The Rev. Andrew Cooley, former rector at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Durango, has been in Italy for one of the world’s deadliest coronavirus outbreaks.
Watching the United States’ response to the pandemic has been like watching a car head toward a 50-car pileup and desperately trying to get it to slow down, he said.
“It was frustrating here to see our American friends not taking this as seriously as we wish we had,” said Cooley, speaking via WhatsApp.
As Durango prepares to face its own peak in upcoming weeks, Cooley’s experience in Italy might help nervous residents seeking guidance.
The U.S. has the largest coronavirus outbreak in the world with more than 400,000 cases and 14,000 deaths. Italy has had one of the most deadly. American public officials have seen Italy’s slowing outbreak as a “glimmer of hope.” But social distancing in the U.S. is not as stringent as in Italy, and Americans remain divided over whether restrictions should be more or less strict.
One message from Cooley to Durango: follow social distancing.
“The restrictions are hard,” Cooley said. “They impact some people harder than others, but they are necessary.”
While Italy and the U.S. have different population sizes, densities and cultural practices, public officials have said the American outbreak could follow the Italian model because of slow government response.
The rates of new cases and daily deaths in Italy have slowed since the end of March, mostly attributed to the strict restriction implemented by the government. The slow down offers hope to many around the world and in the U.S. as proof that social distancing can work.
But American cases are climbing, and in many areas, the restrictions are not as stringent as the measures taken by the Italian government.
‘Alarmist’ decisionsAt first, Italians were divided whether the county’s restrictions were “alarmist” or necessary, Cooley said.
At 3,100 cases, schools closed and small towns went into quarantine, which some saw as an overreaction. They were concerned about tourism revenue or did not want to give up their social habits.
When cases reached 7,400 on March 8, the government imposed severe restrictions in the middle of the night. Officials tried to lock down northern provinces. The next day, the government issued a nationwide lockdown. There were 9,200 cases.
To leave the house, residents must bring a form saying where they’re going and why. Only approved reasons count, Cooley said. People cannot get out to walk. Only 10 people can enter a grocery store at a time and customers can expect to be “disciplined” if they aren’t following social-distancing restrictions.
Since then, no one has been referring to the restrictions as an “overreaction,” Cooley said.
It was Cooley’s sense that most Italians agreed the country’s response was slow and said they needed the social distancing restrictions.
Like in the United States, health care professionals and equipment have been in short supply.
More than 17,000 people have died in Italy. As of Saturday, 46 doctors died, four in one day. More than 50 priests have died, including one who gave up his respirator for a younger patient, Cooley said.
But they all die alone.
Family members or religious clergy cannot get protective gear to be with dying patients. The hospital staff is too thin.
“That will happen in the United States,” Cooley said.
‘We’ve been here before’Dawn Spaeder, executive director of the Durango Choral Society, and more than 40 singers had planned for over a year to join Cooley in Florence. The group’s plans quickly changed when their hosts said they would not be allowed to visit.
“It was devastating to have to tell everyone that the tour was canceled,” Spaeder said.
She is one of many people who knew Cooley – who she described as “full of grace” – from his time at St. Mark’s. He baptized her children and officiated her marriage, as he had for many others. Seeing him would be like a family trip for the group, she said.
Spaeder kept in touch with Cooley every day. She saw his posts as restrictions became more stringent and checked in with him after he went to the hospital with COVID-like symptoms. (He was negative for the illness.)
“If we can’t look at Italy as an example, and go ‘whoa,’ then we’re losing the lesson of the countries that are ahead of us on this,” Spaeder said.
She is proud the choral group is one of the first in Durango to cancel events – even though it meant losing finances for the whole season.
But it seemed like people did not take it seriously until it affected someone they knew, she said. She heard reports of people still hiking in groups, playing group sports or prioritizing their civil liberties over public health.
“This isn’t about rights. This is about humanity,” she said. “None of us are happy about this.”
A world away, Cooley saw a way past his frustration. His calling as a rector was to help each person find meaning during hard times – including himself.
He found meaning in the fact that “we’ve been here before,” he said. “That God’s love is bigger than the virus. That this is a time to find new ways to reach out to connect to one another.”