‘Everyone is dying alone’: Italy’s coronavirus crisis taking double toll on families

The last time Roberto Giacomoni saw his 80-year-old father Enrico, he gently helped him up from bed, put his socks, shoes and jacket on, and walked him out to the paramedics who had come to take him to the hospital because he was having trouble breathing.

Two weeks later, from the confines of his own coronavirus quarantine, Giacomoni sits at his father’s desk and organizes the complicated bureaucracy to have his father’s body transported to the crematorium.

“It’s the helplessness. Helplessness not to be able to do anything,” Giacomoni, 50, said through tears on the final day of his quarantine. “He was there alone. He suffered alone. He died alone. And we couldn’t be with him.”

The coronavirus pandemic has claimed more victims in Italy than any other country, and more than 45,000 worldwide. But around the world, the virus is taking a double toll on the family members left standing, many of whom are either sick themselves or in preventive quarantine. Neither they nor the healthy get to say goodbye because their loved ones are isolated, often in intensive care, due to the contagion of COVID-19.

“Everyone who has coronavirus is dying alone,” Giacomoni said.

Giacomoni and his mother, Giulia, were ordered to isolate themselves at their apartment in Rome’s Magliana neighbourhood on March 16, the day Enrico’s fever and stomach bug turned into respiratory problems and he was taken by ambulance to Rome’s Gemelli hospital.

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There, he tested positive for coronavivrus and was immediately admitted to the ICU.

“The first two or three days he was breathing with an oxygen mask, so we were able to see him via video calls,” Giacomoni recalled. “But then he took a turn for the worse.”

Enrico, who had survived a bout of lung cancer a decade ago, was sedated and intubated. The family, desperate for updates but unable to leave their home to even go grocery shopping, had to rely on the daily call from the ICU doctor.

The final call came at 1:30 a.m. on March 30, with the news that Enrico had died a few minutes earlier. Giacomoni, who moved back home with his parents two years ago, didn’t wake his mother to tell her. He has yet to tell his children, Federico, 8 and Valerio, 3, who live with his ex-girlfriend.

“I want to tell them in person,” he said in a Skype interview from his father’s desk, which is framed by photos of his grandchildren and is where Enrico used to play computer chess and do crossword puzzles. As he spoke, his mother listened and wept from across the room.

Giacomoni now is caring for his mother, who is herself recovering from the stomach flu, while trying to make final arrangements for his father’s remains, all from the confines of their apartment. Money is an issue: Enrico, who owned his own construction company, lived on a small pension, but had spent his life caring not only for his own family but his sister’s family as well.

“He was always there for us. He made so many sacrifices for us,” Giacomoni said. In retirement, Enrico was finally able to enjoy himself: He picked up the grandchildren from school, did the grocery shopping and helped Giulia out around the house.

“I walk around the house, and I see him in everything,” Giacomoni said. “Everything in the house speaks of him.”

Giacomoni takes solace at least in knowing that his father had been sedated for his final few days, and wasn’t conscious when he died. But he is haunted by the final time he saw him in person, March 16, when he helped him out of bed, got him dressed and promised to bring his personal things to the hospital the following day.

“He wasn’t expecting this,” Giacomoni said. “He was there hoping things would get better, and all I could do was tell him `Papa, be strong, you’ll see this will pass and will just become a memory.’”

“But his eyes were sad, in the sense that he obviously knew.”

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