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QuaresimaThomas Jones
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Vol. 42 No. 7 · 2 April 2020

Quaresima

Thomas Jones reports from Orvieto

2587 words

Fifteen days ago: 2706 people in Italy had at this point tested positive for Sars-CoV-2; there were 443 new cases; 276 had recovered; 107 were dead. The Italian government announced on Wednesday, 4 March that schools would be closed the following day, and would not reopen until Monday, 16 March. A week had passed since Ash Wednesday. It would have been neat if the beginning of quarantine had coincided with the first day of Lent. And not merely neat: it might well have saved lives. But lateness is one of the defining characteristics of the Covid-19 pandemic. The two-week incubation period is only one of the reasons we are stumbling too far behind the virus. The belief that ‘it won’t be like that here’ is strong: it was strong in Italy – it was strong in me – when the disease was concentrated in China. When I talk to friends and family in the UK, it sometimes feels as if I’m speaking not only from another country, but from another time, 15 days in the future. In each of the Terminator movies, the time-travelling hero repeats a shibboleth: ‘Come with me if you want to live.’ The message in the real world, though, is ‘Stay at home.’

 

Thirteen days ago: 3916 positive; 640 new cases; 523 recovered; 197 dead. At around midday on Friday, 6 March I took my seven-year-old son out to join a couple of his friends who were playing in the Piazza della Repubblica. One of the grandfathers, popular with all the children for his relentless good humour and childish jokes, had a small measuring tape in his pocket, the kind you might get in a Christmas cracker. Whenever someone he knew walked by – and he knows everyone – he pulled out the tape measure to make sure they were keeping a metre away. Everyone laughed.

 

Eleven days ago: 6387 positive; 1326 new cases; 622 recovered; 366 dead. On Sunday, 8 March, l’Eco di Bergamo (the Bergamo Echo) reprinted a Facebook post by a local doctor describing conditions in his hospital: intensive care rapidly overwhelmed by cases, all ventilators from operating theatres and elsewhere in the hospital commandeered, but still not enough. Bergamo is a wealthy city of about 100,000 people, thirty miles north-east of Milan. According to a paper in Intensive Care Medicine in 2012, Italy as a whole had 12.5 intensive care beds for every 100,000 people; the number for the UK was 6.6. ‘In recent years,’ Eurostat said in 2017, ‘most EU member states have reported a decrease in the availability of hospital beds.’

A riot broke out in Modena jail. Nine prisoners died. The authorities later claimed the men had broken into the prison pharmacy and overdosed.

The Italian government announced that schools across the country would be closed from the following day until 3 April. So would swimming pools, gyms, cinemas, theatres, museums and anywhere else that crowds gather. Bars and restaurants would be open only from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

 

Ten days ago: 7985 positive; 1598 new cases; 724 recovered; 463 dead. On Monday, 9 March, a thread from a doctor in Lombardy, writing in English, appeared on Twitter. Hospitals were running at 200 per cent capacity; all operating theatres had been converted to intensive therapy units: ‘Patients above 65, or younger with comorbidities, are not even assessed by ITU, I am not saying not tubed, I’m saying not assessed, and no ITU staff attends when they arrest … If governments won’t do this at least keep your family safe, your loved ones with history of cancer or diabetes or any transplant will not be tubed if they need it even if they are young.’

In the evening, the Italian government announced that the entire country would now be designated a red zone, with severe restrictions on movement. Only food shops, pharmacies, banks, tobacconists and newsagents could remain open. People were permitted to leave the house only if they took with them an autodichiarazione: a form downloaded from the Interior Ministry website, on which you write your name, address, date and place of birth, ID card, passport or driving licence number, mobile phone number, your reason for being out of the house, the date and time that you’re leaving, and your signature. ‘Valid reasons’ include going to work, going to buy food or medicine, taking your dog for a walk, going to help elderly relatives who need it (but remember they’re the most vulnerable to the disease so make an effort to protect them), or taking exercise outdoors – but not in groups. Anyone leaving the house without a valid reason could face a maximum penalty of three months in jail.

 

Nine days ago: 8514 positive; only 529 new cases, but Lombardy was missing from the count; 1004 recovered; 631 dead. The total lockdown on Tuesday, 10 March came in many ways as a relief. Concerned messages arrived from friends and family, mostly in the UK and US, checking that we were all right. We were fine, I reassured everyone: far from the outbreak (still telling myself that ‘it won’t be like that here,’ though ‘here’ had shrunk in a matter of weeks from ‘outside China’ to ‘Umbria’), and now protected from contagion by the new emergency measures. My wife, Emma, and I both mostly work from home anyway; the children have each other for company when they want, and separate bedrooms when they don’t. We live on the edge of town – and in Orvieto, that is literally an edge, as the town isn’t merely on a hilltop, but on a volcanic plug, a large rock with sheer sides, hundred-foot cliffs that drop from the city walls to the gentler slopes below. There’s a narrow ring of woodland around the bottom of the cliffs, and it’s easy enough for us to get out there without breathing on anyone. We’re lucky, in other words, compared to people whose jobs have disappeared, or families in small apartments in the middle of big cities, or people who live alone, or are homeless, or trapped in an abusive household. The virus is indiscriminate in whom it infects, but privilege is still privilege.

 

Eight days ago: 10,590 positive; 2076 new cases; 1045 recovered; 827 dead. On 11 March it was two weeks since Ash Wednesday. The Italian word for Lent, Quaresima, cognate with the French Carême, derives from the Latin quadragesima, ‘fortieth’. ‘Quarantine’ comes from the Italian for ‘forty’, quaranta (from the Latin quadraginta). In Jim Crace’s novel Quarantine Jesus spends his forty days in the wilderness with half a dozen other people who have come to the desert, ill or otherwise afflicted, looking for a miracle. And though the forty days of Lent (not including Sundays; it’s actually 46 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter) have several biblical precedents, from the rains that brought the Flood to the temptation of Christ, the origins of the six-week fast in the run up to Easter are obscure. It seems to be have been established practice by the mid-fourth century, not long after the Council of Nicea in 325 AD.

 

Seven days ago: 12,839 positive; 2249 new cases; 1258 recovered; 1016 dead. On Thursday, 12 March, Christine Lagarde ‘flunked her first major test as president of the European Central Bank’, as Fortune put it, when she said ‘we are not here to close spreads,’ implying the ECB wouldn’t buy Italian government debt. It had the opposite effect from the statement her predecessor, Mario Draghi, made during the financial crisis eight years ago, when he promised the ECB would do ‘whatever it takes’ to save the euro. After Lagarde’s remarks, interest rates on Italian bonds soared; the stock market plummeted.

 

Six days ago: 14,955 positive; 2116 new cases; 1429 recovered; 1266 dead. On Friday, 13 March, the ECB promised it would buy Italian bonds as and when necessary. The financial markets calmed down.

Matteo Salvini launched an inflammatory and unfounded attack on ‘ethnic minimarkets’, which he claimed were staying open on the pretext of selling food, but were ‘in fact’ doing business selling alcohol to ‘hundreds’ of people who were gathering in defiance of the rules. As someone pointed out on Twitter, smaller shops with few customers were much less of a problem than the long queues outside big supermarkets.

There were reports that facemasks from China, destined for Italy, had been blocked during transit through Germany, then mysteriously lost. The Italian state was said to be building a factory to produce medical goods no longer available through the ‘single market’. Videos circulated, on social and international media, of people in cities throughout Italy coming out onto their balconies and singing together.

Some good news from the two badly hit towns in the north where the government had enforced a lockdown three weeks earlier: In Lodi, there were only ten new cases; in Vo Euganeo, there were no new cases for the second day in a row.

 

Five days ago: 17,750 positive; 2795 new cases; 1966 recovered; 1441 dead. On the afternoon of Saturday, 14 March, a friend phoned me as I was on my way to the butcher – certificate in my pocket – to pass on a rumour circulating on social media that a pharmacist in the centro storico had tested positive. The butcher was almost whispering as he talked about how silent the city was. He asked after the children, and said the authorities were disinfecting the playgrounds. When I got home, I searched online for news of the allegedly infected pharmacist, but couldn’t find anything. There were three more cases in nearby villages, and the first death in Umbria was identified as Ivano Pescari, a 66-year-old accordion player from Città di Castello, ‘well known in the world of dance music’. Later that evening, the mayor announced that eight Orvietani had tested positive. Five were in hospitals elsewhere; three were self-isolating at home.

 

Four days ago: 20,603 positive; 2853 new cases; 2335 recovered; 1809 dead. On Sunday, 15 March the local news reported that a haematologist in Perugia had tested positive. The pope walked through the semi-deserted streets of Rome, his bodyguards keeping two metres behind him, and two metres away from one another. Salvini was out and about too, holding hands with his girlfriend. When people criticised him, he said he had as much right to go shopping as anyone else. Of course he does: but as Jürgen Klopp could tell him, it’s about setting an example; and for a public figure to be out and about holding hands, even with his girlfriend, wasn’t on.

I went with the children on their daily walk in the woods. It was warm and sunny, not a cloud or contrail in the sky; birds singing; bees clustering around a patch of wild rapeseed flowers. In the evening there was a call for people to turn their lights out and go out onto their balconies at nine o’clock with torches. We did, but saw no sign of anyone else.

 

Three days ago: 23,073 positive; 2470 new cases; 2759 recovered; 2158 dead. On Monday, 16 March, the day that schools were originally scheduled to reopen in Italy (though who, really, ever believed they would?), the Nurses’ Federation released a video statement:

There is no more time. We have no more in-patient beds, we are constrained to reuse individual protection equipment, and in many situations the equipment that is available isn’t suitable. We are in constant danger. There is no longer even the time to cry, except at the end of our long, punishing shifts. We are like soldiers at the front. We need hospitals, we need personnel. Immediately. Now. Not tomorrow. We also need you, dear citizens. Close yourselves in at home. Every time you go out opens the door to the virus.

I drove to the supermarket in the afternoon: there was almost nobody there, but it was well stocked. Only eggs were scarce. The people stacking the shelves were all wearing masks; the cashier wasn’t but she had a plexiglass barrier to protect her. I asked if I’d come at a quiet time or if it was always like this. ‘It’s like this all the time,’ she said. After I got back my son’s class held a video conference: 24 children saying ‘Ciao’ through rickety microphones and tinny speakers. Suggestions that everyone apart from the teacher mute their microphones unless called on to speak fell on deaf ears. ‘They sound like cats,’ Emma said. My daughter was impatient for him to finish so she could use the bandwidth to videocall her friends. She has been spending a lot of time on the phone. He would rather play Minecraft or build Lego.

At the Amazon warehouse in Castel San Giovanni, near Piacenza (the sixth worst affected province in Italy), the staff went on strike, demanding greater safety at work.

 

Two days ago: 26,062 positive; 2989 new cases; 2941 recovered; 2503 dead. On Tuesday, 17 March, a new, stricter certificate was released, requiring anyone leaving the house to declare, in addition, that they have not tested positive for Covid-19. The Interior Ministry said that 7890 people and 217 businesses had been reported for violating the sanctions, a 13.5 per cent increase in two days. There wasn’t much sign of police enforcement around Orvieto, though without the tourists or American students the population has noticeably decreased.

In Rome, police cars were driving round with loudspeakers. The Lazio regional government announced that the capital would shortly have a thousand dedicated Covid-19 beds. The number of total cases nationwide passed thirty thousand, but the curve of new cases appeared to be flattening. Mathematicians at Genoa University predicted the epidemic would peak on 25 March – possibly. The first person to test positive in Piedmont, a 40-year-old who had been sent home after three weeks in hospital on 13 March, apparently better, had tested positive again and was back in isolation.

As we were heading out on our afternoon walk we came across my son’s best friend, out with his father, walking their dog. The boys, so happy to see each other, stood dutifully several metres apart. It was closer than they’d been for 11 days; and there was liberation of a kind in getting to shout fart jokes in the street with impunity.

 

Yesterday: 28,710 positive; 2648 new cases; 4025 recovered; 2978 dead. On Wednesday, 18 March, on my way to the shops, windows were open on Via Garibaldi. On the first floor, a woman was leaning out and playing Frank Sinatra singing ‘My Way’ on her phone. Above her, on the second floor, another woman was leaning out and listening. They sang along to the bits they knew.

The total number of cases in the UK reached 2606, and the death toll was 104. The British government announced that schools will close on Friday, 20 March.

 

Today: 33,190 positive; 4480 new cases; 4440 recovered; 3405 dead. This issue of the LRB goes to press on Thursday, 19 March, halfway through Lent. This issue is dated 2 April, two weeks from now. The day after that, in theory, schools in Italy are set to reopen. But everyone knows that won’t happen. The lockdown will be extended, to Easter and beyond. It has to continue for two incubation periods – thirty days – after the last new case tests positive. And then there will be ninety days of the ‘heightened surveillance’ we experienced, briefly, on 9 March, when bars and restaurants were still open but only until six o’clock in the evening. Indefinite Lent. The Bible says that it rained for ‘forty days and forty nights’ (Genesis 7:12), but we know the number isn’t to be taken literally. It’s a way of saying that it rained for a very, very long time. Long enough to flood the earth. The last verse of Genesis 7 is less famous, but more ominous: ‘And the waters prevailed upon the earth an hundred and fifty days.’

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