As I write, the whole of Italy is in quarantine and infected by the kind of panic I imagine an invaded people feels as it waits for the enemy to knock on the door.
I work from home and suppose I must be thankful at least for that. I have just heard the youngest of our six children, Giuseppe, who is four, ask Carla, his mother: ‘Mamma, do you know why it’s called coronavirus?’ ‘No, bello, I don’t, tell me,’ she replied. ‘Because it’s the king of tutti i virus!’ he crowed, which caused Carla to smother him with kisses. ‘Bravissimo! Amore mio! Bravissimo!’ The word corona, in case you didn’t know, is Italian for crown. Did he invent that himself I wonder? The whole episode brought a tear to my eye and a surge of impotent anger — anger that such a beautiful human gesture, a mother kissing and hugging her small child, could perhaps prove fatal.
Headlines in online Italian newspapers that catch my eye include ‘The virus remains in the air for 30 minutes and travels 4.5 meters’, ‘Checks on movement to be done via cell phone records’ and ‘Government may order suspension of all loan repayments’ — not that I have a loan, thank God.
The Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, announced the ‘closure’ of Italy in a television address to the nation, saying: ‘Our habits must change now’, and ‘Everyone must remain at home.’ We live near Ravenna, in the countryside a mile from the Adriatic coast, and our children rely on us to get in and out of the city — a 10-minute drive away. Children seem less prone to catching the virus than any other age group, but we have convinced ourselves, I cannot remember quite why, that they can act as symptomless carriers.
Our eldest son, Francesco Winston, is 14 and already as tall as me. He is also stronger than me, though possibly he does not quite realize it yet, and keeps trying to go into Ravenna to see his friends — storming off into the dark in search of a bus or something. But when yesterday Carla shouted at him ‘Assassino!’ (‘Killer!’), that seemed at long last to strike home. Little Giuseppe does not go to school, but this is the third week the five children who do — two boys and three girls — have been at home following the closure of schools and universities in our region, Emilia-Romagna, thanks to the high infection rate here (the second highest in Italy, though still a long way behind Lombardy). The children are supposed to do homework each day via a school internet site which at least two of them are unable to access, and no one at school (with which we can communicate only via email and telephone) has been able to solve the problem. Francesco Winston and the eldest, Caterina, 16, are also doing the odd lesson via streaming. It all seems slapdash, but it is better than nothing.
Right now, the death rate from coronavirus in Italy is more than 8 percent, which is a heck of a lot higher than the 2 percent death rate that experts talk about. The numbers of those infected in Italy are growing explosively and terrifyingly. On February, 21 there were just 17 cases. By the beginning of March, there were a total of 2,000 cases and fewer than 100 deaths. It is difficult to see how other European countries can avoid a similar catastrophe unless they take pretty drastic action, before their case numbers reach Italian levels.
Initially, Italy’s government took the extraordinary step of placing in quarantine the whole of Lombardy (whose capital is Milan, the financial engine room of Italy); two days later, the growth in cases forced it to extend the lockdown to the entire country.
According to the government’s emergency quarantine decree, currently in force, no one can leave home without a valid motive. This includes work and necessity, such as buying food or taking the dog for a walk. This means no one can leave the province where they live unless they have an urgent reason. Holy Communion in church has been canceled, as have funeral and wedding ceremonies. Even Serie A soccer has been suspended. Most sports seem to be canceled. All public gatherings inside or out are banned. Nightclubs, cinemas, museums, galleries, theaters, swimming pools, gyms, you name it — all closed.
Factories and offices remain open, as do supermarkets and shops, but the emergency decree insists that everyone must keep a distance of one meter apart in public places. That will be impossible in many restaurants. And impossible anyway to police. Bars must close at 6 p.m. The government — a left-wing coalition of the alt-left Five Star and post-communist Democratic party — has agreed with opposition parties that parliament should meet far less frequently and be attended by only half the MPs, to maintain the one-meter rule. Italy’s European Parliament president David Sassoli has self-isolated and will chair debates via computer. Numerous television shows are canceled.
Via WhatsApp, audios are circulating from nurses which tell me that the situation in many hospitals even in Emilia-Romagna is ‘apocalyptic’ and far worse than is being admitted by the authorities, and that in Rimini, just 30 miles from me, the city’s hospital is so overrun that it is turning new coronavirus patients away.
The big problem, apart from the fear and the panic, is the confusion. This is the government’s fault. With regard to the travel ban, for example, one ground for exemption spelled out in the decree is comprovate esigenze lavorative — proven work needs. What on earth does that mean? Which work qualifies and how such necessity can be proven are not spelled out. The decree also says that such grounds must be self-certified on a written form — but who, then, is going to check whether someone is telling the truth, and how? The punishment for breach of the quarantine measures is up to three months in prison (automatically suspended, since it is less than two years) plus a derisory €206 fine. In the end, it will be up to the Italians themselves either to respect or ignore them.
Roberto Burioni, a leading virologist and medical professor, spelled this out in a dramatic plea to the nation in an interview in the newspaper La Stampa, in which he said every Italian must display ‘virtuous behavior towards himself and towards the community’ and ‘make big sacrifices’ because ‘we have before us a dangerous enemy’.
An enemy that is totally invisible.
This article is in The Spectator’s April 2020 US edition.