Red Cross, interview with Francesco Rocca: "during COVID-19 I felt my fragility"

Red Cross President, but also a human being. Francesco Rocca answered our questions and expressed all himself and his feelings influenced by a violent and disastrous event: COVID-19 pandemic


Francesco Rocca: Castiglione delle Stiviere, Brazil, Italian 118 reform, COVID-19 in Lombardy, the role of the volunteer and much else.

The President of the Red Cross is kind from the very beginning. We have chosen to reserve a few time for our own interview in order to let space to volunteers and audience at the meeting to talk with their President.

We focused on many topics: Brazilian scenarios, Italian 118 EMS system, the calls to the families of volunteers and responders died from COVID-19, politics clashes on the pandemic, his own worst moments, the value of volunteers in this fight and much more.

Francesco Rocca, the interview: his personal feelings during COVID-19

– “The first question is perhaps a little bit personal. I’ve often wondered how someone in a role like yours must feel. I cannot imagine how is facing such a virus, of which you did not know anything and leading teams of first responders. You also had to take responsibility for sending them into the unknown, to help those in need. How did you feel?”

“Now I’m a little better, personally. The first few weeks have been something truly devastating. I had no idea of what was it. Yet, Red Cross faced so many emergencies but for the first time, I have experienced my fragility. It has been difficult to meet so important decisions about people’s lives.

On one hand, the generosity of the volunteers, who immediately went beyond all expectations, helped me. On the other hand, according to my personal point of view, it was dramatic. It was a drama finding the personal protective equipment (PPEs) in the first periods of the pandemic.

Then, I felt so bad thinking that all those people on the front line were experiencing the same difficulty. I couldn’t fall asleep at night. Even if I could give an impression of calm in public, I confess that my personal situation was dramatic.

I constantly lived with this situation, especially with the news that arrived from Lombardy. Our volunteers got sick, many ended up in intensive care, and then someone also died.

I can remember the first volunteers I called. They were at home and they did not feel well. I remember the calls to the families of those who didn’t make it. Those were the hardest moments of my life. I’m saying this with great respect for our mission, and I speak for myself: it is easier to go and help those who are victims of an earthquake, a flood, an armed conflict and are far away.

There is an almost “muscular” relationship between those who help and those who got helped. We were all in this: the virus was very “democratic” in this sense. It put us all on the same level, and in this sense, it brought us in a certain way to our origins.

To the community of Castiglione Delle Stiviere that found itself in the middle of the battle and took care of our wounded, but also the wounded of the enemy army. In this sense, we found ourselves faced with this reality.

On the other hand, the importance of local voluntary work was highlighted. And I am not just talking about the Red Cross. How much the local voluntary work, then, is the first actor.

Since the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 (link at the end of the article) all of us spoke out of turn with the role of the local rescuer. But in fact, at every humanitarian crisis, there are tens of thousands people who go to the place of the disaster and very often claim to tell those who have always been there how to behave and what to do. Many times, these situations are far from what the local community mentality.

What we experienced was also a test of how important it is to be linked to our communities.


Francesco Rocca and the Red Cross in the world during COVID-19

– “COVID-19 treatment in patients and the degree of infection in Italy seem to have greatly improved. But the Red Cross is an international association. As President also of the International Red Cross, what are the strategies you are preparing for other countries? Like some countries in development, (India and Brazil, for example), where COVID-19 is still in phase 1. What answers you are preparing”.

“We are giving all that we can to support the Brazilian and the Indian Red Cross. Even if they are in two opposite points of the globe, they are living in a similar situation. They have a great tradition, and they are very present in many areas, while in others their presences are more fragile. Contact is constant. In this case, there are no people from abroad, except those who were already there to support the local Red Cross.

They are working hard. We have sent economic and technological resources so that they can work at best of their capacity, but what we can do now, is to provide information.

I was criticized about ten days ago, someone said ‘the Red Cross enters politics’ because I was a bit critical about how some figures in those countries have interacted with the virus, from the very beginning. But it is also true that our neutrality does not mean stupidity. When you have to deal with a disease there is nothing to do: it is always the scientific community to show the way.

So if we are all pointing out the importance of wearing a facemask as a basic PPE, rather than speaking of the importance of social distancing, surely the judgment cannot be positive. And these countries are paying the price for this because at the beginning they had resisted a bit, this pandemic.”

Emergency Live pointed out how this virus also demonstrated a macabre political satire. The example of Bolsonaro is the last of a long list. But Francesco Rocca intervened with determination: “Italy was not one of the best examples. Let us remind the claim “Milano non si ferma” (Milan won’t stop). Then Milan had to stop, and dramatically. It is important to listen to what the scientific community says”.


Francesco Rocca on the volunteer first responders condition

– “Speaking of politics, in these weeks Italy is experiencing the debate on the draft of the 118 emergency service system reform. The Government Health Commission is questioning on many points. Have you had the chance to read the draft? What’s the idea?”

“The figure of the first responder is the main topic. It is time to define the first responder in Italy. The problem with those who want to professionalize the figure of the responder is, ‘tell me where we went wrong.’

Tell me if there is evidence that volunteering did not work. Tell me where the volunteers have brought less quality than the advanced emergency management systems we have in some regions.

Because that’s what we’re talking about. Then, after we have recognized that the theme is not volunteering, but it is a theme of those who pass for volunteers, but who are not. They are those who seek shortcuts in the training of the volunteer, then willing to think about the paths that will protect what is a tradition near to us, of our tradition of being a community.

The thing that made me angry, and in the end, I got also sued for, was because I reacted strongly to the figure of the volunteer first responder, while precisely the first responder risked his life in those days of COVID-19.

In this crisis, how much central was the knowledge of the territory, the people, especially in small towns?

This is the wealth that allowed us to manage contact with people affected by the crisis in a less dramatic way. When a volunteer entered a house where there was a sick person they might never see again. If this reform is going to be an attack on the world of volunteers, I am not even going to sit down: there is no debate.

If, on the other hand, it is a question of understanding how the world of volunteers works and is safeguarded, and together with it, the health of people is, we are absolutely available to speak. But do not speak of a thousand hours. They are useless.

However, once stated by me that there is no reduction of quality in the services offered by volunteers, in coordination with the 118 regional departments, they have to explain to me what is the impact of the costs for the ‘professionalization’ on the National Health System”.

Red Cross, it’s volunteers turn: questions to Francesco Rocca

Our interview saw a very affable Red Cross President. We discussed many important points. The traditional part of the interview finished and we left volunteers to aks their questions to Francesco Rocca. Or, some of them, while if we had to ask all the questions, we had to take many hours.

The questions concerned other important topics, like the rights of the detainees, the Red Cross involved in COVID-19 missions in Africa, the Italian Red Cross internal speech and much more.





Croce Rossa, intervista al presidente Francesco Rocca: “nel Covid ho toccato con mano la mia fragilità”


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