Coronavirus, the strength of Fabrizio: the volunteer who rescued migrants now drives the ambulance in Brescia


Fabrizio Gatti, 57 years old, from Brescia, volunteer of Mediterranea, is the answer to those who doubt that humanitarian organizations are engaged in the Covid-19 emergency. “To intervene on land or at sea it doesn’t make a difference for us, it’s always and only about helping people”.

By Fabio Tonacci, la Repubblica. Cover photo by Francesco Bellina

He took Simba, raised him to the sky on a late August night, and it seemed like he wanted to scream to the whole of Europe: this is who we are rejecting, explain now to this four-month-old baby why you don’t want him, why he scares you, why there is no place for him. It was August 28, 2019; the ship Mare Jonio was kept twelve miles away from the island of Lampedusa, following Minister Salvini’s “safety” decree. The man who passed Simba to the Italian coastguards, between waves two meters tall, who has been immortalized in a photo that has gone viral, now is in Brescia, facing a different storm, a new humanitarian emergency. Where other men and women are drowning. He drives an ambulance, has a crew of three people: history knows how to be truly lavish with coincidences, because when he was at sea with Mediterranea, he was also driving, but in that case was it was a life raft, not an ambulance, yet his crew was still made of three people.

His name is Fabrizio Gatti, he is from Brescia, he is 57 years old, he is part of the social enterprise that manages the scientific park AmbienteParco in his city; since 1986 he has been a volunteer of the White Cross. He is the living answer to those who, in these hours, are maliciously wondering: now, with Coronavirus, where are the NGOs? What do they do now that Italians, and not migrants, need help? Answer: they are at the forefront of this disaster, everyone as they can, as they must, as they know. As always.

Fabrizio is the involuntary protagonist of a video – recorded on board of Mare Jonio by Repubblica – that has been renamed “the transshipment of shame”. Sixty-four castaways that had to be moved [by order of the Italian authorities] from the humanitarian rescue ship to a Coast Guard patrol boat in the middle of a stormy night at sea, with waves so big that the two boats were swaying up and down like swings. Among the rescued there was an Ivorian child, who everyone started to call Simba after seeing that photo, because it resembled a famous scene of the movie The Lion King. “I still think about that night… pure insanity, and insane has been who gave that order; yet I remember well that even the Coast Guard crew were angry about what they were ordered to do,” says Gatti.

Fabio Tonacci: From the waves of Lampedusa to the drama of the dead in Brescia, with the hospitals that can’t take it anymore and the infected people on the rise. How’s that different?

Fabrizio Gatti: “To intervene on the road or at sea doesn’t make a difference: it’s always about driving a vehicle and a rescue team to save people. Here I take them to the hospital, over there I took them on board. In Brescia we operate three ambulances for the 118 emergency service, and two more for other types of assistance”.

FT: Not even a small difference?

FG: “Well, at sea we were better prepared, we knew who had to do what, how and when. Here we have been overwhelmed: it is a daily hallucination, we chase the emergency, but it doesn’t seem we can catch it”

FT: What’s the situation?

FG: “Surreal … in thirty years as a volunteer I have never seen such a thing. And I am 57 years old, a lot of water has passed under the bridge. Today, ambulances do not enter the hospital anymore: they arrive in the tents outside the emergency room, tents that are already full of patients”.

FT: Where are you now?

FG: “At home, in quarantine. A couple of weeks ago we did one of the first home resuscitation interventions on a patient, a 69-year-old man who later turned out to be Covid-positive and later on died. He had the fever for ten days already, but nothing else, he seemed like a person without particular problems. Even though we wore protective equipment, my crew and I were quarantined for safety reasons. They visited me in one of those tents set up in front of the Brescia hospital: they were empty at that time, we were only six people inside. Today they are not enough for everyone. My quarantine time is about to end, but I am already helping out, like the other volunteers of Mediterranea Saving Humans”.

FT: How can you help if you can’t leave your house?

FG: “On the phone. I help with the coordination of the land crews of Mediterranea who are giving assistance to the Civil Protection agency with the delivery of food to the elderly and homeless. Then we have 112 medical doctors and other health workers who are part of our health support: they all work in the national health system and since the beginning of the epidemic they have been at their hospitals, many in Bergamo and Brescia”.

FT: What else?

FG: “During the August mission, Dr. Donatella Albini and the psychiatrist Carla Ferrari Agradi were also on board. They are from Brescia like me. Donatella is a medical consultant for the municipal government, she spends her days in the hospital to manage the emergency; Carla has set up a psychiatric phone assistance service, with 15 professionals answering calls. One of the problems, as she explained to me, is that psychiatric patients, left alone at home, are confused with the medicines to be taken”.

FT: Do you still look at that your picture with Simba your arms?

FG: “Yes, sometimes. And it makes me smile because I keep Simba too high, unnaturally; it was not a deliberate thing: I was passing adult people – much heavier – to the coastguard, and when it came the turn of that little boy, without realizing I used too much force. In a split second he was up in the air! ”

FT: What do you remember of that moment?

FG: “That I was extremely focused; we learn to be cold in those situations. But it hit me the next day: I secluded myself in a corner of Mare Jonio, I wasn’t able to speak or to explain to myself why someone from land had given the order to carry out a transhipment in such bad and dangerous conditions”.

FT: And did you manage to see Simba again?

FG: “Yes, on the cell phone. Francesco Bellina, the photographer who took that famous shot, tracked him down four months later in Turin and he sent me his photo. I didn’t even recognize that little boy, in four months he had changed so much, he became more chubby. He had, how to say… bloomed”.