In Corona Crisis, Americans Can Learn from Italians about the Human Spirit

This poster respresents health care workers trying to save Italian lives. It says, “To all of you, thank you.”

I am going to write something that counters current conventional wisdom. It has to do with a country I love, Italy.

Because of Italy’s high COVID-19 death rate, some U.S. leaders have criticized the Italian response to the crisis. That criticism ignores key hurdles Italy confronts: a large population over the age of 65 and some of the most densely populated urban areas in Europe.

What critics are missing is something else essential: what we can learn from our Italian friends about the strength of the human spirit.

Franco Malatesta, 83, is in a high risk group for the virus and doesn’t go out anymore. He stays in his apartment and his daughter leaves him meals. (Photo by Judith Valente)

I have been talking with my 83-year-old friend Franco Malatesta, who lives in my late grandmother’s city of Cassino. He has not left his apartment since the government imposed a national lockdown more than two weeks ago.

I asked Franco if he needed anything.

“Niente,” he said. Nothing.

His daughter leaves him cooked food and groceries every few days, even though she can’t enter his apartment under the government’s ‘social distancing’ directive.

In something well worth modeling here, Italy remains a country of strong family connections and deep community ties. Several generations of Italian families still live in the same town.

A plethora of associations, from the church-related to the political or historical, provide readymade networks of support.

Those ties have helped Italians respond to the crisis with courage, beauty and grace.

From Guardiagrele, one of my favorite cities in the region of Abruzzo, my friends Pierino Sciubba and Giovanna DiCresenzo sent a photo of Capuchin friars marching through the town’s empty streets. The friars defied a stay-at-home directive to offer a blessing to each home they passed.

During the crisis, Capuchin friars walk through empty streets of Guardiagrele in south-central Italy, blessing homes. (Photo by Pierine Sciubba)

To buoy spirits, harried health care workers in the north of the country play the national anthem over a loudspeaker in an overcrowed infection ward.

In the skies over Rome, an Air Force plane traces the Tricolore - the green, white and red colors of the nation’s flag - as a recording of Luciano Pavarotti;s soaring rendition of Puccini’s aria “Nessun dorma” plays in the distance.

And who hasn’t been stirred by the sight of neighbors confined to their apartments serenading each other from their balconies and windowsills with arias and patriotic songs?

My friend and fellow Benedictine lay associate Lori King sent a message from Assisi, the city of St. Francis. “People aren’t stockpiling. They are tranquil. They are very worried, but they are responding with courage and a sense of humor” Lori says.

“It’s in a time like this I remember what I love about Italy — it’s the heart of the Italian people,” she adds.

Italians, known for the love of chiacchiera (chit chat), are conversing and singing from windowsills and balconies.

Italians don’t like calling their imposed confinement ‘isolation.’ They prefer the term “social distancing,” Lori explains, because it “still denotes something that is social, being in solidarity with one another.”

Makes sense for people who are among the most sociable human beings in the world.

Through all of this, Pope Francis has emerged as an important voice of comfort and hope. Three times since the crisis began he set times for people of all faiths to pray in unison for an end to the pandemic.

He left the bubble of the Vatican to make a solo pilgrimage to two churches in Rome associated with miraculous cures.

It was deeply moving to me this week to see the solitary figure of this octogenarian man limp along in the rain to pray for an end to the epidemic at an outdoor altar in a deserted St. Peter’s Square.

Capturing the emotions of so many, he began by saying “For weeks it has been evening.”

He reminded us we can use this crisis as “a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not.” Amen.

Pope Francis walks toward St. Peter’s Basilica during an internationally televised service to pray for an end to the corona virus pandemic. (Photo by Alessandra Tarantino, AP)

Did the Italian government get some things wrong? Could they have reacted more quickly and efficiently? Surely. But few predicted how virulently and swiftly this novel virus would spread. Certainly officials in our American government didn’t quickly appreciate the virus’ deadly strength. They took more than a month to react.

So let’s not be so fast to fault our Italian friends. They have survived war, famine, pestilence and desperate times for far more centuries than the U.S. has existed as a country. Maybe, just maybe they have something to teach Americans about the resilience of the human spirit.

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Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.

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Judith Valente

Judith Valente

Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.

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