Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Pandemic Diaries

A new series. Episode 1: Views from Spain, France, and Ireland
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With this post I want to start a new series: Pandemic Diaries, descriptions from readers of what life is like in your town, city, country. Send them in — I will keep your identities confidential, unless for some reason you want me to tell people who you are. I will move all testimonies and field reports to this Pandemic Diaries subject heading, including those from medical professionals. Today, I have two reports to lead with.

The first came in from an American reader living in Spain:

In Spain, we watched as China and the rest of Asia suffered. We said another flu from Asia and went on our way. Then it reached Europe, in particular, Italy. As the number of cases in the northern part of Italy skyrocketed, we sat on our hands and did nothing. Then cases started trickling in one by one.

I was in Madrid the last week of February. I believe four cases were recorded officially during that time. Today there are roughly 6,000 cases in Madrid and nearly 400 deaths. In total, there are 14,000 cases in Spain and the uptick this week seems to be around 2,000-3000 new cases per day. This number should eventually lower given we are four days into home confinement. What does that mean? Everything is shut down from public beaches or parks in the city to schools, offices, bars, restaurants, etc. Everything. We may leave the house to do the following: (i) go to the hospital or doctor’s office, (ii) buy food from grocery store, (iii) buy medicine from pharmacy, (iv) assist the elderly, or (v) to work. That last one really refers to those working at said pharmacies, grocery stores etc. Majority of folks are working from home. While out, we must remain one meter minimum distance. Military and national guard are roaming the streets and setting up controls to enforce these measures which can result in fines and/or jail time depending on the gravity of the offense. It remains to be seen if this will work but we’ll likely be in this state of alert until after Holy Week. Initial period is for 15 days but we are told this will not be enough time. The next few weeks will be long ones.

I’ve watched the US gov react quicker than European counterparts, but in talking to friends and family back home, it appears US citizens aren’t taking the measures or the virus itself very seriously. Many of us made the same mistake. It will be interesting to see how this transpires. The USA is far more individualistic than Spain but in crisis (like 9/11), the country unites. I’ve been inspired by the unity and solidarity among the Spanish people (the politicians are another story, for another post). Spaniards are reporting those few who do not follow the measures. Every night at 10pm, folks from their windows and terraces applaud the health workers across the country who are exhausted, overworked and scared but continue saving lives despite lack of resources. It’s quite moving. I hope the same type of solidarity for over there. I’ve prepared my family back home but it will take everyone chipping in. My guess is, if these patterns continue, [my home state] will be under lockdown as well. Streets will be sprayed daily. Life will temporarily change.

This is Calle Larios in downtown Málaga. major shopping/bar/restaurant hub which at any time of year will is full of locals/tourists.

The second is from a reader in Paris:

Just to relay some info from someone now in lockdown in France. My wife, kids and I are well – we live in the outer suburbs of Paris and so have some space to breath as opposed to people cooped up in apartments in Paris and its banlieues. There is always the concern that maybe we have the virus, that it’s incubating in us, because we’ve all been out and about these past few weeks…We’re probably not alone in thinking this right now. The authorities expect a sharp increase in cases this weekend, five days after the lockdown went in to place this past Tuesday at noon.

The government has been announcing measures piecemeal: last Thursday came the announcement that all schools, from nursery school to university were to close starting this past Monday. Saturday evening, the prime minister says bars/restaurants/public gatherings were to close. Monday the President announces a stay-at-home policy avoiding the word “confinement” despite declaring we’re at war. We’re in lockdown, no going outside without a self-proscribed attestation slip (seriously) for the next 15 days. This will not be over within 15 days, of course.

The schools are indeed closed but elementary school teachers are requisitioned to receive the children of health care workers (doctors, nurses, etc.) who are being – what’s the term? mobilized? From what I understand it’s all hands on deck – doctors, nurses, med school interns to the hospitals; med school students and nursing students are brought in to handle the emergency phone lines. One of the main public (very big) hospitals in my part of the banlieues has set up tents, lots of tents, outside the main building in the parking lots. To receive the patients they’re expecting…

The government hasn’t been strict enough and hasn’t been serious enough from the get-go. They allowed the municipal elections to be held this past Saturday. That was a big mistake. The government knew how grave the situation is and went forward with this anyway. Moreover, due to lax enforcement, even the lockdown, ends up as a half-measure. The Italian scenario is playing out in the east of France, in Alsace-Lorraine and Franche-Comté, and has been for the past week or so. I have on good source (my wife’s cousin is a police officer in Strasbourg), that the hospitals in Strasbourg are so saturated with virus victims right now that they stopped treating virus victims over 70 years old. This is the triage done in Italian hospitals: they only focus on those who have a chance of survival. This will happen here in Paris, maybe it already is.

I, myself, am only focused on what are the essentials for me: my wife and children are safe and provided for so far, my wife & I will be doing the grocery shopping for my in-laws who are too old to leave their home, I now have been telling family members in the US what’s happening here, and I’ve been absorbed helping my company as we all switch to working from home. Family and work obligations are enough for me. The church bells ring everyday but there is no mass to go to. Debates and issues of importance of a mere two weeks ago seem like from a bygone era. I can hardly even process them, they seem so incongruous in light of today’s concerns.

Hope all is well for you and your family. Be safe and be sure to wash your hands!

Please, readers, share what it looks like where you are. What it looks like, and what it feels like. I’m at rod — at — amconmag — dot — com. Put PANDEMIC DIARIES in your subject line.

UPDATE: This from a Catholic priest in Ireland:

The government has been taking this crisis more seriously than the U.S., but the virus is already well established here . In the Republic we have 366 cases and 2 death so far, with 74 of those being newly diagnosed today. We also face the additional problem that the North of Ireland is governed by the UK, and basically there has been no response to the epidemic yet in the Northern part of the island, where everything is still open.

As of last Thursday all schools are closed. Pubs have also been closed. Meetings of more than 100 people have been banned. As of last Friday the Catholic Church has cancelled all Masses except for funerals (which must be small). So now we have had a Sunday and our national patron’s feast day without any public Mass.

Yesterday was St Patrick’s Day and the Prime Minister and the President addressed the nation in sort of State of the Union addresses.

Neither of them mentioned anything religious or spiritual. The President (who is a cuddly Communist) did mention the man Patrick and his “transformative spirit” and that he was an “apostle,” but didn’t speak of his primary role as a Christian missionary and bishop. The Prime Minister (our first openly gay leader) didn’t mention anything religious.

Obviously the government must give priority to the healthcare workers, keeping the supply chains open is important for us as an island nation. Once cannot but agree with them that our healthcare workers deserve support and that we need a community spirit. However Christianity and religion in general has been completely written out of the narrative. When the government reduces all services to the minimum necessary, religion is simply not necessary. As was seen in the two major referenda over the last few years that legalized gay “marriage” and abortion, most people, and even many thousands of Sunday Mass-goers, no longer accept the most basic of Christian beliefs. As a Church we have strayed from our belief in martyrdom. The applause that Scorsese’s recent movie Silence received in Catholic circles, despite the fact that it denies the value of martyrdom, is a symptom that shows the difficulty that even the leaders of the Catholic Church have in accepting the reality of the Last Things.

In Ireland the Church was uncritically accepting her gradual descent into absolute irrelevance. Few teach the Faith or say anything that could offend anyone. Church teachings are at best ignored, if not ridiculed. Now that a serious challenge is facing us, it is becoming obvious just how irrelevant we have allowed ourselves to become.

I don’t pretend to have the answers. I can see the argument for canceling public Masses, I see the value in priests celebrating behind closed doors, I appreciate that many will benefit from liturgies that are live-streamed. However I feel that we have rolled over too easily. A parish needs to do more than 30 minutes work a day in this time. Scripture tells us that “man does not live on bread alone,” yet the Sacraments are being denied to people.

Surely it would be possible to celebrate Mass in the church parking area where people need not even get out of their cars, even if Communion wasn’t distributed, it would be something. Surely it would be possible to visit people in their homes and bring Communion, even if it did mean a certain risk of life. Surely, if it is not possible to keep some of the church building open, we have many huge churches, it would be possible to set up a temporary altar on a trailer in a public place and allow people to participate in Eucharistic Adoration. Some sort of General Absolution or drive through Confession, should be possible. Other creative options should be tested. In Italy some hospitals have distributed iPads to patients so that they can talk to their families as they are sick and dying. I know that Sacramental Churches cannot administer Confession or the Sacrament of the Sick virtually. However nothing stops a priest (or indeed any other Christian) being available to talk to and listen to someone who is gravely sick in hospital over FaceTime or Skype.

Even if we simply base our reasoning on “unrighteous Mammon” we must face the financial reality that most parishes in Ireland have little by the way of endowments or savings and simply cannot survive financially if there is no Sunday collection for more than a month (I heard that 3 weeks without a collection would wipe out 60% of the parishes in Dublin). But even if the parishes go bankrupt, I think that reopening the locked doors sometime in the summer and ring the bells to summon the people, who will come?

I think that all of us need to pray that the Churches can face this epidemic with courage. Not everyone is called to martyrdom, and people need to use their intelligence, ministers need to be careful not to spread the virus, we also know a lot more about contagion than was the case in the Black Death or the Spanish Flu, however we do also need to have Christians who risk their lives, like St. Damien of Molokai, and find creative ways to minister in this time, The hour of our death witness an extremely serious battle between Christ and Satan, anybody can go either to heaven or hell, and people need to be helped in this hour. Not to mention all those who are frightened or feel abandoned. I know that nobody wants to die, but none of us is immortal. If this virus primarily kills old men, that means that many Irish priests will die anyway. Surely it is better to spend our last weeks tending to the flock of Christ than catching up on boxed sets on Netflix!

Rodney Stark, the famous sociologist of religion, points to the Christians bravery when facing the plague as being one of the factors that conquered Pagan Rome. However today we have a crisis of authenticity and suffer from what seems to be a willful blindness of the eschatological realm. We run a real risk of being “weighed in the balances and found wanting” (Dan 5:27).

My God, he’s right. There has to be something for the people. Maybe not masses crowded into churches, but something, anything.