Called to take care of the integral health of people

Interview with father Umberto Brugnoni, Superior general of the Guanellians 

In the situation we are experiencing because of the COVID, together with Mr. Riccardo Benotti, head of service of SIR (Religious Information Service) which is the information medium of the CEI (Italian Episcopal Conference), we asked some questions to the most exposed  congregations involved in health.

Today, here are Father Umberto Brugnoni's answers :

1. How has the Congregation's activity in caring for the sick changed? 

In northern Italy, the most significant aspect of the change is that our structures (primarily community health and social assistance) have had to become health care facilities, which is not their primary role, and this has been to the detriment of the community and educational aspects of our work with the elderly, disabled, and fragile. The adoption of PPE devices has had a temporary sterilizing effect on relationships, and are a great inconvenience to guests and staff alike. Moreover, our normal staff are trained as social workers and community health educators, not emergency health care workers trained for prevention and management of a contagion. 

In central and southern Italy, we have had to transform a residential facility into a health care center, becoming more hospital-like, to the detriment of our normal services there, such as rehabilitation and welfare. The economic outlay of the Opera is considerable and necessary to ensure the continuous employment of the staff, the supply of PPE, the sterilization of the environments, and the disposal of biological waste. Assessment of these actions during this emergency a committee of the house director, the health director, the health and safety officer, and a physician were necessary, and certified during regional health checks. In fact, the management of the house has shifted from the religious superior to the heath director (identified to appropriate offices as the "COVID contact person").

2. How many patients affected by COVID-19 have passed through your facilities? 

We can say with certainty that 35 elderly and 16 disabled persons have been infected by COVID-19 to date. However, we should note that in Lombardy there has not been general testing. Evidence suggests the virus is more widespread and we are preparing for a general testing in the Province. 

In southern and central Italy, none of our patients have been confirmed COVID cases. However, in one of our facilities (a nursing home), there were visitors and employees with cases (however, we were able to manage the outbreak with protection, prevention, and containment measures). 

3. Have your religious members also fallen ill in order to treat the sick?

In northern Italy, no. At least, not in a way that can be traced to contact with sick guests or others. 

In the South, our entire local community was infected - not as a result of treatment or care of guests, which is in the hands of health care professionals, but through normal social interaction: community liturgy, meals, and socializing. 

4. What attention have you shown to the medical and nursing staff?

In the north we have provided, with our own economic resources, all the equipment to make health workers as safe as possible. From the point of view of protocol, we followed the indications of the regional health department. We have paid attention to situations of fragility, favoring forms of social amortization for those who, due to health problems, could be at great risk. We have given a lot of space to listening and supporting people. We are identifying the best way to initiate psychological support. 

In central and southern Italy, we have conformed to all requirements and guidelines provided by the government health agencies with respect to workplace measures to protect against the contagion. Specifically, by implementing preventive, protection and containment measures through PPE suitable for the tasks to be performed, sanitation, dedicated routes, and residential reception on a voluntary basis in a dedicated area of the facility. In addition to the preventive and protective health measures, approved economic incentives have been granted to those who have worked or are working in the emergency. 

5. What does it mean to be a religious dedicated to the health care of people and to be faced with such a pandemic?

It means getting out of our tried and tested responses and facing deeper questions and problems than those experienced so far; it means better understanding of one's role not in terms of health care but in terms of the meaning of life and relationship with God; it means being close to people (sick - family - workers) with the ability to welcome and listen; it means being a bearer before God of the suffering and questions of many people through prayer of intercession.

The protection of the health of the person - as the main value to be pursued and safeguarded - has tirelessly characterized the human, spiritual and pastoral action of our religious, who have not spared themselves in ensuring "Bread and Lord", making themselves intercessor-mediators before God, first of all, and also before people (read: civil institutions). 

The pandemic will certainly force us to reflect on the future of our charitable aid and rehabilitative works by facing organizational and structural remodeling. How can we continue guaranteeing safety, health, and holiness? Perhaps in the future it will be necessary to avoid large-group efforts as much as possible, favoring the life of our guests in smaller settings, and therefore it will be necessary to rethink logistically, redeploy employees and increase the economic burden. All this in the face of the already persistent economic difficulties, at least where the institutions are struggling to recognize us (in terms of time and methods) the necessary. 

We will have to reckon with something new that will inevitably advance for the life and organization of our structures and with the need not to mortify the richness of the charism and the specificity of our mission (charitable, rehabilitative and educational) in the face of the need to respond adequately to the normative requirements that will arise. Who knows? Certainly an elder care home should not be seen/read as a hospital, and a religious institute which, by its nature does not express its mission as a hospital, should not be required by public regulations to do so.

Religious called to health care, by vocation, are also called to take care of the soul and spirit and therefore, even in the face of the pandemic, will not be able to disregard the pastoral yearning of Christ the Good Shepherd and teacher, or the Good Samaritan... And they will only have to relocate themselves within the fabric of the Body of Christ, rather than within a riverbed that could "lead" them to provide mere social services that are substitutes or subsidiary to the action of the State. Unless these services - and we are seeing this in this time of pandemic - in the hands of religious shine the sign of gratuitousness, of trust in Providence, of dedication, of diligence (characterized by prevention and promotion), and therefore of evangelical prophecy.