I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Italian Diary II


March 21st: the new normal

John McCourt writes: It being a Saturday, a lie-in, you might think, would not be entirely inappropriate. But on this the twelfth day of the Italian lockdown, I find that today, just the same as yesterday and the previous days, I can no longer go back to sleep once I have woken up. This morning I thought that maybe it was because of this diary, because that is the first thing I do each morning so as to be able to spend much of the rest of the day at my usual work stuff. But I know that it is not the diary. It is an underlying apprehension or anxiety, it is an awareness, a necessary awareness, of the difficulty that we are in.

The early and later parts of these days are the hardest. We are almost afraid of what we will find when we open the newspapers or open our emails first thing in the morning. This morning’s first email is from a close friend in the United States:

My nephew, and his wife (names removed) are positive for the Corona Virus. They and their young children (both under five) are quarantined for 14 days. My friends and I are dropping off food and necessities to them.
This is the new normal …

The new normal in Italy is worse. These last few days, the first newspaper I click onto is the Eco di Bergamo (Bergamo is currently the epicentre of the #Covid-19 crisis, but that could change). This morning’s front page carries a photo of Claudio Polzoni, a member of the Italian Carabinieri who died yesterday aged just forty-six. He had worked until February 29th, when he took time off to come to terms with the death (also of #Covid-19) of his father-in-law. He spent time with his wife, who needed his support as she dealt, from a distance, with the death and burial of her father who, like the other victims in Bergamo, was given no funeral. On March 5th, Claudio Polzoni started to show symptoms of the flu and was hospitalised on Friday 13th, firstly in his local hospital and then in San Donato where he died seventy-two hours later. His wife and ten-year-old daughter were not allowed to see him after his hospitalisation. Now she has to mourn him alone. See: https://www.ecodibergamo.it/…/claudio-appuntato-e-papaasco…/

Having had to come to terms with the deaths of friends and relatives in Ireland from over here in Italy for almost three decades, I know that not being able to take part in a funeral, in that coming together of family, friends and community, doesn’t lessen the sense of loss, rather it expands it and makes processing it, to use a horrible contemporary term, all the more difficult. I cannot imagine what it must be like to know a loved one has died within a mile or two of their own home and has to be buried alone. What must it mean today for a family not to be able to come together to mourn, to support each other, to commemorate their dead? That is the reality now in Northern Italy, not just for one family but for hundreds of families.

Even if I ignore the news updates for the main body of the day (which I try to do) the Protezione Civile’s six o’clock bulletin is always looming and we turn it on with increasing dread. That’s when we hear the numbers from the previous day. Yesterday, Claudio Polzoni was just another one of the numbers. One of the 607 people who died of or with #Coronavirus in Italy yesterday, one of 4,032 over the past month. Unlike most of the victims, he was young and in good health. So too was the still unnamed shop assistant from a supermarket in Brescia. She went home earlier in the week with a high temperature and died at home on Friday. She had tested positive for #Coronavirus. She was forty-eight.

Despite our lockdown, the virus continues to spread: 4,670 people are reported to have tested positive over the past twenty-four hours but the figure is probably higher. Many of them will have mild symptoms but some more will not. Doctors and nurses are the most obvious front-liners but so too are shop assistants, post-office clerks, delivery people, policemen. All working so that we can stay at home.

Yesterday someone called “Daphne” responded to one of my tweets. Maybe Daphne is her name. I’ll never know but I really wish Twitter would find a way to make people use their real names and not invented Twitter handles which allow them to hide and shoot venom from behind their walls of anonymity. Surely this would force people to take some responsibility for what they publish and say. Daphne’s message troubled me a little because hers is a question that many are asking. She wrote:

Should we stop driving cars because 1.3 million people die yearly in car accidents? Is the modern convenience worth 13 million lives every decade? Doesn’t that define a pandemic of sorts? Average age of death between the ages of 15 and 44 for car accidents. How tragic is that?

Yes. It is tragic and yes it is a pandemic. All deaths are tragic be they from flu or cancer or heart attack. Daphne’s message is not untypical and many are saying that we are over-reacting. And there is a moral dilemma in there somewhere. Society does not close the roads to limit car accidents. But it does insist on car safety and on enforcing the rules of the road. It removes dangerous bends, signals danger, tells people to slow down. Society cautions and warns against health risks even if it is often weaker than it should be in doing this because it is beholden to big business. At times it seems that instead of society and economy going hand in hand, society is in the pocket of the economy, which calls the shots. Numbers first, people second. This time round it is different.

Is it right for the State to shut down its economy because people are dying of a virus? Though I might be far slower to say this if I was now unemployed or the owner of a small business teetering on the brink, twelve days into lockdown I increasingly think it is, even if I see the mounting economic fallout around me and see the fear in the eyes of the man in the fruit and vegetable shop, which is not the fear of illness but the fear of poverty. Society has a duty of care to its people and this duty of care overrides economics. In Italy today, #Covid-19 is killing 8 per cent of those who contract it. The numbers are off the charts. What kind of a state or State would we be in if we decided to just attempt business as usual? So, yes, I believe the Italian State, like other States around the world, is doing the right thing in putting health first (having, in Italy at least, weakened rather than strengthened the health system in recent times).

But so too the individual must do the right thing. Each one of us has a responsibility. Going around as though nothing were wrong is putting other lives at risk. It is like drunk-driving. It is like driving at 90 kilometres per hour in a 50 zone. In both those cases people know the danger but take a chance. With #Covid-19 we know the danger too by now.

These past few years have been marked by huge, often populist anger at government. People have seen our societies become increasingly two-tiered. Issues like homelessness have made our cities seem like brutal modern-day versions of Dickens’s London. Yes, this is the fault of government but we are all at fault. Suddenly, today we read that small apartments are becoming available for rent again in city centres. Airbnb is in free fall. This means more people can have homes, however modest and small. The fact that fewer of us might have holidays or as many holidays as we’ve been having seems a small price to pay. It’s shocking that it took a crisis of these proportions to walk us into a solution that will mean more accessible homes for our own people at the small cost of having fewer tourists on our streets. This is true for Ireland as for Italy as for elsewhere, I think.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we are reading today that Mattia, patient 1, the first Italian to have contracted the virus who had not been in China, has made a complete recovery and is about to be discharged from hospital. Raffaele Bruno, the head of infectious diseases at the hospital where he has been treated, the Policlinico San Matteo in Pavia, described his joy at the news that Mattia will be able to return home next Monday to his wife, who is in the ninth month of pregnancy: “Every patient makes the difference but healing him, from the human point of view, in a month has taught me that normality is a privilege.”There’s a lesson in there for all of us.


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