As Italy enters the fifth week of its lockdown, Kamin Mohammadi gives the rest of the world some insights into what happens next.
The First Two Weeks
Remember Week One? That faraway time characterised by confusion and anxiety and a sort of elation? We in Italy were as confused as you are in Britain about what activities justified going out. Teenagers – who had by then been out of school for two weeks –roamed the streets. Most businesses were still open, many people were still going to work, and so a decree was issued closing bars, restaurants, gyms and all non-essential businesses.
Decree after decree limited our movements ever closer to home, closing parks when people were spotted walking cats and even goldfish in bowls, auto-certification was required by law to state why you were out, subject to fines and a criminal record if found to be untrue. The Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was on TV every night, sober, measured, focused. He urged his countrymen to stay at home. Celebrities appeared on television and social media, filmed at home in their tracksuits, begging people not to go out, for the good of the country.
Everything stopped. Everyone was at home. Even with the growing horror of the Coronavirus pandemic which has dominated this year, this was unimaginable and we were in shock.
This enforced exercise in empathy makes us feel determined to eventually build a society that is fairer and more equaL
We were also in mass grief for the numbers of dead, for the horrific images coming out of northern Italian hospitals, for funerals families could not attend, for lonely deaths encased in plastic. We shuddered at the sight of the Pope’s solitary figure in the vast empty space of St Peter’s Square. We wept every time we saw the Palazzo Cighi lit up in the colours of the Italian flag. We talked about all the plagues Italy has survived in the past and found the comparisons somehow unhelpful.
Italians trapped in their apartments in cities took to their balconies and windows at 6pm every day to sing the national anthem together, to bang pots and pans, to shake tambourines and to sing popular songs, to applaud the healthcare workers. The sense of solidarity and unity was immense and gave us all a feeling of community that was surprising given the death of social life.
Everyone suddenly found they had time to talk to friends and family all over the world. Social life via video calls blossomed, social media became everyone’s method of documenting their lockdown. Parents tried to figure out homeschooling and how to navigate lockdown life in small city apartments. Our homes became spotless as we did thorough spring cleans for perhaps the first time ever. In my shopping forays, I was charmed by the new-found politeness and reserve of Italians who now quietly asked, from at least one metre away, if you would mind moving your trolley so they could pass, whereas once they would have just walked over you, running their trolley over your toes, while talking loudly on the phone.
Italy Finds its Heart
It was as if Italy matured overnight – the anarchic, rule-breaking Italian character morphed into one embracing social responsibility and the greater good over individualism. Kindness shone out everywhere and became our new modus operandi, from politicians (who stopped spinning and mudslinging), to celebrities, to the army of volunteers and neighbours looking out for each other, for the more vulnerable. We said ‘Italy has found its heart again’ and felt it to be true.
The news dominated our time and our talk from the moment we woke up to the moment we went to sleep. If we slept at all. We tried not to think about our lost incomes and were just felt grateful to be alive, to have a roof over our heads, food in the fridge. We signed up for courses, we made online communities, we embraced the culture of this great country that was suddenly available to us online for free: virtual tours of museums we had long ignored when they were on our doorstep, concerts played in empty auditoriums so they could be live-streamed.
Technology saved us. Yoga teachers started conducting classes through conference calling apps, group workouts and online aperitivos and dinner parties became ubiquitous. Rainbows drawn by children trapped at home and inscribed with the hashtag #andratuttobene (everything will be ok), hung out of windows everywhere.
They gave us hope and courage every time we saw footage of army trucks carrying away dead bodies at night from epicentres like Bergamo because the crematoria could not cope and the world-class hospitals of the wealthy Lombardy region teetered on the brink of collapse.
We all recognised that the healthcare workers needed protection, even as the state failed to supply them with adequate PPE, and so we took it upon ourselves to lighten their load by not getting infected, by applauding them from our windows. We applauded when Germany became the first European country to come to Italy’s aid by taking some of Lombardy’s intensive care patients, sending special COVID-19 ambulances equipped with ventilators to lighten Italy’s load.
We shared pictures of Venice’s crystal-clear canals filled with fish, ducks sauntering down a silent Grand Canal, the dolphins visiting the coast of Sardinia for the first time in 20 years, the wild boar seen wandering down the street in Padua, the deer dancing with joy on the shoreline of Viareggio’s beach, usually a chequerboard of sun loungers and umbrellas. We realised that this was not going to end in a couple of weeks and that there would be no ‘normal’ again. That there was no going back.
As I negotiated daily decrees and ever-increasing limits imposed on my movements – now within 200 metres of home – I watched my friends in London going to parties, getting on tubes. I listened to the British Government talk of ‘herd immunity’ and I thought I would go mad with worry for my loved ones. American friends here called me and cried bitter tears at the actions of the US President, crying out “but don’t they see our suffering? Does what Italy is going through count for nothing?” We felt abandoned by the world.
The Second Fortnight
Sometime around two weeks in, a hush descended. The most upbeat social media users went quiet, no longer posting their daily activities. Online courses were abandoned, and ‘spiritual teachers’ telling us how positive this time is were switched off. Reality settled on us like the layer of dust beginning now to gather on our pristine mantelpieces.
Consumption of news has had to be limited for the sake of our mental health – the quotidian routine has become more about staying sane than following the latest figures moment-by-moment.
On a societal and even personal level, grievances have had to be shelved. Warring couples have put aside their differences to get through this enforced togetherness, with the law courts closed, legal disagreements have been put on ice. Many parents have abandoned the earlier structured days of home-schooling and day drinking has become the norm for some.
This is not a holiday, nor is it a sabbatical. As a writer, I had decided to treat lockdown as a writing retreat, but I realised it is also not that. Slowly it has dawned on us that we are here witnessing a great change in global human behaviour; a catastrophe that with every day that passes makes our habitual way of life increasingly impossible to contemplate.
Armed police deployed outside Sicilian supermarkets to stop the hungry from walking out with unpaid-for trolley-loads of food. Unemployment started to bite for many and the state’s promised help felt inadequate at best and scornful at worst. While the state has promised the regions €400 million of cash, regional governors have complained this is not nearly enough.
Poverty is the new reality for many, especially for those whose living is precarious, who are freelance, or who work off the books. Tourism has been wiped out, a source of income that will not return any time soon. The city of Florence, the economy of which is not only based on tourism but also on industrial sectors such as mechanics, fashion and pharmaceuticals, is facing an estimated loss of €1 billion.
The great leveller has also cruelly exposed our divisions – city dwellers going stir crazy stuck in small flats hit out at those posting pictures of spring-time walks in rural isolation. Domestic violence has shot up by 80% despite the police launching an app through which victims can call for help, and rising incidences of homicide and suicide speak of relationships that cannot be managed in isolation.
Even the most die-hard business people are talking of an unsustainable system which needs to change, an attitude reflected in Conte’s recent letter to the EU, in which he politely suggested that the EMF needs to work out a different fiscal system that allows €100 billion for manoeuvre for member states.
Looking Back at the UK
As I glance at Britain – my other country which I am not sure when I will be allowed back into – and I hear the confidence with which people speak of peaks and second waves and of knowing all about life in lockdown, I feel nostalgic for those days when we too thought that we had any real grip on this disease.
We still listen to experts and scientists and the politicians, to their projections, their modelling, but I certainly no longer confidently quote them. Have we reached the peak here? So they say. Are we flattening the curve? Looks like it. Is Italy beginning to slow down the rate of infection – yes, that seems true. But let’s be clear: it is estimated that the real figures are at least 10 times the official ones, which stand at 132,547 as I write.
Cautious talk of a small light at the end of a long tunnel has been followed by discussion of ‘riapertura’ – the reopening and how it will be implemented. Roberto Speranza, the Health Minister, set the tone for what this could mean when he said: “We have to be honest. The situation remains dramatic. The emergency is not finished… Our work is to create the conditions for living with this virus. There, the right verb is to live with. At least until we have a vaccine or a cure.”
Talk is of a partial reopening of industry, of hospitals devoted only to COVID-19 patients, of widespread testing, of an app that tracks the contacts and movements of those who have tested positive and anyone they may have infected, of ongoing social distancing and obligatory masks for all.
We look to the success of Vo’ in the Veneto, one of the first epicentres which was instantly closed off and where, through aggressive testing and isolating of all its 3,000 citizens, the rate of infection fell to zero within weeks. We look to Nerola, a small hilltop village near Rome and another epicentre recently declared a red zone, where the army has closed all access to the village for anyone other than the team of doctors and scientists who are turning it into a human laboratory for understanding how the disease spreads through a community. We feel – as the villagers do – that Italy is conducting an experiment for the world, and yet we wonder if the world can see Italy’s sacrifice, feel its great pain and suffering.
Going into week five, what I now know and see reflected in those around me here is that we don’t know anything. We are desperately clinging to science and statistics – our new God – but we in Italy know that this is educated speculation at best.
Lessons for the Future
Italy admits that it reacted late, that its lockdown should have happened much sooner. We cannot understand why it took the US and UK so long to follow our lead when Italy’s example was so very evident. And so we still ask: ‘But don’t they see our suffering? Does what Italy is going through count for nothing?’
I know I have been changed when I listen to a report from the UK stating that care home residents are being asked to sign ‘do not resuscitate’ orders and I shudder, grateful that there has never been any such debate in Italy. We are happy for small gains – the fact that there is no longer talk of doctors having to choose which lives to save, that now all of Italy’s fashion brands are making masks and PPE, that hospitals are coping better.
As we enter week five of what could be many more weeks in isolation, the initial burst of elation has calmed, but the sense of solidarity and community still exists, albeit with the volume turned down. We can no longer quite remember which day of lockdown we are on and we are no longer bothered by our ‘quarantine hair’, so used are we to seeing celebrities with bad hair and shiny noses.
We are getting worryingly used to seeing so many police on the streets and the army closing off certain places. We have even reluctantly accepted the inevitability of tracking apps, surveillance, possibly health certificates, as a way out but are not quite ready yet to contemplate the darker implications of this. We are getting used to the feeling of living in limbo.
Most of all we are becoming aware that we are all in mass mourning, that the grief that sits on our chests never quite leaves and so we are becoming kinder to ourselves, finding unexpected contentment in living at such a slow pace, letting go of ambitions that already feel like they belong to ‘the world before’.
And yet, we are the lucky ones. We know that Italy will be leading the world. When it reconstructs itself, at all levels of society, there is a palpable desire to make sure Italy is led as much by its heart as it has been through this pandemic. And it is this visceral knowledge, this enforced exercise in empathy that makes us feel determined to eventually build a society that is fairer and more equal.