MILLIONS of people in Europe are now under lockdown, as the coronavirus continues to spread and the death toll mounts.
Italy and Spain remain the worst-affected countries in Europe and numbers of people infected there have surpassed those in China, where the outbreak started. Italy has now gone beyond 100,000 infections and Spain is close behind.
Many priests and members of religious communities in Italy have been infected. The virus has also struck at the heart of the Vatican, with a senior prelate, Monsignor Gianluca Pezzoli, reported to be in intensive care with Covid-19. The Pope’s Vicar General for Rome diocese, Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, was also confirmed to have tested positive for the virus, but is reported to be in a stable condition.
Monsignor Pezzoli lived at the clergy residence of Santa Marta, next to St Peter’s Basilica, which is also home to Pope Francis. The Italian press reports that the Pope is no longer eating his meals in the communal dining room but taking them alone in his room.
Pope Francis joined the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, this week in calling for an immediate global ceasefire in response to the virus. He said: “May our joint fight against the pandemic bring everyone to recognise the great need to reinforce brotherly and sisterly bonds as members of one human family.”
At least five nuns have died of the virus, including the Mother Superior of a convent in the Piedmont area, which is one of the worst affected regions of Italy. On the outskirts of Rome, 60 sisters in two convents have also tested positive and been sent into isolation.
The Italian bishop of a missionary region of Ethiopia is the first Roman Catholic bishop to have died from the virus. Bishop Angelo Moreschi, aged 67, died in Brescia, Italy last week.
The Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome, Archbishop Ian Ernest, said that although “the very survival of all humanity is at stake”, he saw signs of hope as people and families came together again, and medics and other key workers “risk their own lives so that we can continue to live”.
“Confidence is reborn in me when I see all humanity in prayer. Prayer has become an act of solidarity that will allow us to rediscover the Love of a merciful and compassionate God. A new life emerges on the horizon.”
There are reports, however, that the early stoicism which led to Italians singing to each other from balconies is evaporating; there are now reports of looting and social unrest as money runs out for many who have been left out of work.
Both Spain and France this week reported their biggest jumps in death tolls in one day: France recorded 499 deaths in 24 hours, and Spain, 849 between Monday and Tuesday.
Spain also recorded nearly 9000 new cases in 24 hours, higher than any daily figure recorded in Italy.
The interim Priest of St George’s Anglican Church in Madrid, the Revd John Kilgore, is currently stranded away from his congregation in his native United States. He had flown back for just a few days but was then stuck as Spain went into lockdown.
He said his that congregation was “pulling together well and in good spirits”, and joining in services online. “They are pretty resigned to the lockdown and what they have to do. Spaniards believe strongly in the common good and they are living that out. I told them that Lent is a time of reflection, of denial and self-examination — but this is Lent on steroids!”
Belgium has recorded the death of Europe’s youngest Covid-19 victim so far, a 12-year-old girl. A 16-year-old girl died in France this week, and a 14-year-old boy in Portugal.
Church bells in France rang out in a show of national unity and to commemorate the Feast of the Annunciation. The Archbishop of Paris, the Most Revd Michel Aupetit, said in an interview with Le Parisien newspaper that he hoped the pandemic might bring a renewal of faith in France.
“When you are thirsty, you become more and more thirsty. And when water is given to us, we drink in abundance. We are currently weaned from this communion; so I hope that we will live it more intensely when the epidemic is over,” he said.
A trained medic before he entered the priesthood, Archbishop Aupetit has now returned to work in a hospital during the crisis.
A hotspot for cases in the north-east of France has been blamed on a week-long prayer meeting at a church in Mulhouse, which was attended by people from all over the world. Health officials believe that a substantial number of France’s cases can be traced back to the meeting.
And in Albania, in eastern Europe, Archbishop Anastasios appealed for the world to help poorer countries like his. “This pandemic creates not only infirmities, but also creates widespread economical consequences, especially devastating for poorer countries like Albania which has also recently suffered from the disastrous effects of a great earthquake.
“The pandemic is not local; it is global. The richer countries have a responsibility to assist the poorer countries, like Albania, that will suffer more acute consequences of the financial troubles and social problems.”