A CRUEL SPRING IN ITALY

22 Mar 2020

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Monza town centre stands deserted under lockdown | Lello Piazza
Monza town centre stands deserted under lockdown | Lello Piazza

Last Saturday, my family and I stood in our balcony at midday. In the silence of a neighbourhood under lockdown, church bells rang in the hour. As the final bells faded, the area echoed with the sounds of a long applause — vigorous and impassioned. We joined in with the rest of the Italian cities, towns and villages in a nationwide show of gratitude to the doctors, nurses and health workers who have been braving the frontline in the fight to contain the coronavirus.

In an opinionated and argumentative Italy, such display of unity is fascinating. After a devastating number of dead and diseased, Italians now unanimously agree that doctors are angels and isolation is the only way forward.

Long before the lockdown, we had already understood that there are two ways of social distancing: either consider yourself a danger to humankind and step away, or look at everyone else with suspicion and step away. Italians quickly learned to undo what came naturally — no hugs and kisses, no stopping on the streets for a chat. We sat one metre apart from each other in restaurants while they were still open and now, after the lockdown, we use our shared gardens one family at a time.

Almost two weeks in, it seems that staying at home is not very difficult. We may be lonely, but we are not alone. Even in isolation, we are together in our experience of a crisis and the anxiety of the unknown. This is not a wartime curfew, it’s a First World lockdown: there is electricity, internet and good food in the fridge. The difficult part is the silence outside.

I live in the centre of the town of Monza and the windows of my house open on to the main road that used to be filled with the sounds of a steady stream of cars and people walking by. Now, all I hear is the chirping of the birds that have returned to the garden this spring, broken by unnerving sounds of ambulances passing by.

A Pakistani expat writes of her personal experience as the coronavirus engulfs life in a small Italian town and its nearby areas

But people have found ways to connect, entertain themselves and keep their spirits up. Social media keeps the country united and the world entranced. We have seen Italians singing from their balconies and playing the cello, harp, trumpet, tambourine, flute, piano, pots and pans — all that could be expected from a culturally alive country.

People maintain a safe distance from each other in a double queue outside the only open grocery store in Monza, Lombardia | Nico Piazza
People maintain a safe distance from each other in a double queue outside the only open grocery store in Monza, Lombardia | Nico Piazza

Recently, a group of people ran an 18-hour live broadcast on YouTube, moving from one “home” to another through video chat. Someone read a story for children, another read passages from a book. The chat moved to the editorial office of a local newspaper, followed by lunch with a chef who walked his audience through his recipes.

There’s a lot of life being led in front of digital screens as spring shines beautifully outside. From our windows, we have watched new leaves make their seasonal homes and the pink magnolias blossom and then begin to shed their short-lived flowers. It is a strange thing to witness spring without living it.

Many people are still working from home and some are also still travelling to their workplaces. Banks, grocery stores, tobacconists, newsagents and pharmacies are open, as are fire stations, rescue and funeral services. We are allowed to step out of our house, but not without a signed self-authorisation form that declares a permissible reason to do so.

Friends have been debating whether the lockdown will lead to more babies or divorces. Almost everyone is complaining about putting on weight. My friends and I are considering taking dance lessons online. Another friend has started baking for herself and her neighbours. People are volunteering to take on grocery shopping responsibilities for the elderly.

Some are getting dressed up for family meals, cooking special dinners and setting up restaurant-like tables at home. Newspapers have published supplements on what to do on Sundays — read a book, listen to music, call friends you otherwise have no time to speak with, watch a thriller, “or cry over a romantic film” and rediscover your love for small things, like the Italian national drink, the Negroni (a gin and Campari cocktail).

Local companies and individuals have donated generously to hospitals. The major newspapers have made their digital subscriptions almost free; internet companies have announced unlimited internet usage; the bigger cinema foundations are offering access to online video and book archives.

The government has delayed tax payments, announced breaks, cancelled mortgage payments for this month and prohibited companies from cutting off gas, electricity and water supply for the defaulters. There are special helplines for people over 65 and also a service that can deliver hot meals.

On the first day of the lockdown, our neighbours left a bottle of champagne outside our door. We have promised to pop it open together on the day this is all over.

While we are having aperitivi over video chats and lunch dates across laptop screens, it’s not all a merry picture with music, wine and pizza.

There is no escaping the trauma a nation goes through when 2,000 people perish in a month to a disease that creeps up without relenting. Through all the music, singing, clapping, chatting and cooking, this is the sadness that we carry in our hearts, all the time.

As I write this, again I faintly hear the unrelenting sound of an ambulance filling up an otherwise very quiet night. This is the fourth ambulance to have passed by this hour. This is devastating for a small town where now it is likely that you’d know somebody who tested positive or is hospitalised or, perhaps, didn’t make it. It’s devastating for families who have had to lock themselves away from their ageing parents only to keep them safe.

A video recently became viral on social media where a man flips through the obituary pages of a local newspaper from Bergamo. The province, 40 km from mine, has seen an alarming concentration of coronavirus cases. In early February one day, the obituary announcements in the paper were nearly one and a half page long. On March 13, they filled up 10 pages. These people are no longer just numbers made up of unknown names. They have stories. They include an old couple who died together, a 46-year-old health worker, a father and son who died a day apart. This is taking a toll on local communities.

According to reports, an ordinary Saturday in March in Bergamo would see four to five deaths in the city but now it’s averaging almost 20. This is also happening in a neighbouring town, Zogno, where “the parish priest decided to [ring] the death knell only once, because otherwise the funeral bells would continue all day.”

In one short and unending month, everything has changed.

Time has become a confounding concept. Inside the four walls of the house under lockdown, it sometimes stands still. Day markers have vanished. But in the nearby hospitals, time travels at another speed. The disease has traveled so quickly that, just three weeks ago, it seemed to be a faraway problem among a few faraway people. But health workers now tell us that it’s ‘a race against time’. One of the biggest hospitals in Milan says that new patients are coming in ‘every five minutes’. Prime Minister Conte says, ‘Time is running out.’

Then there is the time of dread: at 6pm every day the daily statistics of those who have died are released.

Time has also humbled Italians. It was just two short months ago, when articles were being written about the Italians’ racist behaviour towards the Chinese. It seems a lifetime has passed since then. Last week, a Chinese delegation of doctors arrived with medical supplies and expertise to help a nation in need. There were social media posts thanking China and celebrating China-Italy partnership while the Chinese ministry spokesperson talked about the common challenge of humanity, quoting the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca: “We are waves of the same sea, leaves of the same tree, flowers of the same garden.”

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 22nd, 2020