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Italian Diary III

March 25th

We woke to the news that Coronavirus had claimed 514 lives in Spain over the past twenty-four hours. And that India has locked down its 1.3 billion population. Anyone who might have thought this was an Italian problem has now been brusquely disabused. This contagion is running rampant and claimed a further 743 lives in Italy yesterday. Another shocking, sobering toll. Grasping for optimism, it should be noted that the number of cases grew in Italy by a smaller percentage than the previous day and was +8.2% and that this is the lowest percentage jump since February 21st. This is the third consecutive day that this percentage has fallen and offers a glimmer of hope on what will be a long and winding road.

Karl Marx wrote about history repeating itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. This has never seemed truer than it does today. Although the farce doesn't come until the tragedy has been repeated, many times over. Italy was the first country to bear the brunt of #Covid-19. It scrambled and reacted as best it could, probably too slowly initially. It got little support from other European countries and its clampdown was derided by some, especially among the right wing in the UK and the US, as excessive. Over the past few weeks, I have been one of many, many voices trying to alert people in other countries about what was coming their way so they could batten down earlier and lessen the impact. Looking out from Italy has been like looking at a collective car crash happening, several times over and in slow motion, all the way across the world. Now, mercifully, it seems that Europe, including the UK, is for the most part doing the right thing, doing what Italy is doing, going into lockdown (even if Leo Varadkar in Ireland, for reasons I don’t quite understand, refuses to call it that). They are doing this for the simple reason that it is the only thing to do.

But then I look across the Atlantic to the United States and I see a country – well not a country but its president ‑ who just doesn’t want to see what is happening around him (25,000 Covid-19 cases in New York, 210 deaths)  and is now talking about having the country “back to work” by Easter, or Sunday, April 12th. He adds: "Wouldn't it be great to have all of the churches full?" he said. "You'll have packed churches all over our country. I think it’ll be a beautiful time." This is sick. Even though Italy has been over two weeks in lockdown, we are still seeing our health system pushed to its limits and countless deaths. Physical/social distancing measures take weeks to bear fruit. I feel for Americans who just can’t stay home and my heart goes out to so many friends from the US who are feeling angry and desolate about what’s happening around them and having to get through this despite their president. As many have pointed out, many governors are doing a good job in locking down their individual states.

Here, we are all doing our best to keep our spirits up. Like many who will read this, we’ve been talking to family, friends, colleagues by phone or skype, sharing video clips on Whatsapp, like the one I have attached to this message of an Italian heading out for coffee much to the annoyance of his wife. https://twitter.com/RupertMyers/status/1242063995118522371?s=09

Last night I had a skype aperitivo with some of my friends who, like me, teach at the University of Macerata. We commute together up and down to Macerata from Rome each week and one of our usual topics for conversation is what a pain the journey is – three hours over the Apennines on a Monday and three more back later on in the week. We travel three or four to a car and take turns with the driving and, we are, I’d like to think, pretty environmentally friendly. Our new Skype-aperitivo group is called Vivailpendolarismo or long live commuting, which is a nod to how happy we’d all be to revert to the same old, same old. Talking to them last night, we compared notes on the situations of our families around Italy and elsewhere and on teaching through the crisis. None of them had lost their sense of humour or their determination but like everyone else we all feel a bit fragile and apprehensive and everyone seems too distracted to be able enjoy the usual distractions. It is hard not to be.

The Covid-19 virus continues to exact a terrifying toll of death in Italy. Especially in the beautiful city of Bergamo in Lombardy, known more usually as the birthplace of the great Gaetano Donizetti, the composer of some of what Mr Browne in Joyce’s “The Dead” calls “the grand old operas” like L’Elisir d’amore, Lucia di Lammermoor and Lucrezia Borgia (the opera house there carries his name). Bergamo is also known as a World Heritage Site, with its splendid upper and lower cities, its cobblestoned streets and Venetian wall. It is a city with a population of approximately 120,000 (the province has a population that exceeds one million). Many Irish have travelled there, especially during the Celtic Tiger years, sometimes on one-day shopping trips, taking advantage of cheap flights into its Orio airport. All that was part of another life, some of it temporarily and maybe some of it now permanently suspended.

Today, since the onset of Covid-19, Bergamo is known as the epicentre of the virus in Italy. 6,728 cases have been detected there, with a death being registered every half-hour in recent days. The crematorium in Bergamo is working twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week but even that is not enough to deal with the number of dead bodies from the pandemic. On March 18th, the world watched in shock as footage showed sixty-five dead bodies being taken by army trucks to Ferrara, where they were met by the mayor of the city, wearing his fascia tricolore (tricolour band), before being sent to the crematorium. On March 24th a further thirty-three corpses were transported by the army to Ferrara. The ashes will be returned to Bergamo in the coming days, a small consolation to the grieving families who did not have the chance to comfort or say goodbye to their dying loved ones. Funerals have been suspended and even priests might be hard to find. Fifteen clergymen, mostly elderly, have been taken by Coronavirus in the Bergamo area. 

There are many cities whose spirit might be broken by such loss. But Bergamo is resilient. A sign of its fighting spirit can be seen in the announcement today that two doctors from one of the hospitals in the front line, the Papa Giovanni XXIII, flew to Rome last week, in the midst of the crisis, on hearing that a pair of lungs were available for a transplant. Mara Giovannelli and Marco Fabrizio Zambelli then returned with the life-saving lungs to the team led by Professor Michele Colledan and they successfully performed the transplant. The patient who received the lungs is a fifty-four-year-old suffering with Ccystic fibrosis. He is said to be doing well. Every life matters and perhaps this is felt even more acutely at a time of such widespread death.

Last year this one hospital in Bergamo carried out one hundred and fifty organ transplants. Thirteen of them were lung transplants. To put this in perspective, a total of 274 transplants (including thirty-eight lung transplants) were carried out in the Republic of Ireland last year. This gives a sense of the kind of pressure the Irish hospital system may come under over the next few weeks. The hospital system in Lombardy is excellent but it has been brought to breaking point by the unceasing arrival of more Covid-19 sufferers. That is why doctors continue to appeal to the public, at home and abroad, not to think that they are somehow bulletproof or exceptional but pleading with them to bunker down and practice physical/social distancing.

Bergamo has been on lockdown for over two weeks now and the city is beginning to see signals that the tide might just be starting to turn. It officially has 6,728 active cases, and probably many more, but the trend is in decline. Today there were 257 new cases, on Monday, 255, on Sunday 347, and on Saturday, the darkest day of all, 715. The message from Bergamo and from Italy is one of hope and it’s very simple: staying home saves lives.

But as we all know staying home has its challenges as the weeks stretch on. I haven’t been out since Saturday and Alice is the designated shopper tomorrow. We urgently need onions which I forgot to buy at the weekend. My next big outing will be to put the rubbish out later today and I’ve postponed it to the afternoon to have something to look forward to. Alice announced on Monday that she was taking two days off work – Thursday and Friday this week – which drew a puzzled look from me. Sure wouldn’t it be all the same, whether you’re at work or not? But I see why she needs a few days off. She has been getting up, getting dressed and ready to appear at work on screen around 8.30 each morning. Her work days are longer than they ever were when she actually went into work even if she’s spared a slow commute into the centre of Rome. And she, like many, is finding being connected with colleagues in endless monitor meetings has its challenges. So time out is needed. Add to that that Enrico has school work to catch up on and good as he is, at eight, he can’t really get through it all on his own. How bewildering can all this be to young children who both know and don’t know something is up?

I suggested that seeing as she can’t go anywhere for her long weekend that she might as well choose Jamaica as her holiday destination and I offered to write “Jamaica” on an A4 or to get Enrico to draw his version of Jamaica and stick it on the bedroom door. As soon as that’s done, she knows that whenever she needs time out, she can just head over to or into “Jamaica” and close the door behind her. Looking forward to her first postcard.  

Stay home, stay safe. This storm will pass.

26/3/2020