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


March 20th: the first day of spring

John McCourt writes: This is the eleventh day of lockdown. It is not getting any easier and the news is not, for the moment, getting any better in Italy. Yesterday, the report of the deaths of five frontline medics was particularly upsetting and TV last night was full of harrowing reports from the hospitals in Lombardy, which are at breaking point despite people working eighteen-hour shifts. Sick people are being treated in ambulances (which have oxygen) because there are no longer enough bed spaces in some of the hospitals.

Against this backdrop, we try to just get on with things. I am currently posting teaching segments to my students and trying to write a guide to Ulysses in Italian (it seemed like a good idea at the time). For me, as for many of my colleagues, it is a real struggle to stay focused. The computer is on all day and it is hard not to keep checking the news. And then checking it again. The more productive days are the ones in which I manage to rein in this urge. At times, it is hard even to see the sense of such a project. Yet I believe in the importance of literature and the humanities at a time like this in helping us to frame and understand the human dimensions of what is taking place, the pain of death and loss and fear. If science will ultimately get us out of this situation, literature and music will play a crucial role in getting us through it.

Although the vast majority of people in Italy are just staying put, working from home as best they can, there are still too many people out and about, going for walks and runs, especially in the cities. Lombardy, to many Italians living at far-off points further down the peninsula, seems a long way away, just as Italy seems far away for people living in other European countries. Yet we are all connected and #Covid-19 does not respect national or regional borders: it doesn’t care whether your address is on the wrong or the right side of the city, it doesn’t discriminate between classes or races. It affects people of all ages. Forty-one per cent of those testing positive in Ireland are between twenty-five and forty-four according to The Irish Times. But, as we know, it does hit older people infinitely harder and a whole generation of older people in Italy are its main victim.

It is spread, however, primarily by young people who don’t even know they have it. People forget they if everyone takes a solitary run then the streets will be busier than they should be. After days of appealing to people’s consciences and civic good sense in order to get them to stay at home, now it is becoming clear that the Italian lockdown will be tightened even more by the government (both national and regional) over the coming days. The comments of the head of the Chinese Red Cross, who was in Lombardy yesterday, brought the necessity for such a move into clearer focus. The army will be brought onto the streets to ensure people stay at home. One trip to the supermarket per week will probably be the limit. It also looks increasingly likely that schools will not reopen until September. Italy has reacted heroically and with great unity to this crisis, but there is no quick fix.

I’m reading posts from people in countries that are a few weeks behind Italy in which they say that what is coming is a tsunami. Maybe it is. But it is also something worse than a tsunami. A tsunami is an extremely large wave caused by a violent movement of the earth. Its effects are immediate and devastating but it hits and retreats and is gone. #Covid-19 is equally devastating but it does not just hit and retreat. First it looms, then it begins to bite (there had been just one death in Italy one month ago on February 21st last) and then it just keeps on biting (as of yesterday the death toll was 3,405). What makes it so hard to explain to people in countries that have only a handful of deaths now is that Italy was in their exact situation just a month ago. And yes, I understand that Italy has an aging population and is therefore particularly vulnerable and that no two countries will follow exactly the same pattern.

If people have due warning about a tsunami they get to safety on high ground. Countries outside of Italy have had ample warning about #Covid-19 and they have a moral duty to ensure their people get to the equivalent of high ground. But it is up to each one of us. It remains very simple. Assume you have the virus and potentially could give it to others, buy a mask (if you can), do a big shop, go home and stay there until further notice. If that guarantees that lives will be saved it is not a huge ask. The phrase “the sanctuary of the home” has never seemed more apt than it does today. Sanctuary comes originally from the Latin sanctus, meaning, of course, holy. More than ever today the home is a place of refuge and protection. I am very encouraged by so many messages from Ireland and elsewhere telling me that people have understood the danger and are taking the right precautions, creating a sanctuary of sorts.

Looking out from the balcony, it is funny to reflect on how all life – apart from human life – is getting on with its business. Birds are singing, trees are in blossom, window boxes are coming to life, spring is very much in the air. We are the ones that are out of sync. We are stuck in winter. Which leads me to think that #Covid-19 is a big wake up call. Unlike all other forms of life, we, the humans, have too often believed that we can manage or exploit planet earth pretty much as we like. This virus should make us reflect on how we use and abuse the resources of the earth. If it was happening in Africa, or only in Africa, we’d be doing little more than saying how terrible it was and making some charitable donation to try to bolster their frail health systems. But because it is happening to us, to the so-called developed countries, we are reacting with unrelenting and unprecedented urgency. But the bigger message is that this has to be the signal for the pressing of a global reset button. Life as we knew it was not and is not sustainable. And the planet has been trying to tell us that for decades.

The model, the individualistic model, has to be challenged. We are reading in the papers that there has been a massive spike in gun sales in the US. What does this mean? Are we going to fight one another for the last sack of flour? Surely not. We read in this morning’s Italian papers that half a million testing kits – made in Brescia, the epicentre of the #Covid-19 crisis in Italy ‑ were exported by Copan Diagnostics to the USA on Wednesday just when they were so desperately needed in Italy. This beggars belief and is a brutal reminder of how some companies value profit over human life. Of course testing kits are needed in the States but they are needed even more urgently in Italy right now.

The Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin wrote as follows on the interconnectedness of all forms of life:

Taken in its entirety, the living substance spread over the earth ‑ from the first stages of its evolution ‑ traces the lineaments of one single and gigantic organism. To see life properly we must never lose sight of the unity of the biosphere that lies beyond the plurality and essential rivalry of individual beings.

Surely it is time for us now to seek or to see the unity that de Chardin talks of and to make it prevail over the rivalry of individual beings or individual countries. We are in this together and just as Italy has been pulling together to get through this so too will other countries. China has shown there is light at the end of the tunnel and although Italy is now in darkness there is, as Leonard Cohen tells us, “a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” This is not a time for panic or despair but a time for doing what we’re doing, for common sense, for looking out for each other (from a distance!), for responsibility, and for hope.

John McCourt is professor of English literature at the Università di Macerata. He is co-director of the Trieste Joyce School. His latest monograph was Writing the Frontier: Anthony Trollope between Britain and Ireland (Oxford University Press, 2015).