I won’t speak about data and numbers, about contagion and hospitalizations: you can get all that type of information somewhere else. I’ve even thought whether writing this article was a good idea, whether bringing such a stark note into our biweekly journey into the Italian and Italian-American world was really necessary. Then, upon reflection, I came to the conclusion the coronavirus epidemic in our beloved country could not be ignored, quite simply. It would have been the quintessential “elephant in the room,” and it wouldn’t have been honest.
So, I’ve decided to speak about what’s happening in our country and tell you about how it is to live in Italy in the times of Covid-19.
Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way straight away: yes, we’re afraid. We’re afraid because no one can remember a time where we were asked to stay in the house as much as we could, as even going to the store for a pint of milk could mean catch something bad. We’re afraid because this thing is new, and really contagious and you cannot know and tell how far you are from someone who has it. We’re afraid because people, especially the elderly and those with previous pathologies, are at risk of getting extremely serious complications from what is, for most of us, just a pretty bad flu. And who doesn’t have a parent or a grandparent in their 70s, a friend with a weak immune system or suffering from asthma? Here, take my example: my father is 78 and my best friend is a doctor who happens to also have a heart condition. I’m honestly more afraid for them than I am for myself.
This first week of coronavirus in Italy has passed in the most surreal of atmospheres, between runs to the supermarket in the early morning to avoid meeting too many people and cancelling dinner dates with friends because “they’ve just been on that business trip to Milan.” On Monday last, a mere 36 hours after the lock down of Lombardia and Veneto’s Red Zones, supermarkets in my city had already run out of bleach and rubbing alcohol, the only two substances known to kill the new coronavirus. I had to check 4 of them to finally find some. And I don’t live in a high risk area — although we do have a relatively high number of people infected here, too. The elderly feel lost because churches are open, but masses are not celebrated, as by ordinance of dioceses in every region with active cases. “And the Pope has a cold, too… Let’s hope is nothing serious” (it’s not, don’t worry).
What scares maybe more of the virus are the scars the epidemic is bound to leave on our beautiful country and on us, as Italians. I keep finding myself thinking what people will think about me the next time I’ll fly to the US or take a train to France: will they think I am“infected”? Will they stay away from me and run to the bathroom washing their hands after seeing my passport? Silly, perhaps, but I’m sure I’m not the only Italian who thought about it. And there is our economy, the idea other countries will refuse our products for fear of contagion, the terrible certainty — data already tell us that — our tourism industry, this year, will have the most horrible of all annus horribilis you can think of: 70% cancellations already, flights empty, our hoteliers and restaurateurs dreading not to be able to keep their businesses open , if “things go on like this.”
It’s all very tragic and Covid-19 is no joke, but this week, believe it or not, we haven’t only learned how to wash our hands as they do in hospital to stop the virus from spreading, or the names of some important Italian virologists who’ve been putting order with their wise, knowledgeable words, in a sea of alarmist — and not always real — news.
We got to know that, of course — and write this in very bold, large letters somewhere you see it every day — coronavirus does not live on products and produce coming from Italy: buy that Parmigiano, enjoy your prosciutto and indulge in some prosecco. Buy that Italian suit and say yes to that colorful Venetian glass piece: the worst that can happen to you is to develop a healthy addiction to our Made in Italy or, if you have a glass too many of that prosecco, a tad of an headache in the morning. Nothing more than that. And it’s not me saying it, it’s world renowned medical experts. If anything, this is the moment to show love, support, and a sense of belonging to the land of your ancestors by proudly buying Italian and telling others to do it, too. Organize dinners with your friends, cook Italian food, share your commitment for the culture that made you who you are: Italy needs you, believe me.
We understand, from the people in the Red Zones (the areas of Lombardia and Veneto were the main Covid-19 clusters are) that full isolation from the rest of the world is doing something special to their communities: it’s bringing them together again. Children play in the streets, people speak to each other more, even if from a safe 1.5 meters distance; old friends rekindled their friendships and everyday friends, separated from the invisible ,army-guarded quarantine line, communicate with music, as a group of amateur bagpipe players did just yesterday, when they played on the outside of a Red Zone, and a friend of theirs, quarantined, played from the inside. People all over Italy rediscovered solidarity and civic sense, too: younger people doing the shopping for their elderly neighbors, so they don’t need to leave the house too often and relatives speaking to each other on the phone more often just to make sure everything is ok.
Our health system is solid and our doctors well trained, level headed, professional, courageous: even in a state of full emergency, even when forces are strained — as it is happening right now in Lombardia, the region with the highest amount of cases — our medical staff continues to offer reassurance, care, protection to each and everyone of us. Let me say it out loud, and to the world: thank you, guys. We complain often about the way our health system work, but we rarely realize how lucky we are.
This is a very difficult time for our country, and it won’t end when contagion stops. There’ll be consequences to face, economically and socially, there’ll be trust to rebuild, but Italy will make it: if there is a country that can, that’s us. It’ll take more than a virus to stop Italy.