So when the virus came close, I was surprised to discover that hard choices had to be made — and fast. The first: Where do we wait this out? Do I stay in Rome, where I live and work, or go back to the little village outside of Milan where my aging parents live? Ultimately, I chose to stay close to my parents in case they needed help. The result is that my family is split in two by the virus.
Now I find myself confined in a place where time is suspended. All the shops are closed, except for groceries and pharmacies. All the bars and restaurants are shuttered. Every tiny sign of life has disappeared. The streets are totally empty; it is forbidden even to take a walk unless you carry a document that explains to authorities why you have left your house. The lockdown that began here in Lombardy now extends to the entire country.
For many Italians, the normal warnings about this virus were simply not enough to change behavior. Denial comes too easily, perhaps. It was more convenient to blame some foreign germ-spreader, or pretend that the news was unreal. Then came a reality check: Last Sunday, Pope Francis gave a benediction not from his normal window at the Vatican but via video, in part to avoid the crowd on St. Peter’s Square but also to send a message. That was the first strong sign to snap out of it.
Now, the ancient wooden doors of all the little churches in all the villages are closed. Older people here in Lombardy remember that even in wartime, the churches were a shelter for all, a place of shared relief. Now the idea that even funerals cannot be celebrated is a source of further anguish. These days, in Italy, you die in silence and you’ll be buried in silence.
And the quiet is everywhere. For this is a silent war: no bombs, no shooting, no screams. No cars, no motorbikes, no children playing in the street. Most of your normal daily activities are simply forbidden. In a country where life is lived vibrantly (and then some), this change takes a huge toll. Soon, if things go well, there will be a time for normal life. But not now.
Like many of you, I keep in touch with colleagues, friends and family by way of the phone, texts and WhatsApp. We trade information constantly. Every night, after dinner, my parents, brothers and nephews all have a Skype call. It’s a new ritual, a way to keep the family close.
On social networks, threads about the virus are multiplying. I have a couple of very good doctor friends who decided to be on the front lines. It is impossible to describe what they are going through. The lack of intensive-care beds forces them to make impossible decisions: who can be helped and who is too old, or too weak, to even try to save. This can really destroy your resistance as a human being.
They tell me that if the numbers continue to grow at the current pace, they will soon be overwhelmed. And this is happening in Lombardy, where we have a health-care system that is considered one of the most reliable, advanced and efficient in Europe.
The numbers will decrease as the lockdown takes effect and drives down infections. But that will take weeks.
I know, of course, that what is happening here could happen next in Rome, or a week later in France or in Germany. The United States might be a week or two behind that. It looks as if the same shifts in perception, the same shifts in political discourse, are taking place everywhere, delayed or accelerated only by a country’s ability to face the facts.
I see signs of hope: Italian institutions are up and running, doctors and nurses work day and night, risking their lives to help others. In Milan, it is possible to detect a new sense of community: Young people offer their time to do the shopping and fetch medicines for older neighbors who are confined to their homes in condos and urban blocks.
There will be time to take stock of what went right and what went wrong — when it is safe to do so.
We have learned that this is not just another flu; it’s a terrible new virus that is challenging a whole nation, Europe itself and perhaps the entire planet. And there’s no miracle recipe except for a profound respect for the advice of scientists, the need of a sense of community and a health-care system able to detect the next moves of the virus.
For now, everything is absolutely still outside my window. No sign of life. The sound of ambulances breaks the silence from time to time.
In Italy, if you are not busy fighting the virus, you hold your breath. And wait.