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The Head of Italy's Largest LGBTQ Group Tells Us What to Expect Here

Gabriele

Gabriele Piazzoni connects with us from the epicenter of destruction, once known as the backdrop of Call Me by Your Name.

Health care experts, scientists and physicians have all said that the calamity in Italy is headed toward the U.S.

Thus far, nearly 100,000 Italians have been infected with the virus, and the country has tragically lost almost 11,000 people. Numbers that are not only numbing but mind-blowing. Italy has been faced with some serious problems that are expected to arise here in the U.S., a shortage of medical personnel and equipment, not enough beds or facilities to treat the sick, and alarming rise in the numbers of those who have been infected and who have died.

Italy, has also been on lockdown for weeks, and its citizens will likely remain in isolation for the foreseeable future. The pictures and reports coming out of Italy continue to be grim.

For a first-hand perspective on life in Italy, I reached out to Gabriele Piazzoni, the general secretary of Arcigay, the largest LGBTQ association in the country.

PIazzoni lives just outside Bergamo, the area of the country famous for the backdrop of the award-winning gay film, Call Me By Your Name. Now, however, Bergamo, and the surrounding area, is tragically known as the world's epicenter of the COVID-19, where officially 1,328 people have died, and according to The New York Times, the actual toll may be four times higher, so many that the local paper has been taken over by obituaries.

What follows is an edited version of our dialogue. What Piazzoni has to say is a warning for all of us here in the United States.

John Casey: First, Gabriele, thank you so much for taking time out to answer my questions. I know this is a very difficult time for you personally and for the members of Arcigay. How are you doing? Have you or any members of your family or friends been affected by the virus?
Piazzoni:
Thankfully, my family and I are quite ok for now. My partner and I are facing the quarantine together and we are in good health, same as all of our family members. The general feeling is however very sad. This week, I have mourned two friends of mine, passed away after being infected by COVID-19. Many other acquaintances and neighbors have lost some older relatives. Indeed, the infection is far worse among older people.

In the United States, we see the horrible pictures of overrun hospitals in Italy, and we hear news that doctors are choosing who lives and who dies. Can you describe what you are seeing and hearing about the effects of the virus?
The news broadcast in the United States tell the truth. The town where I was raised, Crema, is one of the worst affected places by the pandemic. You have probably already seen this cozy town in the world-famous movie Call Me by Your Name. The very first red zone in Italy lies a few kilometers away.

It is hard to imagine the terrible situation inside the hospitals, and if you can remain outside and remain in good health you are considered very lucky.

I have friends working in the hospitals who told me how desperate the conditions are for them. The hospitals are dedicating all of their resources to the treatment of COVID-19 infected patients. All other non-urgent medical assistance has been canceled or delayed.

The saddest consequence of this obstruction in the hospitals' activities is the shortage of equipment to treat infected people. COVID-19 provokes a severe respiratory syndrome which needs appropriate machinery to be treated. The amount of equipment hospitals have is therefore not sufficient to take care of the high number of patients who come to the ERs with respiratory problems. This forces doctors to establish priority criteria among those who need immediate and urgent assistance and those who can wait or be transferred to another hospital.

Is Arcigay doing anything specifically to help LGBTQ people cope with the virus, or any members who have been infected by the virus?
Arcigay has canceled all the collective activities, reunions, and meetings all over Italy, in accordance to dispositions by the national government. All we can do is to spread the recommendations of the government among our members, first of all to stay at home and to avoid physical interaction with other people.

All the local sections of Arcigay are organizing online activities to entertain their members and let them to socialize, using all the available networks. We are aware that besides the negative impact of the illness to the public health, the containment measures are leaving a strong footprint on the society.

Millions are now isolated at home. The "Stay at Home" negative isolation effects the LGBTQ+ community in a particular way, with many of them living alone. Of special concern are those young LGBTQ+ people who still live with their families and are still in the closet, without freedom of self-expression. The worst cases are those homophobic families which can turn out to be true prisons to LGBTQ+ people forced to stay at home all day.

We are doing our best to stay close to our members with the most widespread social media.

In the United States, LGBTQ organizations warned that our community might be more at risk of the virus because of HIV and high prevalence of smoking and other unhealthy behaviors. Have you found that to be the case in Italy?
LGBTQ people are subjected to the same risk as the rest of the population. I presume the term "unhealthy" is referred to the statistically higher tendency in our community to have occasional sex interactions. All physical interactions with people external to our home or family should be avoided, including occasional sex dates.

HIV-positive people could be considered immuno-depressed subjects, therefore vulnerable to coronavirus. But this is not automatic: some people who live with HIV and who correctly follow the therapies, are in good health and have the same chances to suffer from COVID-19 disease as other people.

There are reports that because of the high number of deaths, and isolation, there are no funerals for the dead. Is that true?
It's sad, but forbidding the public gathering of people, the government has also forbidden funerals. The number of daily deaths has significantly increased, and cemeteries as well as hospitals are under pressure.

In Bergamo, one of the cities with the worst situation, it has been necessary to rely on the help from the Army to transports coffins to other cemeteries capable of taking care of them. The less fortunate people who do not survive the virus cannot be comforted by their relatives and friends since they are in isolation. The situation in hospices for old people is also sad, where once the virus has entered into the hospice the mortality rate is particularly high.

Medical experts and some government officials here in the United States are warning citizens that what is happening in Italy will happen here in the United States. Can you elaborate on what we should expect?
Our countries are similar and we share the same problems. It is possible that the same measures to fight the virus should be taken both in Italy and in the United States. I mean the total lockdown except for those necessary activities and services. No health care system in the world can face an illness that requires specific equipment, like the respiratory devices for each of the cases of infection. For this reason, it is paramount to stop COVID-19. We don't want to mourn for people who couldn't survive for lack of equipment.

How are people coping with the devastation and being locked down? We see reports of Italians singing from their balconies. What have you seen that has given you some hope?
It's hard to be in quarantine, to be locked at home for weeks. Anyway, people want to show their determination to overcome this moment, singing on the balconies may be very helpful to support each other. Though we are closed in our homes, we are not alone.

Solidarity and charity manifestations are everywhere. Some people help others who cannot go out by going to the supermarket and bringing food to them. By this way, old people mostly, are not obliged to go out and can stay safe at home.

Many have intensified the remote connections to friends and relatives. We are more in touch with far away friends now than before. We have more free time to call our friends and ask about their lives and health. Also, this is important to strengthen the solidarity among us, and to share feelings in this dramatic situation.

Has the Italian government been handling the situation correctly, or are people concerned that the government isn't doing enough?
This is the worst crisis for Italy after WWII. When all is over, it will be possible to evaluate if the government efforts have been effective or not. Limitations to the freedom of people are always hard to be accept in a democracy.

Has the government given you any indication about when the situation might begin to ease?
The measures adopted so far will be effective until April 3, but it is going to be necessary to continue with the restrictions for a longer period. Not knowing when this situation is going to end is what most scares people.

Gabriele, thank you so much for all of your insight, and for taking time out to inform our readers here in the United States. All of our readers here and abroad wish you all well and hope you remain safe. Do you have any other thoughts or comments?
I believe this pandemic will significantly change the world. It will change our social interactions and relations. It will affect our economies and the way we see the world. COVID-19 is a turning point in our history.

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John Casey

John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. The columns include interviews with Sam Altman, Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, Colman Domingo, Jennifer Coolidge, Kelly Ripa and Mark Counselos, Jamie Lee Curtis, Shirley MacLaine, Nancy Pelosi, Tony Fauci, Leon Panetta, John Brennan, and many others. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the Nobel Prize-winning UN IPCC, and with four of the largest retailers in the U.S.
John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. The columns include interviews with Sam Altman, Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, Colman Domingo, Jennifer Coolidge, Kelly Ripa and Mark Counselos, Jamie Lee Curtis, Shirley MacLaine, Nancy Pelosi, Tony Fauci, Leon Panetta, John Brennan, and many others. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the Nobel Prize-winning UN IPCC, and with four of the largest retailers in the U.S.