An Early Good Friday, at Last: When Too Many Bells Toll in Italy

Andrea Pin is Associate Professor of Comparative Public Law, University of Padua

Covid-19 is posing very serious challenges. Time will tell if Italian society, culture, and faith learn the lesson.

As I explained earlier, the lockdown in Italy has pushed people to find new ways to socialize and practice their faith.  From being the primary means of communication only among millennials, the internet has become a viable solution for people of all ages.  Meanwhile, people chitchat from their balconies. It has become so popular that people routinely stop tele-working, cooking, or watching Netflix, or whatever they were doing, at fixed times to go to their windows and sing together. They may even flash-mob together only to clap and cheer up. The result has been a transgenerational blending of technology with old-fashioned window-to-window conversation.  Media, opinionmakers, politicians, and influencers keep encouraging people to stay home and reassuring them that “#wellbefine” (“#andratuttobene”).

The blend of technological and vintage civic rites that have spontaneously developed are not blasphemous, inappropriate, or wrong.  But they are facing two formidable challenges. Time—and death.

Even as some areas and younger generations have stubbornly resisted or shown indifference, the Government is still preparing more restrictions.  It is not entirely clear what they will consist of since most economic activities are already inaccessible to the general public, with the exceptions of food shops and newspaper sellers.  Public parks have been closed, so citizens are barred from even strolling around.  It is safe to say, however, that more limitations will mean fewer economic activities, deeper economic losses, and more uncertainties for many families.  But the worst news is that these measures are likely to last.  We’ll easily spend Easter in isolation, and schools may not resume until May—if they reopen before September. The earliest lockdowns were introduced in the Northern regions in late February, which makes two months of almost total isolation. How long can one resist when there is no air to breathe?

Of course, political controversies and debates around the virus and its casualties have mushroomed these days. Many find explanations for Italy’s record-high number of victims in the Italy’s lack of preparation, and others blame local bodies, the ineffective health strategy that governments adopted, or the relatively large aged population in Italy. But such arguments cannot cope with what Italian TV is broadcasting every day. The blog post I wrote some ten days ago spoke of 1,000 deaths. By the time it was released, the number had increased to 2,500. As I wrote this post, the number was 3,000 and counting. Now I am working on it after proofreading (ICLRS’s folks are quite fast, but proofreading and publication still require some time), and the victims are above 4,000. Check the updated figure yourself when you read this. [7,503 as of March 25. – ed.]

Regions with an excellent healthcare system are overwhelmed. They send patients who need intensive care elsewhere, even to distant regions, by using helicopters.  Many die while waiting in line for lung scans.  COVID-19 is so infectious that patients, doctors, and nurses are constantly wearing what appear to be spacesuits.  When a patient’s condition becomes critical—which on average happens very quickly, within four days from hospitalization—there is practically no way to bring her comfort.  While medical personnel scramble around from one emergency to the next, no relative can sit beside her for safety reasons. The way that many must say goodbye to their loved ones is by phone, to the extent that tablets and mobile devices are being offered to hospitals to facilitate such sad communications.

Alas, misery does not end with dying. Deaths are so frequent that the church bells may toll just once a day, instead of each time a person passes away. No funerals are allowed. Burials rites are limited to essentials. In some areas, funeral companies cannot handle so much business. Coffins have been stored in churches that now are empty, but it is still not enough. The Military is carrying most coffins away with trucks to empty spaces and make room for new ones. You may die quick and alone, be given almost no funeral, and be carried away from your family. Some doctors that are working night and day have rightly said that it is like dying during war.

After the Pope encouraged priests to stay close to their flocks and walked through the heart of Rome to pray for Jesus to deliver Italy from the disease, a debate has ensued on the decision to suspend Catholic masses and freeze religious ceremonies. But such debate doesn’t seem to catch the heart of the matter. The fact is that death has come to visit Italian society, culture, and religiosity. Its massive tolls, the brutal way the virus claims lives, and the extra strain the disease has put on managing burials are not merely challenging the Italian way of life, social removal from death and pain, and normal habits of socializing. They are questioning even the processes that we have put in place to fight it. In the areas that are facing the highest fatality rates, ambulance sirens are so frequent that you can’t or don’t feel like singing from the balcony. You certainly don’t clap while your neighbors are mourning their dead or praying for their lives.  How can you share #wellbefine? Who is we, after all? How can “we” include those who will not survive or will lose their loved ones?

The COVID-19 crisis challenges religious and nonreligious people alike. Everybody was accustomed to life wherein death played a very small role; now everyone is forced to ask what he or she believes in, and whether traditions—whatever they consist of—are instruments of self-deception or adequate responses to an unexpected scenario. These questions can build new social ties as well as increase our awareness of the role of death in our lives and of what is beyond our control. Overall, this crisis can help us grow up.