Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images
Members of the medical staff comforts a patient infected by the novel coronavirus at the High Intensity Medicine department of the Circolo di Varese hospital on April 3, 2020.Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images
Navigate to Community section

Italian Jews Battle COVID-19—and Isolation

In Milan and elsewhere, the health crisis has brought ‘a major sense of unity’ to the community

Nathan Greppi
April 07, 2020
Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images
Members of the medical staff comforts a patient infected by the novel coronavirus at the High Intensity Medicine department of the Circolo di Varese hospital on April 3, 2020.Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images

When some members of the Jewish community in Milan started to get sick and to die because of COVID-19 in mid-March, Fiona Diwan—editor-in-chief of the Milan-based Jewish magazine Mosaico—decided for the first time in 12 years to publish the obituaries not just in the printed magazine but also online, where everyone can read them. “We are all experiencing a very painful and stressful situation,” she told me. “I think it is fair to do that since we are in a period where we are all physically and emotionally isolated from each other and the sense of the community is missing. Since we can’t organize funerals, burials, or shiva, and we can’t be together, written words are the only way to keep a sense of belonging to the community.”

This situation is becoming more and more familiar to Italian Jews (as well as to all Italians), and especially to those who live in Milan: They are the most affected by the coronavirus pandemic that has hit Italy hard since February. A large majority of all the infected people in the whole country are in the Northern region of Lombardy, of which Milan is the capital (as of March 31, in Lombardy there were 43,000 infected people, out of a total of about 77,000 in all of Italy). Milan’s Jewish community is the hardest hit by the virus, with at least eight deaths in just two weeks. On the March 16, Michele Sciama, who used to be the secretary general of the community between 1993 and 2007, was the first to pass away at the age of 79 because of the virus, and on March 23 another member, Giorgio Sinigaglia, died at the age of 54.

For the first two weeks since February 21, when the news of the first known cases of people infected with coronavirus in Italy came out in Codogno (a small town approximately 36 miles southeast of Milan), the Jewish communities, just like the majority of the Italian population, were not much worried about what was going on; many people thought that it was just scaremongering spread by the media, and that normal flu or pneumonia usually kills more people every year. Many Purim parties and other events weren’t canceled until all of Lombardy was placed on lockdown, despite almost all scientists warning that everybody should stay at home in order to stop the spread of the virus.

Just a little more than a month later, on April 3, in Italy there were about 85,000 people who’d tested positive for the virus, 14,000 deaths, and 19,000 recovered. In addition, many hospitals in the north started to have no more room for intensive care, which is necessary for many infected people: By that time it was clear to everybody that without a total lockdown, the diffusion would have quadrupled every five days and the death toll would have been much greater.

According to the president of the Jewish Community of Milan, Milo Hasbani, “This situation has brought a major sense of unity within our community. In the past we used to disagree a lot, but now we are supporting each other to deal with the crisis. From the beginning we decided to activate our social services, sending young volunteers to buy groceries for the elderly and the weaker people. The problem is that we are having a growing demand of food, especially in view of Passover. We are also trying to get masks and hand sanitizers, which are becoming very difficult to find in Italian pharmacies, and we asked for help even to international Jewish organizations, such as the European Jewish Congress and the Jewish Agency.”

But Milan is not the only Jewish community in Italy affected by this crisis: “There are infected people also in the communities of Florence and Turin, where at least one person already died,” said Noemi Di Segni, president of the UCEI, the umbrella organization representing all of the 21 Italian Jewish communities. “We have extended our social services network by organizing fundraising for the small and middle communities, while those in Rome and Milan, the largest in Italy, already have their own services. We are recruiting volunteers to offer psychological support to those who need it; many people feel alone, and they just want someone to talk with.”

Di Segni explained: “We have also created a daily program of online activities to do together: religious ones, Hebrew lessons, some for children, and especially some related to Passover. People need to feel to be a part of the community and to do things together despite the isolation.”

Together with UCEI, also the Jewish Medical Association (AME in Italian) started a fundraiser to support hospitals and nursing homes. That’s also because doctors, especially in the most infected areas, such as Milan, Bergamo, Brescia, Lodi, and Cremona, are working around the clock to save lives, and in many cases they get infected, too (more than 65 doctors have died on duty in Italy so far, fighting the virus). Psychoterapist Maura Levi, who works in a hospital in Milan, interviewed by the daily newspaper Il Giornale, said of doctors and nurses: “They go ahead, doing their duty. Tension and difficulties are very high, problems might arise related to anxiety and insomnia. They fear not to just to get infected, but to infect their relatives, too. Sometimes they sleep in separate rooms.”

Even UGEI, the most important Jewish youth organization in Italy, had to reorganize itself according to the situation: “We moved in two directions,” said UGEI’s president Simone Santoro. “First of all, we suspended all of our forthcoming events, and we postponed some of them to the summer, hopefully when the emergency will be over; besides that, we are placing many streaming videos on our social platforms, from cooking lessons to political debates. We also promoted some online debates organized by the European Union of Jewish Students, and I have been invited to talk in the first episode of P(EUJS)LOT, a web series about European Jewish youth leaders. Among our initiatives we are organizing many contests, including one about photography.”

Italy was the first non-Asian country where the virus spread considerably. In the beginning, many thought that COVID-19 was just a bit stronger than a normal flu, because the daily number of deaths and infected grew slowly. Today, in the worst hit provinces, as an Israeli doctor who works in Parma revealed, people over 60 years old with co-morbidities may receive less treatment than younger patients and in some cases they are indeed left to die, despite the fact that Northern Italy has one of the most efficient healthcare systems in Europe.

Italians have expressed their anger about the situation online, and it is mostly directed at the European Union (Germany and the Netherlands in particular), which is accused of being selfish toward Italy and the other Southern European countries. However, unlike in other countries, in Italy the coronavirus crisis doesn’t seem to fuel anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist conspiracy theories.

Nathan Greppi is a freelance journalist living in Italy. He writes about Judaism, pop culture, and politics.