On Monday, the Vatican press office issued an official photo of Pope Francis and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte ahead of a private audience in which they discussed the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on the world, according to an Italian government spokesman.
What was most telling about the photo wasn’t the look of concern on the leaders’ faces – it was the fact that the men appeared to be standing closer to each other than the one meter (three feet) dictated by current social distancing norms in parts of Europe.
Vatican City is the seat of the Catholic church, and it has been a sovereign state in the middle of Rome since 1929. It has 605 residents, all with a Vatican City passport and who are out of Italy’s legal jurisdiction. And while Rome and the rest of Italy impose stringent social distancing rules, multiple reports inside Vatican City suggest that the Holy See is doing far less than the rest of Italy to stop the spread.
Some residents of the city-state are being carefully protected – Pope Francis, well into his 80s with a damaged lung from an infection in his 20s, has twice tested negative for the novel coronavirus. He is being distanced from anyone who might be carrying the virus, the Vatican press office says, and he takes his meals in his private quarters and uses hand sanitizer before and after meeting any guests.
But precautions seem far more lax for church employees lower down the ranks. The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has told employees to come to the office to avoid documents, files and archives from leaving the office, one employee told the Associated Press last week. Other offices, like the Propaganda Fide, require their employees to come in twice a week for the same reason.
A source who lives inside Vatican City provided CNN with photos of full parking lots and long lines of cars outside Vatican City’s main Santa Anna gates, filled with workers waiting to come to work.
The source told CNN that many of those entering Vatican City are there to shop at the private supermarket and pharmacy, making it difficult for its residents to shop for themselves.
The source also sent photos of nuns who live in convents outside Vatican City queuing for the Vatican supermarket and pharmacy, despite confirmed outbreaks in two Roman convents. There are no thermal scanners and the stores do not require patrons to wear masks or gloves, though many do.
In contrast, just outside the Vatican walls, the entire city of Rome has been on lockdown since March 10 and all non-essential work has been prohibited. Anyone defying the lockdown faces fines up to €3,000. Anyone traveling through the city of Rome to work inside Vatican City is required to carry a letter stating that their work is essential.
The Vatican press office has confirmed that the Pope is still holding meetings and private audiences. Many of the Holy See’s offices are still functioning inside the sovereign city state. But the lack of lockdown sends a curious message, especially considering the elderly priests who dominate the population inside the walls. Six cases have been confirmed in the Vatican so far.
Though only a small number of cases have been diagnosed, Vatican City has among the highest per capita occurrence of the virus.
The Vatican City resident also told CNN that Swiss Guards, who serve as the city-state’s de facto military, were told they could not wear masks so that they would “not instill fear” in other residents.
“I watch the cars making a line outside Vatican City, waiting to pass security checks by the Swiss Guards before their drivers need to badge in at offices,” the source writes.
“Or perhaps they’re just popping in to pick up a few things from the supermarket or pharmacy. The normality is breathtaking. Breathtakingly stupid, as every person who enters by car or on foot, breathes dangerously close to the young Swiss Guards and then again when they pass the Vatican’s second security point, the Gendarmes, none of whom are armed with gloves or even a face mask, let alone a thermal scanner.”
Both security forces live in communal barracks within the Vatican. “The recent mass outbreaks in Roman convents should be a warning, but so far it has gone unheard,” says the source.
The resident has complained to higher-ups that the lack of lockdown is putting both Pope Francis and Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI in peril because of his advanced age and potential vulnerability if he were to contract the novel coronavirus. For now, though, the source considers Benedict “the safest person in the whole city” – with no visitors allowed in or out of his private residence.
The source also says that while mass is prohibited outside the Vatican City walls, there are regular masses held for residents and employees inside St. Peter’s Basilica, which is closed to the general public. Residents are also allowed to roam through the church and pray in the chapels.
On Monday, Italy’s La Stampa newspaper reported that the Vatican had ordered 700 Covid-19 test kits. The Vatican Press office has not confirmed the story.
Last week Pope Francis stood alone in the middle of St. Peter’s square to deliver an extraordinary Urbi et Orbi prayer to “respond to the pandemic” even though by all measures, he is not practicing what he preaches in his own back yard.