Dr. Rok Čivljak, President of the Croatian Catholic Medical Society
Dr. Rok Čivljak, President of the Croatian Catholic Medical Society, Palm Sunday 2020
Dear Members of the Croatian Catholic Medical Society,
At the end of 2019, an epidemic caused by the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) broke out in China and subsequently spread throughout the world. To date, it has reached 195 countries, with over a million registered cases and approximately 60,000 deaths. On January 30, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus epidemic a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. On March 11, when the number of cases had exceeded 100,000, the WHO officially characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic.
At the beginning of the pandemic, China was the country with the highest number of cases. However, currently the most cases and deaths are in Europe. All preventive measures should be taken to block the further spread of the epidemic in Croatia, where over 1,000 cases with 8 deaths have been recorded. Moreover, preparations should continue in all health care facilities for the admission and management of serious cases, which are likely to increase in the coming weeks.
The illness caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus is known as COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019, named for the causative agent and year of onset). Within the general population, the elderly and/or patients with comorbidities, as well as health care providers, are particularly vulnerable. All health care personnel, such as physicians, nurses, technicians, laboratory personnel, caregivers and other staff who come into contact with patients, are being directly or indirectly exposed to the infected and sick, which places them at risk. Moreover, owing to the chronic shortage of medical personnel within the entire health care system, particularly now when the demands are increasing, we are being expected to make great sacrifices in order to provide the best possible care to all citizens. An additional burden on the personnel and certain services is that over 60 health care workers have become sick in Croatia, while another 1,000 are in self-isolation. All of them are currently unable to perform their regular professional duties and their number may soon increase. The Minister of Health, Prof. Vili Beroš, M.D., Ph.D., has stated that the health care system is not in jeopardy for now and the ministry is redeploying health care personnel in order to fill the most crucial positions.
The COVID-19 pandemic caught not only health care personnel but also the society as a whole completely off guard. In early January, when we had just heard that a newly discovered disease was spreading in faraway China, only a few thought it would soon be coming to Croatia. Nevertheless, in February it had already become quite likely that this epidemic would not bypass Croatia. The first case was registered in our country on February 25.
Unfortunately, what few had thought possible has come to pass. An infectious disease has transformed social and economic relations but also humanity as a whole, entering and altering every pore of society. Colleges and schools have closed their doors, students are attending classes from home, via television and computers, the majority of the public sector employees are working from home, while some, regrettably, have lost their jobs. The churches have also closed their doors. Lectures and meetings of the CCMS have been suspended. Lenten spiritual retreats and pilgrimage have been canceled. Our website had no news for days and then the announcement appeared that all CCMS activities would be cancelled until March 31.
And when we thought that nothing worse could happen to us this year, on March 22, 2020, the people of Zagreb were awakened at 6:24 a.m. by a 5.5 magnitude earthquake on the Richter scale. Many had to be evacuated from damaged buildings, including COVID-19 patients from the Dr. Fran Mihaljević University Hospital for Infectious Diseases in Zagreb, further jeopardizing the safety of all of us, especially the most vulnerable: children, the elderly and the sick. We health professionals were expected to remain clear-headed, gather all our strength, knowledge and skills, and provide our patients with the best of what was possible, and sometimes even the impossible. I recall the scene around my clinic, where the old and young, staff and patients, corona-positive and negative, were scattered on the grass and the parking lot, shivering from the cold and fear. And they remembered his words: My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
Nevertheless, we survived that, too, and we shall continue to survive, even when faced with greater challenges. We have demonstrated and proven that we cannot do without one another: physicians without nurses, patients without health care professionals, health care professionals without non-medical and support staff, personnel without spiritual assistants, spiritual assistants without personnel, parents without children, and children without parents.
The Croatian Catholic Medical Society will become vigorous again. Although we do not know when at the moment, there will certainly be lectures and public discussions, symposia and pilgrimages, meetings and socializing, prayer and fasting. Until then, we should partake in this “Lenten renewal” in the spirit of the passion and cross of Our Lord, as an opportunity to think about the signs of the times, as well as our weaknesses and human limitations. Therefore, renouncing the sins of thought, word, deed and omission, let us unite in prayer during Holy Week. In these challenging times, may this Holy Week give us Catholic faithful the strength to take the lead in fulfilling our responsibilities in the spirit of our calling and in the spirit of evangelical patience, goodness and perseverance. Let us devotedly tend to those entrusted to our medical care to the best of our ability, so that they will be able to experience the joy of Christ’s resurrected presence.
Today, on Palm Sunday, instead of welcoming Jesus with palm and olive branches, let us prepare a joyful welcome for him in our hearts. May the Lord, of whom the prophet says [m]y face I did not hide from insults and spitting, therefore, I am not disgraced (Is 50, 4‒7), shine his face upon us. Through his glorious entry into Jerusalem, may he enter each of our hearts and homes.
The Palm Sunday of Our Lord, 2020
Rok Čivljak, President of the Croatian Catholic Medical Society