There’s an Italian expression that goes like this: la Cina è vicina, China is nearby. We spent all of January talking about the virus as if it wasn’t real, as if it was too far away to concern us. But the virus had probably already arrived here by then.
There’d been a few reports of a strange kind of pneumonia, but the first confirmed case was Mattia, a 38-year-old manager from Codogno, a town just outside Milan, who was put in intensive care on February 21. In the week before becoming sick he went out for dinner two times, played a soccer match with friends and ran a marathon in Turin; we joke that had the virus infected any other guy in this country, the outbreak would have been limited to his office and his home. He is now slowly recovering after 28 days in ICU and he is now the real-life version of that meme about the guy who wakes up after having been in a coma for years.
Milan, Italy, my city, where I was born and have always lived, is now trapped in an eternal present, a Groundhog Day-kind of life. Spring has come, we can see it outside the windows but we feel that it doesn’t concern us, and won’t for a while. It’s the end of our second week of total, nation-wide lockdown and we are now the beating heart of the global coronavirus pandemic (with New York looking to overtake us soon). There were more than 5000 new cases here in Italy on Friday, and almost 800 new deaths on Saturday—we now have more deaths than China, with roughly half the number of confirmed cases—and I know the numbers only because, as I said, we live in an eternal present where every day ends with the same press conference from the Civil Protection explaining the new figures. Not that I follow them; it’s my father who forwards me all possible data about the outbreak on WhatsApp.
Outside my home, in the now-empty streets, the atmosphere is eerie, at least last time I went out, which is now a week ago. I went grocery shopping in the supermarket across the street, which is now the starting point of a queue coiled around the block like Saturn’s rings, controlled by soldiers in camo urging everyone to respect the distances. The waiting time is 10 minutes or something, and after you enter the supermarket is business as usual, only slightly less crowded, but while you’re outside waiting in line you think that this is probably what a humanitarian aid distribution feels like.
So, here’s what happened, since I was here to witness every stage of our reckoning of the threat, like that famous poem from Martin Niemöller, “First they came”—first it came in China, and we relaxed because we were not in China. Then it came to Italy, and the government put Codogno and a couple of other towns in total lockdown, and we relaxed because we were not from there. The General Confederation of Italian Industry lobbied the government to keep factories and shops open, a hashtag telling the world that “Milan doesn’t stop” was launched, the leader of Italy’s Democratic Party organized an aperitivo to fight against the fear (a week later he tested positive for the virus), my boss sent us an email saying that we could work from home if we were scared but that “the real virus is ignorance.” This was two weeks ago. Then it came everywhere and there was no one left who could relax.
After the first week of general optimism, of patriotism and national unity, of people blasting the national anthem or Azzurro or Felicità from their windows, singing and dancing on their balconies and posting weird memes about “stanning” our prime minister as if he was a sex symbol, the mood has shifted. Those were the days with 100, 200 deaths; now we’re at almost 800. This week even the guy with the loudspeakers and the microphone who some days ago showed up on his balcony three times every day to entertain the whole neighborhood is silent. I’m told that in Bergamo and Brescia, where the outbreak is even worse than here, all they hear is the death knell. And while politicians are trying to shift the blame on individuals—those who leave the house to do jogging, those who go shopping too often—the popular anger is mounting, because we’re starting to see that this so-called “total lockdown” doesn’t apply to unnecessary industries, like those not producing food and medical supplies, that are still open and running. So half of the population is still forced to go to work, and I know that correlation doesn’t mean causation, but still: the areas where the situation is worse are exactly those with the highest concentration of industry in the country. The General Confederation of Italian Industry, Confindustria, has now been aptly re-named Covidustria-19.
The other half of the population, myself included, is slowly losing its mind. If you’re among the luckiest bunch that can work from home, at this point you still have some sort of biorhythm and something to do, even if while you’re doing you tend to find yourself contemplating the meaning of doing it, and also whether you might find yourself unemployed any day now. But if you can’t work from home it is worse, and it’ll be even worse when you eventually run out of paid-leave days—like my sister, who’s 23 and was two months into her first real job when this thing started. She has never been political but is now quickly radicalizing, and keeps saying that we’re not doing enough, that the government is putting profits over lives, that we should follow the good example of China, that a dictatorship that protects the people is better than a democracy that doesn’t. She’s not alone. Just last week, the news about a plane with a team of doctors and I don’t know how many tons of medical equipment coming from China as a gift went viral on Facebook, and the Facebook post of the Chinese embassy announcing the fact got more than 200,000 likes, while its post usually get hundreds. This week, the news that 500,000 testing kits for the virus produced by a company from Brescia were sold to the United States sparked a degree of rage that was almost unsettling.
Meanwhile, everyone is facing this thing in his own way and trying to do their best. I got a friend who spends his day video-chatting with strangers, another who has become a compulsive gamer, and another moved back with his parents and secluded himself in his room, having food delivered on the ground outside the door. My father watches the news all day long, my sister bakes cakes, my brother is due to graduate via Skype next week so all he does right now is study, and write down the casual conversations he hears from the balcony, with the eventual goal of writing something like Vladimir Sorokin’s The Queue. My 95-year-old grandmother who spent the last decades complaining about her life and telling everyone she hopes to leave soon “for America” (i.e. die) is now a lot more joyful and keeps calling me to keep me company, knowing that I’m facing this alone with my cat.
But more than anything, people are doing livestreams. One finds like four or five of them every time one opens Instagram or Facebook. Everyone is too online right now, and everyone is too focused on himself, so people are filming themselves in any possible situation: chatting with friends about the pandemic, playing music, reading something aloud, talking about some niche thing they’re enthusiastic about but everyone else would ordinarily find boring. There are at least three different Decameron-inspired projects right now—it’s a collection of novellas set in Florence during the Black Death, written in 1353 by Giovanni Boccaccio, wherein a group of young men and women, seclude themselves in a villa and tell stories. That is basically what we have become now, characters in our personal version of the classic we studied in high school.
As for myself, I initially tried to use this confinement as I would use a stint in jail and spent all my free time reading. I read five books in my first week of quarantine. That didn’t last long, sadly, and this week I found myself incapable of doing anything more than listening to the same 3-hour long medley of Maoist music on YouTube. Who knows what I’ll be doing next week. Who knows, really. We’re living one day at a time. My cousin has been tested and is waiting for the results. My high school teacher died this week at 60-something. I’m becoming more and more paranoid, I panic when I sneeze, I keep track on my calendar of all the times I leave the house so I can calculate how many days are passed and when I can consider myself safe. I called my doctor and asked her to prescribe me something for the anxiety but I never picked up the prescription because I am too anxious about going to her medical office.
In short, tl;dr, this is our main problem right now, and will be yours too soon enough, so consider this piece like a letter from the future: thinking about the present is scary because the present is military trucks full of coffins leaving a town because the local morgue is full, thinking about the past is depressing because it makes us see what we’ve lost in the space of a month, and thinking about the future is even worse because we already know that this thing will last long, that we’ll probably have to live with it until next summer or even longer, and we already know that when we will finally leave our homes we will no longer find the world we were living in when it all started.