ROME – As Italian authorities continue to grapple with what’s so far the biggest outbreak of coronavirus outside of Asia, Catholic aid workers continue tending to the poorest, without losing their sense of humor.

So far, over 200 people in Italy have been confirmed to be infected with COVID-19, with ten suspected to have died from the virus.

Luca Servidati is a young employee of Caritas Lodi, a town in Lombardy at the footstep of the “red zone” of eleven towns that are in lockdown in an effort to contain the spread of the virus. Among other things, he works with a group of asylum seekers.

“It seems like we are in an American movie, The Day After Tomorrow,” he told Crux over the phone late on Monday. “I tell the young men from Nigeria who are requesting asylum to watch Hollywood movies to know what to do.”

Using humor to defuse the tension, but at the same time being conscious that the situation could escalate, Servidati says he is not sure as to what to say to those who have arrived in Northern Italy fleeing war, violence and famine, only to find themselves in quarantine.

“You come from Afghanistan, where you were afraid of war and bombs, only to arrive in Italy and see that we have the flu,” he said. “Oh, so you crossed the Mediterranean Sea in a rubber boat, risked your life, adrift for days, to realize the COVID-19 is now a threat for you?”

“Laughter aside, we have to stay calm, follow the instructions, and pray,” Servidati said. “But we also have to continue working, because no one [among the authorities] is thinking about the homeless. The newspapers are telling us what to do, but no one is reporting what to do with those who need food, clothing, shelter.”

Caritas Lodi runs a soup kitchen, an emergency clothing service, and a day shelter for the needy, serving around 50 people on a daily basis. As of Tuesday afternoon, all these services were continuing without interruption, though the people running them are beginning to question what’s the best way to keep the doors open while reducing risks. One of the things that’s being contemplated is offering people food as a takeaway, as opposed to using the communal dining hall.

There are currently 11 Italian towns in quarantine, affecting some 50,000 people, all in the northern region of Italy. Authorities are asking people to take some precautions, such as washing their hands regularly, wearing disposable masks when around people with symptoms or when showing symptoms themselves, and avoiding crowded events.

Symptoms are similar to those of the common cold, including fever, a runny nose and respiratory problems. Authorities are asking those who present symptoms to call the family doctor or the local emergency number, but not to go to the hospital.

In some cities Masses have been suspended, and the Italian bishops’ conference issued a series of suggestions for the rest of the country that include not sharing the sign of peace during Mass and receiving Communion in the hand and not the mouth.

On of the towns that have been quarantined is Codogno, where Francesco Holmes works for the local Caritas office.

Much like his colleague from Lodi, he’s not sure how much of the hysteria is based in facts and how much of it is the result of rumor and conjecture. Yet unwilling to take risks, particularly for the several asylum seekers who are directly under his care, he made a large grocery run before the lockdown, to guarantee they would have enough food to last at least a week.

Holmes told Crux that they’ve also produced leaflets in Italian, English, Arabic and French to distribute among those who regularly go to the three Caritas centers he oversees, and are working on creating videos to raise awareness, particularly among those who don’t know how to read.

“I am the first one who wants to understand what is going on, how serious the situation is, to be able to relay it on to the people who need to know,” he said. “We must stay informed to guarantee that we can help others too.”

Caritas Lodi and Caritas Codogno are part of a bigger umbrella group known as Caritas Internationalis, that serves as the Church’s charitable arm, that includes the Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the foreign aid agency of the United States bishops’ conference.

At a global level, members of the Caritas network have been at the forefront of helping fight the disease in Hong Kong, with international offices pulling together to help out. Caritas Croatia will be sending 10,500 surgical masks, and more are being gathered in countries not yet affected by the virus. According to a statement released by CRS in early February, the Holy See sent 700,000 masks to China to help prevent the spread of the disease.

“Today we are confronted with another form of emergency situation which is neither man-made nor natural, but rather an epidemic that we must face in calmness. We are ready to help the victims concerned and we are united in prayer with all those affected,” said Aloysius John, secretary general of Caritas Internationalis.

The Vatican has also taken a series of steps to protect its citizens and visitors, such as holding Pope Francis’s Ash Wednesday general audience in St. Peter’s Square and not in the enclosed Paul VI Audience Hall. Hand sanitizer dispensers have been installed in offices that are accessible to the public, including the Vatican’s pharmacy, and doctors are available to Vatican staff 24/7. The Ash Wednesday liturgy, led by Francis, is still in the calendar.

So far all the deaths in Italy attributable to the virus have seen COVID-19 only as a contributing cause: All the victims had other conditions, such as heart problems or renal insufficiency.

Cases of coronavirus have also been recorded in other European countries, including Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Belgium, Sweden, and Finland, but all have only had a handful of confirmed patients.

The coronavirus, thought to have originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, has now infected more than 70,000 people in China and has spread to at least 29 other countries. Though the death toll exceeds 2,000, it’s worth noting that in countries such as Spain, more people have died this winter due to regular flu than the global death toll due of COVID-19.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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