recently more and more scientists are telling us that the number of infected people in Italy, indeed, is much higher, maybe 10 times higher. So this means that the lethality is much lower and this is another question in the air.

Then there are questions about the dictates of experts, the virologists that are in all the newspapers and media every day and at every hour of the day, telling things that sometimes contradict each other. And because they see the world only from the point of view of the virus, very often their assertions are scary: you have to stay home for longer than imagined, never see your grandparents again, never touch your spouse to block the infection…now, I don’t mean that what they say is all wrong, but this is a problem with so-called experts: very often they see the world only from one angle. If I have to listen to an expert in traffic-related injuries, I should never cross a street because we know that we may incur injuries from car accidents. But how can we go on living like this? Of course we need to minimize the risk, but we also need to live a normal life.

But there is a question here, maybe the most important at this moment: and the future? What will happen when the lockdown is lifted (in Italy, according to the last instructions from the government, we will be under lockdown until May 3rd). This is the real question now because if we mourn about the number of people affected by this tragedy, we also know that we are in the midst of an economic catastrophe. The virus present on the streets, millions of people deprived of their jobs, hundreds of thousand businesses will not be able to open again, the tourism sector (probably the most important source of income for Italy) is on its knees. Let us be blunt: the effect of the coronavirus in terms of economy and living conditions will probably be worse than the virus itself. Because this is always the problem, there is no clear sense of direction about what may happen in the “future,” what has to be opened and what has to not, what are the conditions, who can venture out without a problem and who have to stay confined. I want to give you an example. I live in a very touristic area of Rome and it is full of good restaurants. Yesterday, I met a friend of mine that I have known for many years. He is the owner of a restaurant that is very close to my building. So I asked him when his restaurant will open again and he told me that he is not sure when his restaurant will open again because of several reasons. During the months he is closed, he still needs to pay the rent and also provide for the employees (what he told me was that they can be fired at any time). He has no income during these months but he still has all the expenses. Unfortunately the Italian government does not help much in terms of financial support for businesses and as everyone is aware, taxes in Italy are overwhelming. Moreover, it also important to note that businesses like restaurants and bars will strongly be affected by social distancing rules. If you had eaten at a Chinese restaurant in Macau and in Hong Kong prior to the virus outbreak, probably you would have had no problem being seated next to total strangers, or perhaps even ate at the same table with them (something that here in Italy indeed would not be considered appropriate). Here there are restaurants that have very little space where they cram as many tables as possible. But after the virus, complying with the social distancing rules, they have to maintain a safe distance, so where there were 100 people eating, they can accommodate only 25. This means a decrease of the income which is really significant, this means firing staff, this means the inability of sustaining living expenses to run your business. I was fully aware of these problems, but I was alerted by my friend even more about this.

All the situations that I have described earlier have accelerated the importance of the use of the internet. Now people will all the more choose to order dishes online and eat them at home, in all safety, and the same will happen with many other activities, such as implementing smart working where one would work from the office only when it is absolutely necessary. This coronavirus will bring about a drastic change in our lives. Let us also consider traveling. I travel often during the year, especially between Hong Kong and Rome. But what if I have to travel now? How will it be possible to be seated for up to 13 hours in a packed airplane with a total stranger, having to be afraid every time whether this man or woman will cough or sneeze? Moreover, airline companies have to adjust to this new situation and it will also mean a loss of income for them.

These days we also hear of news that the Pope has established a commission to plan for the “future.”  Now, according to what I heard from several sources, it seems that the Pope now really wants to make it possible that people can go to churches again and participate in the Mass directly, other than following Mass on TV or the internet. In the beginning he was willing to follow the restrictions given by the government, but now he thinks that it is time to go back to the usual way of attending the liturgy, with all the necessary precautions. But the problem really now is how to implement these precautions? How to make a way that the people maintain distance when lots of churches here have simply no personnel to implement this measure.  I assume, but it is only my guess, that there will be part of the liturgy that will be temporarily suspended, as the sign of peace (and I personally will not complain about that). Furthermore, there will be certain rules for the moments where people are bound to come close to each other, like receiving communion. Possibly the priests will be asked to wear gloves. I am not sure if people will be asked to receive communion only on the hands because in this case I am sure there will be lots of people who will not be comfortable with this. Moreover, even receiving communion in the hands is not so safe at the end, because the priest has to touch the hand of the person to deposit the host, and even if he wears gloves, he has to touch many hands and this will certainly not help in preventing the spread of a possible virus. From all this I make the observation that, it is very important to test the whole population, so as to detect the presence of the virus and temporarily isolate and cure people who are potentially infecting others and leave other people free. I am sure that this also calls the Vatican to a culture of real transparency, which is one of the challenges that the Pope faces at this moment. 

One of the big problems here is infections in religious communities, especially nuns. I also have received news of spreading infection in a male religious community in a University here in Rome, run by a religious congregation. One of the priests of this community got infected because he did not protect himself adequately during the charitable activities that he undertook. After that, he started to develop symptoms like fever and cough and was assisted in his community by his superior who visited him in his room without thinking of protecting himself. This led to further spreading of the virus and to hospitalization, this is what I heard about, there is no clear information about what was happening. For example, people even with symptoms, continue to eat in a common room. So, I think the Vatican has to address this problem in a very clear way, especially regarding religious communities, who always live together and among its members have the presence of the elderly.