Correspondent’s diary – In Italy, the coronavirus steals even the last farewell | Europe
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FOR A SOCIETY with legendarily strong family ties, and one in which physical and emotional closeness are inseparable, the enforced isolation brought about by the coronavirus is distressing enough. But covid-19 has done something more: it has torn the dying from their relatives and friends in a way that is worse than distressing. It is straziante, which an Italian dictionary defines as causing “a very acute physical or moral pain, beyond any capacity for tolerance”.
Take the case of the Mercalli family, from Vigevano, a town south of Milan near the river Po with a magnificent arcaded piazza and a 16th-century cathedral. Luciano Mercalli was the owner of the kind of medium-sized manufacturing firm around which the Italian economy is built. Founded in the 1950s at the start of Italy’s post-war boom, Cerim makes machinery for making shoes. Mr Mercalli, in common with tens of thousands of other Italians, developed the symptoms of covid-19. They grew worse. In early March an ambulance was called to take him to hospital. “I watched him as he was getting into the ambulance, and that was it,” his daughter, Anna, later wrote in a letter to the Milanese newspaper, Corriere della Sera. “A good-bye wave and he was gone.”
For the next 12 days Mr Mercalli lay in hospital until, on March 15th, he died, aged 78. But neither Anna nor any of his other loved ones could visit him for fear they, too, might catch the dauntingly contagious disease. “I am haunted by the thought of him dying alone in that bed. Was he frightened? Did he suffer? Did his very lovely blue eyes weep?” his daughter asked.
In a country where many of the elderly live with, or close to, their children and grandchildren, tens of thousands of relatives and friends of the dead are being denied closure. “Let us pray for the many people who are dying alone, without being able to say goodbye to their loved ones,” Pope Francis tweeted. “Let us pray also for the families who cannot accompany their loved ones on that journey,” he added.
“If you want to understand Italians, you have to understand their physicality,” says Luca Vullo, an actor-director and the author of a book on the Italians’ non-verbal communication. Here, it is unexceptional to sign off a letter to an acquaintance of the opposite sex with baci (kisses). If you really wish to convey affection, you need to ratchet up to un abbraccio (a hug) or un abbraccione (a big hug). The concept of invading body space, dear to northern Europeans and North Americans, just does not exist in Italy. At breakfast time, people cheerfully jostle one another at the bar to get at their cappuccino and cornetto as they do in a myriad other contexts. Whereas in Britain and several other countries the social distancing recommended for the duration of the pandemic is two metres, here the most the government felt it could get away with was one metre. Even that is widely—and quite unwittingly—ignored, which may be one reason for the alarming rate of contagion.
Yet in the midst of what the prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, has called Italy’s “darkest hour”, Italians have been deprived of their ability to sit with their loved ones at a time when they most need a kiss on the forehead and a squeeze of the hand. In another letter to the Corriere, a man described how his mother, who is in quarantine, had heard of the death of his father; how she “learned of the disappearance of the man with whom she had spent more than sixty years of her life from a landing, in a mask.”
And when it is all over, the relatives and friends of the victims often cannot even accompany them to the cemetery or crematorium. Funerals, too, are banned along with assemblies of all kinds. In some areas like Bergamo, north of Milan, the morgues and mortuaries have reached capacity, so lines of military lorries have been sent in to cart away the coffins for unceremonious disposal. Giorgio Gori, Bergamo’s centre-left mayor, said on March 24th that more than a hundred people a day were dying in the city and surrounding province. “We’ve asked for help from undertakers in other regions, notably Emilia and Trento, and the army has helped us by transporting coffins to crematoriums in other cities.”
Roberta Zaninoni, whose father Giuseppe died in Alzano Lombardo, a town near Bergamo, said the undertakers there were stacking up coffins in the churches. On a midnight visit to her family, the undertaker who had taken possession of her father’s body had told them it would take two or three weeks for it to be cremated. “Just today, I have closed 63 coffins,” he said.