Coronavirus in Italy and Sweden“I haven’t heard a child in weeks. They’re all locked away.”

As heard on Today with Sean O'Rourke

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The news from Italy is stark: the country is now the world’s epicentre for Covid-19 infections and deaths. The northern part of the country has been hardest hit and that’s where Irishwoman Jacintha McCarthy has lived for the past 17 years. Bergamo, where Jacintha lives, has been under strict lockdown for several weeks. By contrast, Sweden has imposed the fewest restrictions of any EU country to date. Journalist Philip O’Connor lives and works there. Seán O’Rourke spoke to both of them this morning.

Jacintha gave Seán a grim overview of life in Bergamo, a beautiful city she suggested a lot of Irish people would know, nestled between Lake Garda, Como and Milan.

“Hearing at the weekend, between one to two persons dying every two minutes. It’s just a terrible place to be right now.”

And the numbers belie the fact that the people dying are friends of Jacintha and her family, or friends of their friends. Then there are the doctors, forced by a dearth of ventilators and resuscitation equipment to make impossible decisions regarding who lives and who dies.

“Once an Italian person here makes the Irish equivalent of a 999 call, their loved one is picked up alone, brought in an ambulance alone. If they don’t make it, they die alone. They’re taken away from our city alone and they’re cremated alone. Generations of families are being wiped out here, Seán.”

The deserted streets and strict lockdown requirements mean that families have to stay at home all day and when a lot of residents live in apartments with no outdoor space, it makes life even more difficult. Jacintha told Seán about an elderly man who heard her children playing in the back garden:

“He said, ‘Signora, are they your children I hear in the garden?’ And I nodded at him. And he said, ‘Signora, I just want to stay here and listen to them laugh and play. I haven’t heard a child in weeks. They’re all locked away.’ ”

Jacintha firmly believes that the restrictions Italians are living under have to be obeyed in order for them to survive the pandemic. And she hopes other countries are paying attention.

“It’d break my heart if Ireland went through this because I couldn’t live through it twice.”

2,000 kilometres north of Bergamo, Philip O’Connor tells Seán that things are very different: most schools are open, the shops are all open and, at a time when neighbours Norway, Denmark and Finland have closed schools and borders, Sweden remains remarkably open. Social distancing happens, but Philip reckons that happens all the time anyway.

“I usually say that social distancing is otherwise known as living in Scandinavia. These are very, very big countries geographically and people don’t tend to get as close to one another in places like this.”

Sweden doesn’t appear to be denying the seriousness of the epidemic and they’re not saying that other countries’ efforts are wrong, it just seems that their emphasis is different.

“So they would claim to be a little bit better prepared than maybe Bergamo might be, than Dublin might be, than London might be and they’re putting their faith and their trust in that.”

You can hear Seán’s full discussion with Jacintha and Philip here.

And the HSE’s Covid-19 advice and information page is here.

Niall Ó Sioradáin

© The Listener 2020

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