Global Newsroom

For whom the bell tolls

Thursday, 19. March 2020


Hsu Shoufeng, a Taiwnese in Bergamo, shared with us his reflection on the current situation in Italy and how this time of crisis may be a time to really listen.

Shoufeng Hsu

Right now, my family and I are in Bergamo, an Italian city northeast of Milan, Italy. Across the road from the window of our apartment, I can see that the funicular station to Citta Alta is empty, and the Vittorio Emmanuele fountain nearby is dry, as it has been for some time. An overcast sky looms over the walls of the fortified upper town. All is quiet, except for the churning of birds, in a city where life is muted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

So much has changed in the past three weeks. Towards the end of February, when the government announced that all schools, including the Montessori teacher’s training that my wife and I were taking, were to be closed as part of the virus containment efforts, people seemed alert but not concerned. Though non-essential movements or travels were discouraged, life went on in spite of the minor inconvenience, and it seemed like business as usual. Bars and restaurants in downtown were still teeming with people for coffee and Aperitivo. Little did we realize that a viral storm was brewing, and it would soon hit us hard.

As I write this, Bergamo province has the highest number of confirmed cases in Italy: 3,760 total cases reported on Monday, an increase of 344 cases from the day before. As most businesses are closed and public events cancelled in the deserted city, a fierce battle is raging at the medical frontline: doctors and nurses at local hospitals work around the clock to attend a constant stream of patients, many of whom require intensive care. Medical resources are being strained and doctors are facing the ethical dilemma over who gets admitted and who doesn’t. 

Initially, this threat was largely underestimated by the public. Social distancing, whose effectiveness depends on the awareness and actions at personal level, was taken seriously by too few. In a world that is both connected and oversaturated with information, being skeptical is simply less stressful than taking a close look at the link between personal action and public welfare. As Mattia Ferraresi, an Italian journalist, puts it, ‘I knew about the virus, but the issue was not affecting me in a significant, personal way. It took the terrible ethical dilemma that doctors face in Lombardy to wake me up.’ In a recent article he describes lacking ‘moral knowledge of the problem.’

I believe Italy may have woken up too late, but not too late to act. I’ve found hope in the opening paragraph of an article from a local media L'eco di Bergamo: ‘Grumpy, diffident, reserved, readily scared the moment life is derailed from the status quo. Yet, when an emergency occurs, Bergamo rolls up his sleeves punctually, opens his heart and wallet, lends his muscles free of charge. He makes himself available.’ An example is our course director, in her 80s, who moved the training course online for students, many of whom fled Italy for safety. I admire her resilience and conscientiousness in handling this challenging situation.    

Andra tutto bene’ (all will be well)

There are more examples of individuals and groups contributing time, money and even large facilities to people in quarantine, with smaller ones offering free accommodation for doctors and nurses coming from outside Italy to support the battle against COVID-19. Across the province, teams of volunteers are being recruited and organized to care for those people who are under quarantine at home. My daughter Weichun, 11, joined a campaign which uses posters emblazoned with ‘Andra tutto bene’ (all will be well) to boost Italian morale. We have two such posters on the front door and the window. These are simple things that we can do: to live responsibly, so that the most vulnerable among us can simply live in this city of muted silence.

Yet, thanks to this new silence, I heard the bell last night, loud and clear. Here in Bergamo, the curfew bell on Piazza Vecchia tolls 100 times at 10 PM: a tradition dating to the 12th century which signifies that the gates would soon be locked for the night. I had hardly paid attention to the bell until then, as it was usually drowned by typically noisy streets. I must have heard it numerous times before, but was I ready to listen?  

I wonder, for whom the bell tolls? Is it that the COVID-19 pandemic is not unlike a bell, tolling to wake us from the sleep of self-interest and complacency, and to an acute sense of personal responsibility? It has undoubtedly served as a solemn reminder, that we need to take action and play a part in this battle for health and humanity. Let me end by offering a prayer for the health of the most vulnerable in the society, for the safety of medical professionals at the frontline, and for policy makers who must make tough decisions in face of the daunting challenges. 

Hsu Shoufeng is a conference interpreter, a career choice inspired by his experience at Caux back in 1996, to serve as a bridge for peoples from different cultures to meet as members of the same human family. For more than two decades, he has been involved in IofC work on youth leadership development within and outside of Taiwan, serving on the organizing team of local youth programs as well as Asia Pacific Youth Conferences. He was also a member of the Asia Pacific Regional Coordination Group (2009-2015) and the International Council (2010-2016). Currently his family are on a sabbatical leave in Bergamo, Italy until summer 2020, where he and his wife Oufang are taking a 10-month course of Montessori elementary school education.