April 21, 2020 - 19:45 AMT
Compassion is key, no matter what
An Italian photojournalist’s journey through the pandemic
Italian photojournalist Sergio Ramazzotti has seen the worst of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, followed the escalation of the Libyan Civil War, and has been covering the war in Afghanistan in the past 13 years. The rapidly spreading novel coronavirus, though, is particularly close to home: Italy, his native country, is among the epicenters of the pandemic today.

Since the beginning of the outbreak, Sergio has been reporting on the situation in Lombardy, the worst-hit region in the country, capturing those affected by the virus, and the tireless dedication of healthcare professionals who are doing their best to fight the spread of the disease.

In a phone interview with PanARMENIAN.Net, Sergio described today’s Italy as a war zone where all efforts are mobilized to combat the pandemic: "But no matter what, compassion is key."

Life-saving refusal to be overwhelmed

When the outbreak first exploded in Italy, the gravity of the situation was overwhelming.

“No one was expecting so many infections in such a short period of time. The events unfolded very quickly, and the health system was caught off guard,” he said.

“Ever since, though, every single person has come together for the common cause, and that’s why many people, myself included, describe the country as a war zone. I live and work in Lombardy where the outbreak has been raging right from the beginning.”

Among the medical centers and facilities he visited to capture the treatment of patients diagnosed with Covid-19 were the Giovanni XXIII Bergamo Hospital and MV Splendid, a cruise ship in Genova, which has been converted into a hospital.

Compassion is key, no matter what

Bergamo is the city with the highest incidence of infections and coronavirus deaths in Italy. The hospital Sergio visited accommodates a huge number of people who are in a desperate need for intensive care. The facility is overcrowded, wards and intensive therapy units are full of patients, so many of them have to be placed and taken care of in the corridors.

“What I do is try to photograph them in the most unrecognizable way, and if there is a chance they might be recognized by some family members, which is very likely, I take all the precautions and pixelate their faces before publication. It’s not just a matter of law, but also a matter of compassion. The basic moral rule states that when you point your camera at somebody who is suffering or is in a vulnerable position, you want to show compassion and photograph them the right way,” Sergio explains.

“The Genova ship is a whole different story though. The cabins that are currently being used as wards and accommodate one patient each, are small, which means they can’t fit ventilators or much else into the rooms. So the ship houses patients who can actually walk and are not in a critical condition,” he said.

MV Splendid was the first ship ever to be converted into a “floating hospital” but other countries were quick to follow suit. The space was completely modified, and ventilation was revamped to make the cabins more suitable for taking care of patients. The interesting part about the ferry is that the medical personnel were assembled from a number of hospitals and facilities operating in the city.

“It was heartwarming and beautiful to see all those people with different backgrounds, who had never worked together before, come together to save lives and help others,” Sergio said.

There is life after coronavirus

The photographer has been able to capture the entire process from the patients’ admission to the facilities to their treatment, and is now in touch with some of the survivors who, of course, have a lot to tell.

“In an intensive care ward, patients are wearing high-pressure oxygen masks, they are often sedated and unconscious, so they can’t really talk. And even when they are awake, they are gasping for air. But now I am collecting a lot of stories from patients these days, basically through talking to survivors, to people who have been through hell, through the horrible sense of suffocation, who had to grasp for air in order to survive. They are alive, they are back home, and I am talking to all these people right now. The stories are powerful of course, as the near-death experience gives you a new mindfulness and makes you evaluate life and look into your future in a completely different way,” he explained.

Frontline lessons: From Ebola to Covid-19

In April 2019, Sergio spent three weeks in the Democratic Republic of Congo, West Africa, where he was reporting on the outbreak of Ebola. The photojournalist is of course well aware of all the safety measures and procedures necessary for avoiding contracting the virus today. In Italy too, he is wearing personal protective equipment when working in hospitals.

“This is not the first time I am working in such conditions, and epidemics are in a sense more dangerous than conflicts and wars, because you clearly see who you are fighting in a war, whereas a virus is an invisible enemy,” he said.

“I was covering Ebola in West Africa and could shake off that weight once I returned to Italy. This time is different. I am already at home, which is making things harder.”

Sergio Ramazzotti is an award-winning photojournalist who has been covering some of the world’s most complex conflicts, including the ones in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Sudan, as well as epidemics raging in the various parts of the world. He has authored numerous books throughout a career spanning decades, and has co-founded the photo agency Parallelozero.

Srbuhi Martirosyan / PanARMENIAN.Net