Dispatches from a Pandemic: Pope Francis lambasts anti-mask protests: ‘What matters more — to take care of people or keep the financial system going?’

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ROME, ITALY — Pope Francis does not mince his words.

In his new book, “Let us Dream: The Path to a Better Future,” due to be released on Dec. 1, the head of the Roman Catholic Church lambasts those who protest the health measures aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19: “Some groups protested, refusing to keep their distance, marching against travel restrictions — as if measures that governments must impose for the good of their people constitute some kind of political assault on autonomy or personal freedom,” he writes.

He goes further, and contrasts those who dig in against health measures with anti-mask protests. “You’ll never find such people protesting the death of George Floyd, or joining a demonstration because there are shanty towns where children lack water or education, or because there are whole families who have lost their income,” he adds. “On such matters, they would never protest; they are incapable of moving outside of their own little world of interests.”

The pontiff is pictured on the cover, with a sky-blue background and a dove, but inside he vents his frustration at how some have handled the pandemic. Indeed, the publisher says he offers “a scathing critique of the systems and ideologies that conspired to produce the current crisis, from a global economy obsessed with profit and heedless of the people and environment it harms, to politicians who foment their people’s fear and use it to increase their own power at their people’s expense.”

One month into national restrictions that closed cinemas, pools and gyms, and require restaurants and bars to close at 6 p.m., people took to the streets to show their ire over the impact on their businesses. There have been demonstrations in the northern cities of Turin, Genoa and Milan and smaller cities like Florence, Palermo on the island of Sicily, and in Naples. In one incident of many such incidents, a Gucci luxury-goods store was looted in Turin.

In the book, Pope Francis, 83, also took aim at COVID-19 deniers, and the politicians that encourage them. “Some media have used this crisis to persuade people that foreigners are to blame, that coronavirus is little more than a little bout of flu, that everything will soon return to what it was before, and that restrictions necessary for people’s protections amount to an unjust demand of an interfering state. There are politicians who peddle these narratives for their own gain.”

A nun prays in St. Peter’s Square during Pope Francis’s Sunday Angelus prayer on Nov. 8, 2020, at the Vatican.

AFP via Getty Images

Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte, meanwhile, saw how the 10-week lockdown earlier this year took a toll on people. Italians hoped that the worst was over. He took a mixed approached the second time around. He introduced a three-tier system: red zone for the strictest lockdown, an orange zone with high risks and a moderate-risk yellow zone. Conte and his COVID-19 team appear to have decided against a green zone, in case it gave the impression that people could throw caution to the wind.

People in red zones are in full lockdown, and may not leave their homes unless it’s for an emergency, or they need to do essential shopping or leave for health reasons. In orange zones, bars, restaurants, gelaterie and bakeries must close; people cannot leave their municipality, except for health or emergency reasons. The yellow zones have freedom of movement within those zones, but in Rome all galleries and museums are closed. There is also a national curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.

The country is a color-coded patchwork of restrictions. Red zones include Tuscany in central Italy and Campania in the southwest, as well as Lombardy, Piedmont and Valle D’Aosta in the north, and the province of Bolzano and Calabria located on the “toe” of southern Italy. Emilia-Romagna, Friuli, Marche, Abruzzo, Basilicata, Liguria, Puglia, Sicily and Umbria are in orange zones. Lazio, where Rome and the Vatican are located, plus Molise, Sardinia and Veneto, are in the yellow zones.

Walter Ricciardi, the government’s COVID-19 consultant, said the government will rule if another national lockdown is necessary. In Campania, which includes Naples, hospitals risk becoming overwhelmed by the number of coronaivrus patients, health authorities have warned. “The situation in Campania is out of control,” Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio told La Stampa. He called for people to restrict their movements to prevent community transmission. “People are dying,” he said.

As people across the U.S. still debate mask mandates, the perils of not wearing this protection and how such directives may impinge on individual liberty, Italy this month introduced a national mask mandate, and extended a national state of emergency to January 2021. People in Italy must wear a mask outdoors or risk a fine of 1,000 euros ($1,163). Those who sit outside at restaurants are not required to wear masks while eating and drinking. Otherwise, in Rome, it’s rare to see anyone without one.

The Vatican, usually thronged with tourists, lies empty during the coronavirus pandemic.

Quentin Fottrell

Vatican City, the small independent enclave in the center of Rome, also imposed a mask mandate, although a maskless Pope Francis, before the most recent measures, was criticized for holding an indoor general audience on Oct. 7, and for shaking hands with followers. In parts of southern Italy, where people are perhaps regarded as being less conducive to obeying directives from the government, mask wearing appears to be at least slightly less rigorously enforced and adhered to.

Like many other economies around the world, Italy has been plunged into a recession due to the impact of pandemic restrictions. Europe faces the prospect of more lockdowns as the number of COVID-19 infections increases. Italian gross domestic product fell by 12.8% in the second quarter compared with the previous quarter, the national statistics agency reported in August, and the country is expected to lose 16 billion euros ($18.8 billion) in consumer spending this year.

Italy had confirmed 1,431,795 cases of COVID-19 as of Tuesday. That does not, for the most part, include those who are asymptomatic. Italy is ranked sixth in the world for COVID-related deaths (50,453). The U.S. is still No. 1 in both the number of cases (12.4 million) and fatalities (257,991) in the world. In ranking deaths, the U.S. is followed by Brazil, India, Mexico, the U.K. and Italy, according to Johns Hopkins University. Worldwide, the virus has infected 59.3 million and killed 1,399,983.

In the U.S., President Donald Trump is going ahead with a Thanksgiving celebration in the White House on Thursday, despite warnings about community transmission from health experts, as the world waits for a vaccine or vaccines to come to market. Trump has repeatedly warned that efforts to stem the rapid spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2, risk creating long-term damage to the economy.

That is where Trump and Pope Francis appear to differ. In his book, the pope said leaders who push ahead with opening their economies and businesses, despite a surge in coronavirus cases have “mortgaged their people,” and wrote that women — who are among those most affected by the pandemic — have also proven to be most resilient over the last year. The pontiff presents readers with a choice: “What matters more — to take care of people or keep the financial system going?”

The Dispatches correspondent, in Rome.

Quentin Fottrell

This story is part of a MarketWatch series, ‘Dispatches from a Pandemic’