This is quite a personal post, about life here under lockdown, pretty much entirely from my perspective. I started writing it when I read British newspapers about the situation in Italy, and thought that what went through my mind might go through other people’s as the situation elsewhere started to become like Italy.
Sitting at home again, my son and I, we can see an older gentleman walking on his balcony, with what I imagine once to have been a military bearing. This slightly stooped man in his seventies paces from one end to the other before performing an about-turn as though square-bashing. Back and forth, back and forth. Periodically he checks the time, unclasping his left hand from his right behind his back and jerking his wrist out of his dark green tweed jacket, the better to see his watch. Below the jacket is a pair of mustard-coloured trousers, as formal as informal clothes get, and beyond them, impeccable tan Oxford brogues. Above his precisely trimmed silver hair, a beige woollen cap. Back and forth, back and forth.
My son, not quite 4 years old, asks me why he keeps walking up and down on his balcony…
Where to begin? It is not the first time, of course, that the subject of Corona virus has been invoked over the previous month: he has been at home from nursery since the last week of February, so it got a mention then – something along the lines of ‘You’re at home this week, but you’ll be able to see your friends and teachers next week.’: what did we know…?
Then there are the times when he says he’d like some toy or other – generally, of course, a truck, or police car, or a plane. It’s difficult to explain why all the shops are closed. And trying to reason with him as in the past, that he has plenty that he doesn’t play with already, continues to fail in its aim.
This situation has not happened in my lifetime before, so I don’t know how to explain it to myself. How do you put it into terms that a not-quite-4-year-old will understand, if you don’t understand? I explain that the man on his balcony probably wants some exercise – not a concept that my son really understands – but is not allowed out. I try to explain that we can’t go to see his friends because people are getting ill and we don’t want to catch it or give it to someone else. I try to explain that we can’t go to the shop to buy a toy because the shops are still closed. Because ‘tutti sono malati, papà?’, he asks: because everyone is ill, daddy? I say ‘yes’. ‘Un altra volta.’ he replies, philosophically. Another time…At not-quite-4, he’s not yet descended to the panic-buying stage: take the positives where you can.
This scene, these conversations and anxieties, people’s experience of and access to the outside world shrunk almost to a point-source, are being repeated all over the country. All over the world. Aye, and far worse, too.
And yet as I spoke to my son a couple of weeks ago, I was, perhaps perversely, feeling better than I had the previous weekend. I say ‘perversely’ because between then and ‘now’, the death toll from Corona virus here in Italy went from 1,441 to 4,825, with 793 deaths on Saturday 21stMarch alone. Yet it didn’t feel as upsetting and scary as it had the weekend before.
The weekend of 14th& 15thMarch was the first weekend that the entire country was in lockdown, with shops, bars, cafés and restaurants closed. It was Saturday evening and I had handed over our son to my wife. In the morning, there had been no one on the street outside the apartment where I now found myself alone: it is the main thoroughfare in the town where we live, the scene of a bustling market every Saturday morning from around 7am. But not that Saturday, nor any for the foreseeable future…
Once our son was with his mother, I tidied up the carnage that 3 straight days inside with a small child brings and made the mistake – again – of looking online at the latest. I read the stories of people dying alone, unable even to receive a visit from a loved one; of the family sealed in their apartment with the body of one family member there with them for 2 days because no one would come to take the body away for (quite understandable) fear of picking up Corona virus themselves. Then I looked at the numbers of new cases – an unceasing increase, despite the lockdown.
I reflected on all the people who had lost a wife, a husband, son, daughter, friend. And they couldn’t have a proper funeral for them. Their friends could offer to help them in any way they could, but no one could really offer to help them in any way: driving, unless for medical purposes or work, is not permitted. They couldn’t even buy them a card or a bunch of flowers: and, of course, those same friends are the lucky ones.
All of this had the effect of dampening any high spirits I may have had – and prior to going online I could count those on the finger of one finger. As I foolishly read on, I became very upset about the situation in general; it was happening, or about to, everywhere; and scared about the situation in Italy in particular: ‘We’re in lockdown,’ I thought, ‘how can the numbers still be going up so consistently, so relentlessly?’. Back and forth, back and forth, these same thoughts.
I fretted about work, or, more specifically, money: I am not an employee, so there is no prospect of a monthly envelope continuing to arrive. Since November I have not had an income: a seasonal risk for all in industries reliant on tourism, but now feeling more like a flat-out gamble, a horse you bet your house on that not only fell, but had to be put down. Oops…For so many in Italy, things should be starting again now – but I was beginning to convince myself that we would not see any tourism returning until 2021. How are we going to get by? We have many friends who work in hotels, restaurants and so on. The country is awash with them, or at least people who used to. To say nothing of everyone else who is at home because their factory, office, shop, bar is now closed. Many will not re-open. How are they all going to get by?
Then there is my other project, one that I have thought of for years and not done anything about until January of this year, when I finally bottled some wine to sell under my own name. With the rest of the world starting to cotton-on and shut up shop – or at least bars and restaurants – what importer is going to be looking for an extra wine label on their books? Besides, I can’t sell it anyway, since my colleague who was due to sign the paperwork founding the company last week, could not get here: we can’t legally trade – what with not existing as a legal entity and all – even if we had a line of buyers. And I’m not the only one in a tight spot: there are probably millions of us. Oops…Back and forth, back and forth, the same thoughts.
So is it perverse that I felt better? I began to think about the numbers a bit more and what they really show. I have no medical background, or understanding really: it was an exercise in trying to have rationality take back some control over rising – let’s call it unease. I thought about how long we had been in lockdown at that point – less than a week as a nation. The virus probably has some gestation period before making itself known (and in many cases, it doesn’t make itself known) and it can be 10 to 12 days before people make a full recovery. So, those who caught the virus in the days before the lockdown will still be showing up in the numbers, probably for another week or 10 days. Then there will be the ones that people will have affected even after the lockdown. These will be adding to the numbers at a similar rate for perhaps another 2 weeks after that. So I would expect to see the numbers increasing in roughly the same proportion (no basis for this, other than that it had up to that point) for another 3 weeks at least – until Easter, let’s say. I looked at the daily numbers for the preceding week or so and worked out a mean percentage daily increase. From where we were the previous weekend, another 24 days – my 10, plus another two weeks – would yield a horrifying number: if we though the situation was bad now; if we thought the health system was stretched now; just wait…
I broke off writing this on Sunday morning – the 21st. My septuagenarian neighbour had rung the bell and was hovering at the little gate between our balconies with the lunch she had made for me: about 4 of me judging by the quantity. Upon examining the sentiments of Lily Bollinger the previous evening, I found had them sound, and they seemed no less so now: “I drink Champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.” Over the course of just this one Sunday afternoon, all would apply to me except my having company. Consequently, in the fridge was a bottle of Champagne, which I opened. It felt like a frivolity spilling into bad taste, but if not now, when?
Seeing the numbers coming in each day over the preceding week and comparing them with my rough estimate, they were no longer a surprise, at least. Seeing the daily increase being roughly in line with my percentage calculations, I had an explanation for this. It had the effect of changing my thoughts from ‘How can this be happening? Why are the numbers so big?’, to ‘This is what I would expect.’ Of course, it ran the risk of going the other way – if my guide had turned out to be a wild under-estimate, then I probably would have moved the dial from ‘rising unease’ to engage panic-mode. But so far, the reality, terrible as it was, was just under what I had thought. It may seem cold and lacking in any empathy or sympathy for those affected, but we all do what we can for our mental health…None of my calculations was backed by any knowledge or science, of course, but it helped keep me calm in the face of relentlessly increasing numbers. It’s when you stop to think that each one of those is a life and lost, and more devasted, that the sadness and fear return.
However, it is acts such as the Sunday lunch from my neighbour that do so much to raise the spirits when our dwelling on reality threatens to take us down into the dark – whether it is reason taking us there or not: she got a bottle of white wine in return (she is not a fan of bubbles…). Or hearing that a friend, once a surgeon, has offered his services to the health authority here. Everywhere there are signs of kindness, small and large. Hearing people singing ‘Long live our Siena’ from their balconies stirs, if not optimism, then fight, resolve. And pride.
Vital services – health, food supply, refuse collection, police – are still running, all involved working varying degrees of hard, with varying degrees of risk, and all with the varying degrees of unease or fear that we all feel. And there is plenty more to come.
There is light at the end of the tunnel, though: the rate of fatalities seems to have slowed in the past week. Despite yesterday’s (Friday 27thMarch) figures showing the largest number of fatalities yet in a single day, the proportional increase was still lower than a week previously. The increase in fatalities each day since 21stMarch has stayed markedly below the 19-20% it was previously. I saw the large number of deaths on Friday 27th described in the Guardian as dashing the hopes of a turnaround. But tackling Corona virus’s spread is not like turning a jet-ski, it’s like turning an oil tanker: it takes time and space to arrive in the safety of the harbour. Seeing numbers going up, even very steeply, after lockdowns and other restrictions have been in effect for some time, is not necessarily a cause for alarm. Keep going, however weird, awkward, stressful it may be, and we will eventually make it.
And if we want a model for how we want our society to be once this has passed – and it will pass, no matter what it looks like afterwards – we need look no further than these people: making sure we have basic needs taken care of and caring for those in their most dire need at considerable personal risk. If that example of humanity doesn’t lift your spirits and give you hope for the future – as well as making you feel like toasting them with champagne – then you’re beyond redemption. So far over 40 medical staff have died in Italy from Corona virus. With the rate of fatalities here appearing to have slowed, we owe all these workers, as well as other fellow citizens, a continued effort to abide by the lockdown restrictions. We also owe them an infinite debt of gratitude. In some cases it is a debt that we can never repay.