My mother lives in Switzerland, she’s now in quarantine too, and every time we see each other via FaceTime she tells me I’m very pale. Yeah, mom, I’m pale: I’ve been basically homebound since February 29. I don’t even have a balcony so the only one who can sunbathe in this house is Joseph Stalin, my cat, who can comfortably lay down on my desk under the window in the morning. I’m also pale because I’m at the end of my first month of self-isolation—we all are here in Italy, since the nationwide lockdown started on March 8. Recently the lockdown was extended for another two weeks, and you could say that we are now completely losing it.
I, certainly, am losing it.
I’m very excited because tomorrow I will leave the house to go grocery shopping. I have a list of things I need, a mental note to buy every item in the list 3 or 4 times, a pair of gloves and a face mask, obviously, even if it’s just a surgical mask and not an FFP2 or FFP3 that are now the stuff of myths. I’m ready. This week I found myself thinking about: a) the best time of the day to go to the supermarket; b) the shortest route to get there, even if (as I said in my last dispatch from the epicentre) it’s just across the street; c) every single action I will have to perform inside. I’ve done a lot of thinking about the planimetry of the supermarket. I’ve thought carefully about the exact location of every single thing I need. I’m planning it like it’s 2011 and I’m going to raid Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad.
My friends are losing it too, I can see it from what they write and share on Facebook. Chain letters are going strong, so maybe it really is 2011 again. Only this time it’s not just old people, it’s everyone. Yes, my father keeps forwarding jokes and memes exploring every possible variation on the leitmotiv “Juventus are thieves”, and that’s not new, but it’s people my age now as well. They post pictures of themselves as kids or stills from their favourite films, and tag their friends to challenge them to do the same. Conspiracy theories are shared beyond generational barriers. Fuck it, the very borders between generations are melting. This week I read about a group of men in their 70s who were fined because they met at a certain place every day to play cards together, and in the same week I was invited to meet a friend of mine in a certain place at a certain hour to drink and chat.
But most of all, the whole nation is losing it. At this point, we’re perfectly aware that the numbers from the Civil Protection don’t mean anything. The “dead” are not all the dead, since a lot of people are dying at home without ever having been tested for COVID-19, and the data about the new infections are not real, because it’s not like we’re able to do a lot of tests anyway. The number of people who recovered is also fake, since those are not strictly speaking people who have recovered, but just people sent home from hospitals. What we know is that nothing means anything anymore, but we still follow the daily update and discuss the numbers, because how else can we have at least a vague idea of how things are progressing? Bad data is, ridiculously, better than no data at all.
Meanwhile, it’s every day clearer that the politicians are losing it, too: the last two weeks could well be filed in a folder labeled “Farce.” First, that video of Italian mayors yelling at people who go out to do jogging and threatening to send “the police, but armed with flamethrowers” to force them back home. It went pretty viral; I saw John Oliver commented on it on Last Week Tonight, and I sent it to a friend of mine in Japan because, apparently, it has now reached every corner of the globe. Yes, it’s funny, except it’s not: these are local politicians, some of them long known for their corruption and their shady connections, trying to shield themselves and shift responsibility onto the occasional solitary jogger. The context of that video is an extraordinary, totally-not-coordinated-and-politically-sanctioned press campaign against the idea of people going out for a walk alone as primary spreaders of the virus over the last two weeks.
Politicians are filming themselves doing this because they know full well they’ve botched the response, despite constant claims to the contrary, and all the honeyed words celebrating the so-called Italian model and our excellent healthcare system, the best in the world. The other day a local paper in Bergamo told us that “Bergamo has beaten Wuhan” because they managed to build an hospital in a week, a little bit less than what they allegedly did in China, omitting the fact that this new hospital has like 140 beds, not 1000 as has been reported of the one in Wuhan. In Milan, they recently inaugurated with great fanfare a new hospital that took almost a month to build, in a building that already existed and has only 12 beds. It’s basically the equivalent of me opening the sofa-bed in my living room, which can easily fit a sixth of those patients: maybe I’ll cover it with a blanket and call it another triumph of the Italian model.
They’re botching basically everything. Sergio Mattarella, the 78-year-old President of the Republic, addressed the nation, but even that was botched so that everyone got to see his bloopers, too. He coughed mid-speech, saying “Sorry, I got something in my throat,” and complained that he too is quarantined and hasn’t seen a barber in a month. Still, the most fucked-up thing was the attempted rollout of a coronavirus bonus for workers laid off because of the pandemic. Something that right from the start sounded too good to be true. And in fact on the morning of launch day—which, just to add another layer of irony to the whole thing, was April 1—the website of the Social Security Institute (INPS) crashed. Instead of accepting your application for the bonus, the site logged you into some random person’s social security page, allowing you to see all of their sensitive data.
Better still, most of the users were redirected to the same page, that of a certain Luciano Vangone, a retiree, whose case irresistibly recalled the famous Pirandello novel One, No One and One Hundred Thousand. He was one, no one, and at the same time, he was the hundreds of thousands of people trying to get their hands on 600 euros per month to pay their bills. Vangone got his 15 minutes of fame this way, becoming a trending topic for 24 hours or so, and presumably he’s already speaking with a lawyer after having endured the biggest privacy violation in Italian history.
“Luciano Vangone, c’est moi”, we could now say, paraphrasing Flaubert, as this crisis demonstrated, how clear the lines are dividing those who can weather the storm with little damage from those for whom it’s a pretty big problem—those who are losing it. We are Luciano Vangone, the Area Man, the man in the street, the regular guy, furiously clicking on the INPS’s website at midnight trying to get those 600 euros, getting to learn something about Luciano’s life instead. The political climate is shifting and the division between the 99% and the 1% is coming into focus again, like in the early years after the financial crisis of 2008, only more sharply, cutting deeper and more clearly into the flesh of the body politic.
Solidarity is starting to grow from the bottom. People have started organizing in “Solidarity Brigades” to go shopping for those who are at risk and would rather not leave the house, setting up phone lines to call and arrange to deliver food outside their door. They’re doing what the State should do, while the State’s focus at the moment is on blaming runners, making it mandatory to wear a surgical mask—or, since they’re out of stock everywhere, a scarf on the face—and trying to absolve local politicians of any responsibility for the disaster that’s unfolding in Lombardy.
The virus is still here, and people are still dying in the hundreds every day. At this point, we don’t know anything else except that it will be long and that we’ll probably know that it’s over only in the moment it will be over. But there’s now less fear, less panic. We’re starting to adapt, and we’re starting to think that we’ll only be successful in this if we figure it out for ourselves, and do it together.