ROME: Italy was the second country to be hit by the Covid-19 virus. It came as a surprise. As a scientist with some training in epidemiology, when I first heard of the epidemic in Wuhan, I immediately thought that this was not going to be just a problem for China.
Somehow though, I thought it was going to have the typical ripple effect and that it would have been weeks before we would see anything in Europe. My wife teaches English online to Chinese kids, and it was back in January, at about the time of the Chinese New Year’s celebration, when her students were staying at home for that important holiday after the stay-at-home directive was issued by the Chinese government.
As my wife was talking to her students, she felt their worries and shock for what was happening all around them, Somehow, we felt as if those concerns came right inside our home through the Internet. We started speculating about what could be if that virus made its way to our country, to our city.
It took less than three weeks to find out. I was in Malta on a work assignment toward the end of February when I learned of the first case in northern Italy: a person who was in China on a business trip, and by the time symptoms developed after he returned home, he had already come in touch with many others.
As if a Bomb Exploded
It was as if a bomb exploded. From my hotel room I immediately ordered some protective masks and gloves, canceled all my upcoming trips and prayed that I could make it back home quick and safe. At the Rome Fiumicino airport, they already had measures in place to take everyone’s temperatures. And then, in just a few more days, it was like the light went out. A total national blackout.
The government closed all schools. All public gatherings were discontinued. Even Italy soccer season was put on a hold. And at that point, when soccer stopped, I knew that it was a really serious matter. I drove to the office space I have been using at the Rome Temple site, loaded the car with what I needed to work from home, looked at my library as if I wanted to reassure my books that it was going to be just a short goodbye (I love my books!) and locked the door behind me.
Gradually, the whole temple ground was also closed as to symbolize that we were now on our own, temporally and spiritually.
In Touch with Italian Families
Because of my job with Seminaries and Institutes, I have been in touch with several members all over Italy. The first impression I had was that most people were caught by surprise and somehow did not know if the government and the local Church were overreacting.
Then the feeling quickly switched to some concerns about the future and how to properly deal with the current situation. I think this came when all the Church buildings were now off-limit, gatherings were not allowed anymore, and the news that temples around the world, including our own in Rome, were being closed one by one.
We looked at what the Prophet was doing and saying to see if we could do likewise for our own families. We invited every member in our congregations to take the matter seriously, avoid going outside and to build some food storage.
I remember that during the last Sunday School class I taught at church, I invited the members in my ward to be prepared by having some food at home, reminding them that if by any chance we were not going to be able to see each other and minister in person one to another, that there was very little that the church could do for us. Little did I know that it would be my last Sunday in person with my brothers and sisters.
Since then, I have driven to Rome only twice. The roads are deserted. Police are at every corner, stopping people and asking about their need to be outside the home. The main historic sites in Rome, those that attract millions of people each year from all over the world, are empty. It is a ghost town. It felt like it was some sort of post-apocalyptic zombie war.
The few people you see are outside the only businesses that are still open: grocery stores and pharmacies. They are in line outside the stores. Only few at a time can go inside, and they must wear masks, gloves, use hand-sanitizer and keep a distance of six feet from each other.
Members are in somewhat good spirits. Many whatsapp groups that were already being used for Church business before the current crisis are now populated with messages of comfort, news about the spread of the virus, and reminders about the fact that God is in charge of everything and we don’t need to fear.
Our bishop calls everyone in the ward every week, asking how everyone is doing and if they need anything. Considering that we are on week five, we are all doing fairly well emotionally. However, we are conscious that this is still the beginning and that it might be a long time before things will go back to being normal.
People are losing jobs, they are not getting paid, and bills will start coming soon. Savings will be used up and government help might not take care of everyone’s needs. We must prepare ourselves and others around us as if things could get worse or stay like this for a longer time than anticipated.
While before, the whole thing felt far and away, we are now starting to hear about some brothers and sisters in Italy that are very sick or have passed away from the disease, including Brother Carlo Alberto Dallari, the first bishop in Milan when the stake was organized in 1981.
Messages of love and support are being poured out. We know that these are hard times, but we also know that peace and life are found in our Lord. Everyone was excited to hear our dear Prophet’s voice this weekend and to listen those who spoke with him. He truly said that this was going to be a unique conference. I don’t think anyone thought it was going to be this unique!
We are in the fifth week of isolation. It feels like the Groundhog Day movie with Bill Murray. Often you forget what day of the week it is. All five kids are home from school and all of them need to be connected to their online classes at the same time. My wife and I are also working from home and online.
There are a couple of hours each day where Internet connection is not sufficient for everyone, and my job is all at once to be the IT guy for the Perego family. It can become quite crazy, and we were afraid that it was going to be even crazier with seven people stuck inside our home.
Luckily, we have a gated yard and can spend some time on the outside, but most of the time we are all inside working or trying to persuade our children to study. We thought that we had a greater chance to survive the COVID-19 pandemic than each other. However, week five has started and we are still here.
In fact, we are discovering that it is quite nice to have everyone under one roof and know they are all safe and healthy. We are rediscovering certain family values and traditions we were too busy to maintain, such as having three meals each day together. No one has to rush outside the door. No one has sport practices. Dad does not have to visit classes or travel to another city. We are all here and we are aware that it could be hard to be together every minute, day after day, and perhaps we are extra cautious to not step on each other toes. We do have our “tense” five minutes here and there, but honestly, I expected a lot worse. Don’t take me wrong. I love my family. We love each other. We just did not know how we would have handled this unique situation.
Amidst the seriousness of the health situation our world is facing right now, I see something positive with families being at home together. I am also grateful for the inspired counsel of our Church leaders that for the last couple of years have encouraged us to take more responsibilities with a home-centered Gospel.
We have not been to Church for five weeks now, but we are having our sacrament meeting at 10am in the living room. It is a simple meeting: an opening hymn and prayer, the sacrament service, a message and a closing prayer. Our Stake Presidency invited us to have the sacrament whenever it would be possible, otherwise to read and ponder on the meaning of the sacrament prayers and offer a broken heart and a contrite spirit to the Lord.
As the Sunday School president in my ward, we connect on Zoom with the rest of the ward following our home sacrament meeting and spend about one-hour teaching from the Come Follow Me program.
Each week I remind everyone about what we need to study on our ward Facebook page. The weekly online Sunday School class is the only moment we come together as a congregation nowadays and from the messages I receive on WhatsApp, it has becoming one of the highlights of the week. We are grateful for the technology that allow us to stay connected and share the message of the Gospel from within and from our homes. We are truly a virtual ward and we feel closer to each other as never before.
During the past couple of years, we felt the need to transition seminary teaching to an online platform as well. As an employee for the Church Educational System with Seminaries and Institutes responsibilities in Central Italy and Malta, I felt that we could reach more students, use fewer teachers and spend more time in mentoring the youth during the week. It has been working well and everyone seems to enjoy it.
Now that we have to stay at home, I am even more grateful that we opted for this teaching methodology, as it did not create the need for any adjustments due to the inaccessibility of all Church buildings. Every Monday night, from my home, I host a virtual Family Home Evening class for the YSA’s in the greater Rome area that are not in a situation to have it with their family.
Each Wednesday and Friday night, we have institute classes. The rest of the week, together with other YSA leaders, we invite, follow up and encourage our students to keep working on their spiritual self-reliance and to let us know if things are getting too hard for them to bear. No one disagrees that these are difficult times. It might take a long time before things will get better again, but we can take advantage of the spiritual and temporal lessons that come with any challenge and come out from it stronger and more committed.