Carla Scarano D’Antonio has family in Italy and Japan. Here she offers a fascinating and personal look at how three countries have been coping with the coronavirus
“The pestilence, as the Tribunal of Health had feared, did enter the Milanese with the German troops. It is also known that it was not limited to that territory, but that it spread over and desolated a great part of Italy.”
Alessandro Manzoni, The Betrothed[i]
Living in the UK but having family in Italy and my daughter in Tokyo is making my life during this pandemic very complicated. I check online news on the three countries first thing every morning and watch both the English and the Italian news in the evening. The scenario is terribly sad and at times shocking, especially in Italy.
Before the coronavirus started to spread in February, the Italian government boasted that they were ready to face the emergency if necessary. In March the pandemic hit Lombardia in northern Italy. They said that “only” elderly or already sick people were dying and in small numbers, so there was nothing to worry about. The virus had apparently entered Italy from Germany through an Italian who had met Chinese colleagues in Germany. He was hospitalised in Codogno, from where the epidemic started infecting the provinces of Lodi, Milan, Bergamo, Brescia and other areas in Veneto and Piemonte. By the end of February, most towns and cities in northern Italy were declared ‘red zones’ and locked down. Flights to and from China were cancelled; what Italy was experiencing had no precedents in Europe. The only example to look at was China, where the epidemic had started the previous December. So the Italian government followed the Chinese example and imposed a lockdown in the red zones of the north. The restrictions seemed to work as the increase in the number of people infected had decreased by the end of March. There was a total of about 15,000 deaths by the beginning of April and 20,000 people had recovered; about 40,000 people are being tested each day at the time of writing. Information about the lockdown was leaked before restrictions were put in place and thousands of Italian people boarded trains heading south, where the epidemic had not spread yet and restrictions had therefore not been implemented. This caused disruption and spread the infection as well. Nevertheless, the Italian peninsula is long and narrow and some parts of southern Italy are less populated than those in the north, so the infection struggled to affect the south as badly as it had affected people in the north. Furthermore, after the dreadful experience in the north, the regions of the centre and south were more prepared to face the emergency with precautionary lockdowns and isolation measures.
My mum lives in Rome and my sister with her family in Monterotondo, a town not far from Rome. They are fine, and have stayed at home since the beginning of March. My mum is almost 90 (her birthday is at the end of May) and is coping well on the whole. She does not go out, not even for a walk; she says she walks up and down the corridor at home (it is a long one) or goes out onto the balcony – she has two, at opposite sides of the house. I phone her every other day. She is all right – sometimes she is moody but at other times she is cheerful and positive; she does not complain about the restrictions. She spends her time watching TV – the Pope’s Mass from Casa Marta every morning at seven, the news on Channel Seven in the evening and some programmes on art. Reading, crocheting and knitting are her favourite pastimes. Tania, a full-time carer who has been living with her since last summer, keeps her company. They are coping well together and are supporting each other during this difficult time. Tania’s family lives in Moldova; she has three children she has not seen since last Christmas as she is not allowed to travel to her home country at the moment. She is only allowed to go out to do grocery shopping or to go to the pharmacy, just like everybody else in Italy. The police patrol the streets and can fine people or even put them in jail if they breach the restrictions, because doing so is potentially putting other people’s lives at risk. The rules are very strict, and according to what I know from the Italian news and from what my family tells me, they are vigorously implemented. Most people have eventually come to obey them, though there were outbursts of rebellion at first, especially in the south, where they thought the danger was far away. Then they were forced to fall into line as fear prevailed. Healthy young people, doctors, nurses and priests were dying, hundreds every day, not just elderly people, which had been reported when the outbreak began. The pandemic seemed unstoppable. I am writing this while the lockdown is still in place. People are working from home and many have lost their jobs and are living on donations and benefits that the government is distributing locally through councils.
Businesses are wrecked and people are exhausted, especially hospital staff. Lombardia is the richest and best organised Italian region and Lombardian people are well known for their work ethic and efficiency. Nevertheless, they have struggled to cope with the coronavirus emergency and have failed in some cases. At a certain point, no beds were available in hospitals, there were no coffins or tombs in which to bury the dead, nurses and doctors did not have suitable equipment to protect themselves from the virus and people died like ants. I think that the effects would have been much worse if the epidemic had started in a less organised part of Italy, though. The recovery is starting now, little by little, as if the country is emerging from a nightmarish dream, and there is a surreal, misty atmosphere that is similar to some of the scenes in Fellini’s films. When the mist rises, deserted landscapes will be revealed that will be littered with our leftovers, that is, of what remains of people’s lives.
The lockdown will eventually ease, hopefully during the summer, as it seems that the coronavirus is sensitive to high temperatures. Eventually, a vaccine or other measures will keep it under control, or at least we hope so. My mum gloomily calls it “corona”, which has a double meaning in Italian: it means a crown and a funeral wreath.
I was in Japan for a week at the beginning of March, along with my husband and eldest son, for my daughter’s graduation for her master’s in fashion at Bunka Gakuen University in Tokyo. Museums and schools were closed and the university was about to close as well. She had no ceremony for her graduation and we were not allowed to go inside when they presented her with the certificate. We took photos outside. However, everything seemed normal in Tokyo. Shops, cafés and restaurants were open and packed. Some people were wearing face masks, but they always do in Japan. It is their usual way to protect themselves from colds and not to infect other people. The Japanese government was quite confident that the Olympic Games would happen in July and my daughter thought that she would carry on with her job and the Japanese course she had enrolled on. We helped her pack her stuff as she would soon be moving from her cosy apartment near the university to cheaper one-room accommodation in a residence. When it was time to fly back to the UK, we encountered some problems. ANA airlines sent us an email saying that our flight from Narita airport had been cancelled, but they did not mention a rebooking. We tried to find out what was happening by phoning different numbers but there was no way of getting in touch with ANA. We decided to go to Haneda airport, but the staff at the ANA desk knew nothing about our flight and gave us another phone number that did not work. My eldest son, who was with us, suddenly had the brilliant idea of putting our reference number into the ANA website. He found out that our flight had been rebooked with Lufthansa airlines and that we would be leaving from Haneda airport on the same day as our original flight but at a different time. We went to the Lufthansa desk to check in and found that this information was right, and eventually we landed safe and sound in the UK.
Once we were back home, things changed quickly. My husband’s school, an international school, closed two days after our arrival, and so did the University of the Creative Arts Farnham, where I work as an academic mentor. Everything moved online and we started to work remotely from home. My eldest son left Tokyo as well and arrived safely in Leeds. My second son, who was in the UK for a course with VSO, was at home, self-isolating and his project with VSO in Nepal was cancelled. Knowing what was happening in Italy, I emailed friends and organisers of workshops, courses and events I was due to attend to ask whether they would take place. They said yes at first, but after a day or two, everything was cancelled and strict measures were implemented in the UK as well, with the consequences that we are still experiencing now, at the time of writing, in the middle of April. I feel that the UK is coping very well with the pandemic compared with Italy and other countries in Europe, both because the UK had examples to look to and because it is financially stronger. Despite all the complaints I hear on the news, I think the right measures have been implemented. The NHS staff are being brave and efficient. I am proud to live here. ‘Distanti ma uniti’ (distant but together) is an Italian motto. We should apply it here as well.
I wonder when I will be able to go back to Rome again and see my mum and my sister. Maybe next Christmas. The saddest thing about this pandemic is that people die alone. It is a disease that isolates people in life and in death. Funerals and weddings are suspended, as are all kinds of gatherings. We are surrounded by a void and have no contact, that is, we cannot use our sense of touch with other people like we used to, and this emptiness is reflected in the deserted squares and roads. In Italy the government also pointed out the lack of solidarity in the EU.
In this human and economic wreckage, I hope that the contribution of politicians, footballers, celebrities and others with a high income will not only be in the form of words but will involve substantial sums of money being poured in, too. This would mean that a type of solidarity exists that goes beyond countries’ boundaries, which the pandemic is already erasing.
[i] Alessandro Manzoni, I promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), chapter 31: The plague in Milan. There are several parallels between what Manzoni talks of in his historical novel, published in 1842, about the plague in Milan in the 17th century and what is happening with the coronavirus in Italy now. The author says that the plague entered Italy for the first time from Germany when an Italian soldier, who had been in contact with German troops, returned to Italy. The Milanese Tribunal of Health underestimated the problem even though it knew that the plague would arrive with the Germans, that is, the Lanzichenecchi (Landsknechte) who were heading to Mantova to put the town under siege. The Tribunal must have thought there was time to get organised. The epidemic exploded in March 1630, affecting mostly the north of Italy but spreading as far down as Tuscany. The population was decimated.