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Italian Diary V

March 31st

Our patience will achieve more than our force.
Edmund Burke

John McCourt writes: Monday was a full-on teaching day. Two hours on Macbeth and then three hours of translation. It never ceases to be odd hearing disjointed voices from nowhere on Microsoft Teams and the whole experience certainly tries my patience, which would not be particularly abundant at the best of times. I am the only one whose face is constantly visible on screen and I have to keep reminding myself that they can see me as I warble on even if I cannot see them. Stifle the scowls and try to park something approaching a smile across my face.

Students keep their cameras and microphones off when they are listening because they are typing. The alternative would be too much background noise. Still, you cannot but hear the random sounds from people’s unusually busy homes. I ask for a student to volunteer a translation and the silence is filled by someone saying chiudi la porta (shut the door) before someone else finally starts to speak. There are odd time lags. Let’s say that despite a lot of good will it’s not ideal and a lot of the connections sound like the students are speaking from the end of a wind tunnel. What is more disturbing is hearing the distant sirens of ambulances passing, reminding us all of where we are at in Italy right now. Of where my students are actually living, which is, for the most part, in and around the lovely city and province of Macerata and the Marche region. The university has been there since 1290. The city of Macerata has a population of around 40,000 but the province has over 300,000. Fifty-two people have died from Coronavirus in Macerata so far. The hospitals there, like elsewhere in Italy, are struggling to provide care for the unprecedented influx of ICU patients.

Yesterday’s Macerata section of Il Resto del Carlino (an important regional newspaper) carried an interview with Tiziana Saladino, an oncologist in the local hospital. Her husband is an anaesthetist and they have two children, aged thirteen and nine. Trying to keep on top of a hugely demanding job and two children that are confined to home is, to put it mildly, a challenge. Grandparents aren’t an option and in any case both Tiziana and her husband are originally from Calabria. In Tiziana’s words: “I haven't hugged my children for a month now, nor have I been able to comfort the sick with a caress. It is difficult for me as a mother and as a doctor, and it is difficult for everyone to understand the reason for this sudden detachment, which may seem cold.” In a way, the hardest part of it is getting home, exhausted, after finishing her shift: "As soon as I open the front door, I would usually hear the footsteps of my young son and the dogs running to welcome me. Now I have to tell them to keep their distance. I leave my shoes and clothes outside the door, I run to take a shower, then I put on my mask and gloves again. The same goes for my husband." What she misses is the physical, human contact, not being able to hug her kids, not being able to play with them, to console them in their sad moments. The children struggle with this new reality and trying to find appropriate words to explain it to them has not been easy. Tiziana continues: “I tried to tell that we are all fighting a war against something that we do not yet properly understand and for which we do not have a cure. This frightens and disappoints them. Before, they saw us as heroes, who were able to cure every disease.” What frightens Tiziana’s children is, in a way, what frightens us all: that we are dealing with a virus for which there is as yet no cure. It is important for us to remember that the doctors are the real heroes in this struggle and to thank them and pray for them but we need also to remember that they are real people, with real families, real homes, real challenges, real lives and that they are struggling. Sixty-three doctors have died from Coronavirus so far in Italy.

The funeral took place yesterday of Anna Maria Paccusse in Treia, a small town near Macerata. Anna Maria was a fifty-three-year-old mother who died from Coronavirus. Because of the current government restrictions to maintain physical/social distancing, her funeral was the first in the area to take place online. It won't be the last. Some 2,000 people followed the funeral rites, which were streamed live. During the ceremony, the priest read the words of one of the nurses who had taken care of Anna Maria. “She fought like a warrior and with great dignity. Before being intubated, she said, "pray for me, I won't forget you”. These were her last words.

Two questions came through to me last night which will illustrate the difficulties we have in handling the news right now. The order in which we read of recoveries or deaths can change the whole tone of an overall update. It is easy to be too upbeat but also to be the opposite. We are walking on very thin ice as Italy attempts to get through this emergency and eventually to exit from it. I am asked if there is any possibility that numbers may rise in the South of Italy as the peak is passed in the North. Yes, there is a risk but right now we are so caught in the day-to-day that it is difficult to look into the future and contemplate such scenarios. There is a realisation dawning on us all that even as the curve flattens process is still going to be very slow. Similarly, people already wonder about an exit strategy once the lockdown is relaxed, pointing out that Italy is going to be the EU country that is to the forefront of this issue.

Again, let's not put the cart before the horse. I do hope Italy is the first country to emerge but that too will bring its own pressure. If the scientists are not listened to and the politicians get the timing wrong it could cause a step backwards. But the scientists are also in unknown territory. Nobody is really contemplating an exit right now and the scientists are urging the politicians to delay a relaxation for as long as possible. When there is a loosening of the rules it may be done initially on a regional basis; it may be on a category-by-category basis. The key is to keep up the lockdown for as long as possible, although this will be increasingly hard to do as economic hardship bites and opportunistic political figures, such as Matteo Salvini of the Lega, orchestrate social media campaigns to foment discontent and anger among a stressed and worried populace.

While doctors and patients fight like warriors the rest of us have to wait and it will be our ability to wait, our ability to be patient that will ultimately get us out of this. Patience is defined as the “quality of being willing to bear adversities” to show “calm endurance of misfortune” and it comes from the Latin patientia: "the quality of suffering or enduring”. Although Shakespeare’s Iago wouldn’t be a great one to be taking advice from, there is wisdom in his words: “How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees?” The wound that is Coronavirus will not be eliminated overnight or even over a few weeks. It will be a long and painful journey with surprises, good and bad, along our path. We might heed the words of Norfolk to Buckingham in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII:

Stay, my lord,
And let your reason with your choler question
What 'tis you go about: to climb steep hills
Requires slow pace at first: anger is like
A full-hot horse, who being allow'd his way,
Self-mettle tires him.

Patience is not something we are well set up for nowadays. Ours is a culture that thrives on the instant and the instantaneous, but we are being taught quite a lesson in the need to pause, to slow down, to pazientare to use that lovely Italian word which is diminished in its English equivalent “to be patient”. While the stricken battle Coronavirus, the world has been turned into one gigantic waiting room, each of us checking, then checking again, to see if there is any news about the sufferer, about the chosen treatment, each one of us offering our own opinions, our own quack remedies.

Patience implies trust and that is what we are also asked for now. At the same time we try to see the positive side of this necessary forbearance, the positive side of having time. It is not easy. The contemporary American poet Kay Ryan captures this in a beautifully understated, calm way in her poem “Patience”, which might provide a tonic for some on what will be another long day.

Patience is
wider than one
once envisioned,
with ribbons
of rivers
and distant
ranges and
tasks undertaken
and finished
with modest
relish by
natives in their
native dress.
Who would
have guessed
it possible
that waiting
is sustainable—
a place with
its own harvests.
Or that in
time's fullness
the diamonds
of patience
couldn't be
distinguished
from the genuine
in brilliance
or hardness.

Image: the city of Macerata

1/4/2020