Fr. Willim Nellikal
Journalist, Vatican News
The World has been severely affected by the corona pandemic, how do you think the Pope is responding to it?
Vatican as a small state; its spiritual and material activities these days show the great concern the Pope has for humanity. When for the first time corona appeared in Wuhan of China Pope Francis immediately responded to it with a humanitarian gesture by sending 80,000 masks. But in early February the epidemic appeared in Italy. The Pope, in accordance with the decree of the Italian government, stopped all activities of Vatican, including the apostolic journey scheduled for Malta. Vatican joined hands with the government to execute lockdown even to the extend of stopping liturgical celebrations. The everyday live transmission of the Holy Mass though began for the Italian population by Pope, now has become a global celebration. Every day the Pontiff added a special intention in the Eucharist praying for the sick and dying, and all who are in the forefront of serving the victims of the pandemic.
The Pope walking down the streets to the Church of Saint Marcello to the foot of the ancient wooden Crucifix was an act of faith and hope to save the world from the pandemic. His special prayer service of March 27 was again a sign of his love for humanity. The Pontiff asked specific departments of Vatican to care for the pandemic patients. The official organ for charity Caritas International is now focused on the pandemic. The biggest department of Vatican for the Integral Human Development has ventured to the suffering nations through five new special committees and a directorate to work hand in glove with the national churches and the offices of Caritas.
Pope’s Charity has sent money, ventilators and masks to the affected regions of Italy, Romania and Spain. The Pontiff has asked the Conference of Italians Bishops (CEI) to stand by the government to help the sick and the dying with all resources. He has repeatedly exhorted priests and consecrated persons to work fearlessly for the suffering and dying. A couple of days ago the Pope wrote to the Popular Movements of the world, pointing out that the most affected in the crisis are the poor. So requesting the agencies to appeal the states to give a monthly allowance to the poor for survival during this crisis time.
Italy has been severely affected with so many priests, nuns and people dying every day, how does the nation understand its tragedy and respond to it?
The people of Italy are shocked and the nation is still weeping. For more than a month almost 500 people on an average have been dying. Even for this developed nation, it is a shock and definitive defeat. But the Italians have responded responsibly and positively. The decree published by the Conte regimeto to fight the virus was well received by the general public and establishments alike. There is no much police force needed to maintain the lockdown here. Employees of most of the firms are able to work online from homes. Italy’s schools too provide online education. Essential supplies and services are maintained well.
The Italians were caught unaware by the virus, particularly the industrial northern regions– Lombardia, Veneto and Emilia Romagna. This was the centre of the pandemic in this country. And there was a heavy loss of life – over 27,000! Most of them are elderly people. Hundreds more are infected and in critical conditions, adding to the death toll day by day. And yet we can see the solidarity and concern of people with the suffering nation, in silence and confined to the lock down, abiding by new orders.
There is a feeling that the whole medical system collapsed at the onslaught of the virus; why did that happen?
I do not think that the medical system (Sistema Sanitario Nationale) of the country collapsed during the crisis, because all the patients were taken care of by the government and the different state agencies. There were limitations due to the fact that Covid-19 was a sudden onslaught. But Italy has big well equipped hospitals. Emergency centres were opened as the need arose. One of the world fair centres in Milan was converted into a hospital meant exclusively for pandemic patients. All the infected were cared for and the dead were given honourable burial. When the death rate increased, bodies were cremated, but each body was carried in a coffin in the European way with all the last rites performed.
The negative reports appearing in the social media came mostly from anti-government sectors or from some migrants. I saw a few negative comments by Indians in Whatsapp and Facebook against the Italian government, the people and the national medical system. They are very unfair and untrue! Italy has a full cover medical security for their citizens and more than 70% of them are beneficiaries. Their senior citizens enjoy rare medical privileges till death.
There is an impression that many were abandoned to die by the system; was it because the nation was unprepared to tackle the virus? Or was it because of lack of discipline required for the lockdown to be successful?
True that Italy was not prepared for such a massive attack of the virus. But immediate care was given to the infected in the best way possible, fighting a disease that has no medicine. Italy accepted help from Cuba, Japan, France, China and even Russia. Medical teams came from these countries. Ventilators, masks and supportive medicines were bought. Germany made a fraternal gesture by sending their airborne military ambulance, A-310 Medivac. It air-lifted many patients to specialized hospitals for respiratory care. The Italian government worked together with the Church and NGOs and toiled tirelessly round the clock to minimise loss of lives. On 4th May, Italy and Vatican will start the second phase of fight against the virus. Today the cure rate is high, the spread is less and the death toll is falling. The expression used by some like ‘left abandoned to die’ is not true! Vatican Media affirm that every patient had a bed and essential care-system. And the thousands who died were given honourable burial or cremation in coffins.
Italians are known for their culture and discipline. They are very sociable and responsible like other Europeans. Once the government published the decree on the crisis, the people stood together and responded very well to the lockdown. They stayed at home and those who could worked on line. Schools and universities continue with their academic programs online.
The few who were fleeing Italy in fear of the virus, when blocked at the airport started venting negative feelings against the government, calling it inefficient, and said Italians are indisciplined. Such rumours went around in the Social media.
The so-called developed countries paid the heavy price of loss of many to the pandemic. In Korea, India and other countries there have been fewer deaths.. Has that anything to do with the market economy and globalisation?
Yes! Both the market economy and globalization have much to do with this epidemic becoming a pandemic. The world is moving at a mad pace for business profit and tourism. There are also many refugees and migrants due to wars, violence and climate change. There is no secret that Chinese invasion into many developed nations for business has caused the global spread from Wuhan, which was the source of the Corona virus. Italy is one of the countries where the Chinese come in large numbers for leather products, fashion, dress making, pharmaceuticals and even religious articles. They also come as tourists in big groups, more to the commercial North than to Rome. Similarly, there are also Italians travelling to China for business reasons. Naturally, the commercial hub fell prey to the contagion.
In the novel Plague of Camus there is a call for an earth quake in Oran, the place where the plague happened? Do you think this pandemic is a portal for a new world order?
I do not believe in any conspiracy theories behind this pandemic. Viruses have appeared in history time and again. Scientists have found anti-bodies to fight them. I believe science will succeed soon and save mankind from this virus too. But this crisis is going to cause a global recession that will have grave economic and social impacts. Every section of social life and work are at a standstill. It will take some time to revive, until a medicine is found.
While we mourn the deaths and grumble about the restrictions, Mother Earth experiences a spell of silence and calm. We see cleaner air and rejuvenated nature. This is not being fatalistic, but looking at God-given nature with love. I believe that from this chaos a better concern will arise for the common home, Earth, and for our brothers and sisters, particularly those who are poor and marginalized.
As a catholic priest, what is your interpretation of the epidemic bringing all the liturgy of the Catholic Church to a halt with all our churches closed for even the Holy Week?
True, the Liturgy of the church is held up,! There is uncertainty prevailing, and the ban can be prolonged in countries that are more affected. But do not think that the Liturgy is dead. We have the possibility of private celebrations. For example, Italy being a majority Christian country, priests discovered places to celebrate Holy Mass for small communities maintaining permissible distance. The media-way of celebrating and participating in Liturgy is also a timely relief. The Church has always sanctioned alternatives for sacraments like confession with absolutions granted in common, or with true repentance seeking God’s mercy. The faithful are also getting used to this new way of being spiritually alive. A good example for it is the availability of Pope Francis, the universal head, online every day to the world in spiritual communion. His celebrations are short and meaningful. “Even if we do not understand Italian, we can easily pray with Pope Francis,” is an expression heard from several people.
May God heal the world and strengthen the hands of those who toil to alleviate the sufferings of their brothers and sisters.