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Italian Diary X

May 3rd

And then the day came,
when the risk
to remain tight
in a bud
was more painful
than the risk
it took
to Blossom.
Anaïs Nin

John McCourt writes: Yesterday was a busy day. It was Alice’s birthday. We went “out” for dinner – as in we ate out on the terrace (wearing heavy jumpers and, in my case, a hat, as it was chilly enough). Earlier in the day, we teamed up with Conor and Laura and took part in an online quiz. One of the answers – I cannot remember the question – was funambolo, or tightrope walker.

Funambolismo, or tightrope walking, is a term that well describes what we are all going to be doing over the coming months. While none of us will be exactly walking a high wire we will all be seeking to find a sustainable balance as we gingerly try to get lives and livelihoods back up and running. So will our leaders, and it will be anything but easy.

As Italy prepares to loosen its lockdown measures tomorrow and to begin the fase due, uncertainty is very much in the air. The government, the regional governors and the city mayors, but equally owners and managers of businesses, big and small, are desperate not to get it wrong, not to risk excessively. It is not as if the enemy has been beaten out of sight. It has been slowed, but still lurks and can strike again. Which is what makes imagining and planning for the short and medium term so difficult, because the more people see progress the more they want to ignore rules and relax restrictions.

This is what Christian Drosten, director of the Institute of Virology at the Charité Hospital in Berlin, and one of the German government’s chief advisers on coronavirus, calls “the prevention paradox”: “In Germany, people see that the hospitals are not overwhelmed, and they don’t understand why their shops have to shut. […] For many Germans I’m the evil guy who is crippling the economy.” The risk is that medics and scientists, the very people who are trying to save lives against unprecedented attack, are now seen by a noisy minority as the enemy.

What is clear is that four and a half million Italians return to work tomorrow. After almost two months of silence, traffic will return to the streets as people head to and from work in manufacturing, fashion, textiles and wholesale suppliers. Sectors such as car and furniture manufacturing will return to productivity. From tomorrow we can also buy a new car or get our own car serviced (if it will start ‑ having being parked for sixty days in many cases). Most shops will remain closed for another two weeks as we take it step by step and hope the infection rate stays low. There are no magic cures but science has to stay central. We have to follow the analyses of our trained public health professionals as they treat the disease and fight to learn more about its methods of transmission.

This morning I notice in the Sunday Telegraph: “Primary schools to reopen in June as part of blueprint to ‘unlock’ Britain”. Good luck with that.

Here in Italy, by contrast, the schools minister said yesterday (to general dismay) that even if schools opened in September (which is still not definite), it would be on some kind of rotating basis, with half the class in school one day and the other half following from home and vice versa the next day. This to try to impose some kind of social distancing on children. It is not clear if the minister was simply thinking aloud or if this is a plan.

On the subject of thinking aloud, we’ve had far too much of that from several leaders around the world. Anyone reading from Ireland will have seen the sterile and useless kerfuffle over the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar’s, reaching for his notes when asked some detailed questions on television the other night. He had earlier announced that Ireland had extended its lockdown for another two weeks up to May 18th, after which it would introduce a phased, five-stage exit over three months. Sounds sensible and measured.

The “comedian” Oliver Callan (a regular presenter on RTÉ radio and contributor of “serious” articles to mainstream Irish newspapers), commented on Twitter:

BREAKING: The Robot has addressed the nation. Never before has anyone spoken so woodenly. So slowly. And. Said. So little. He tried to smile and do the empathy thing, it did not go well. The autocue fought the robot, and won. #Leovaradkar

This from a commentator who tweeted some weeks ago: “Absolutely no need to cancel St Patrick’s Day parade. The risk of contracting Covid-19 remains very, very low … It’s a shame people love to be dramatic, and secretly long for panic.”

Varadkar, though far from perfect, was right to reach for his notes. The devil is in the detail of the coming phases of dealing with Covid-19. Spoofing and improvising have been shown to have dangerous consequences elsewhere and they add to the Barnum and Bailey sense of circus and of chaos that we have seen in the White House whose occupant seems perfect proof of HL Mencken’s maxim “Democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage.”

Oliver Callan is just another hurler on the ditch, a backseat driver, a sideshow. The bigger message is that we all need to be careful where we get our information from into the future because as restrictions loosen we will increasingly have to assume individual responsibility and to make decisions that will inevitably raise our levels of exposure to risk. Life has to go on or we just wither.


Which doesn’t mean we all have to become trapeze artists or take up other circus roles, although it might be fun to think of our leaders for some of these.

Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, would be the best candidate for chair-balancing, a feat in which an acrobat balances on top of several chairs which themselves are balanced on other objects and could collapse at any time. He has proved remarkably adept at maintaining his balance as others seek to pull the legs from under him.

Trump would clearly like to be cast as the circus strongman or even the lion-tamer, but qualifies only as the clown, even if proper clowns are intentionally funny. What I would really like to see him try out is a special orange version of the “hair hang”, an aerial circus act in which performers are suspended by their hair and assume a variety of acrobatic poses. Equally, he would be a good candidate for the human cannonball (in which a person is ejected at speed into the air from a specially designed cannon). But I’m not sure a powerful enough cannon exists and so we’ll save this trick for Bolsonaro (being careful to guarantee no soft landing in a pool of water or a safety net).

Boris Johnson looked for a while as if he was headed for the wall of death but managed to complete an adroit and sudden U-turn. He spent his time on a bed of nails and is finally, I suppose, qualified for the role of circus contortionist or escape artist. Harry Houdini has nothing on him.

Dr Fauci tried hard but repeatedly failed to succeed in the role of circus ventriloquist-in-chief. Despite help from Dr Birx, he never managed to create the illusion that his voice was coming from elsewhere else, from the mouth of a puppeteered prop, commonly known as the dummy. Sadly in this case, the White House dummy refused to play ball and took on a life and a script all of his own making.

The circus needs an impresario or manager so we’ll give that task to scientist Angela Merkel, who has proven not only that she counts but also that she can count. With Leo as her assistant. Perhaps they can convince Donald Trump to try out for several exciting new roles. The very stable genius might start with a little sword-swallowing. Failing that, there is always snake-charming. And if even that doesn’t work the great Trumpino can have one last try at becoming the human firecracker, a stunt in which a person attaches large quantities of firecrackers to themselves which are then ignited. It might prove even more effective than Dettol or bleach.

Given that phase two officially kicks in tomorrow in Italy and that I have been making a spectacle of myself for two months now, I feel that my circus animals might be beginning to desert me and that it is time to give the diary a rest for a while. I do so hoping that we are all on the right road and knowing that if we use our heads we will all pull through this together. Now we have to keep the faith and stay steadfast knowing that in time a new blossoming will come.

Image: Santa Creus Festival in Figueras – the Circus (1921), by Salvador Dali