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2 December 2020

Virtuous Italy. Reckless Italy

In Milan, we were told defeating Covid-19 depended on following the rules. Amid a second wave and further tough restrictions, Italy’s faith is being tested.  

By Tim Parks

Virtuous Italy. Reckless Italy. Two narratives monopolised public conversation in Italy after the initial lockdown in March. The first was that virtuous Italy, showing rigid collective discipline in the face of great adversity, had established an effective model for combating Covid-19.

The media promoted this version of events. When in early summer foreign newspapers compared their own governments’ shortcomings with Italy’s success, they were eagerly quoted. World leaders joined the chorus: Angela Merkel commended Italy; as did the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, and the World Health Organisation’s director-general. There was general satisfaction.

The second narrative was not for foreign consumption. It was that certain selfish sectors (the leisure industry) and people (the young) were threatening to undo all the sacrifices that had been made and to plunge Italy again into the crisis whose defining image was that column of army trucks bringing coffins out of the city of Bergamo. These reckless ingrates had no respect for the dead, the worst crime an Italian can commit.

It will be hard for the British reader to grasp the pressure of orthodoxy in Italy, the lack of a plurality of views in the media. If the BBC’s Today programme may be mistaken for a liturgical denunciation of government policy, radio news on Italy’s RAI gives the impression of state propaganda. There may be disagreement, but never about the main narrative. The flock must not hear heresy.

Thus the Covid crisis soon led to the redeployment of the word negazionista, hitherto used for Holocaust deniers. Anyone who questioned the extremity of lockdown was a negazionista. Anyone who reminded people, say, that the average age of the Covid dead was higher than the general life expectancy, or that victims had on average three or more life-threatening conditions, was a negazionista. Anyone who wondered whether the obligation to wear masks outside was making a difference was a negazionista. TV biologist Barbara Gallavotti explained that negazionismo is actually a degenerative brain condition similar to dementia.

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[see also: Postcards from Planet Covid]

It was not that the media overlooked the state’s responsibility in diminishing the health service, the calamitous lack of PPE, the bickering and buck-passing between regions and national government, the countless incongruities in the regulations, the huge economic and psychological collateral damage caused by lockdown, the increase in domestic violence, the loss of months of schooling and so on; simply that all the real animosity was directed at those unworthy citizens, the negazionisti.

Covid had arrived in northern Italy in foggy February. The lockdown was eased in sunny May. But it was our sacrifices, not the weather, we were told, that made the difference; in general, the ebb and flow of Covid was to be understood strictly in relation to government directives and people’s willingness to obey them. Every death is an index of failure, if not guilt. So as the sun powered down from blue skies it was a cause for anxiety that Italy is so heavily reliant on tourism and such a beautiful, hospitable, warm and fascinating place to visit, full of opportunities for people to become intimate. In short, that life is worth living.

An uneasy summer was spent between relief over being in a place better than the US and Britain and consternation that anyone might take advantage of it and enjoy themselves. Much use was made of low wide- angle shots to suggest that public places were more crowded than they actually were. Sent to record the indiscipline of the Neapolitans but finding the streets empty, a journalist for RAI3 television let out, “We’re unlucky, for the moment they’re behaving.” Occasionally, a footnote reminded us that most infections occur at home.

I travelled in July. If Milan still felt Lenten, the piazzas of small towns in southern Puglia were pleasantly busy. I was harried and hurried around Taranto’s extraordinary archaeological museum so as to remain at a proper distance from those behind me. I also spoke to a young man who had remained indoors for two months in a city that had recorded no infections. Taranto had no infections, two doctors told me, because no test kits had been available. I found people who had received handsome subsidies despite suffering no loss of income and others who had lost jobs and received nothing. An accountant explained that while the people in her village wore their masks on the street, they did not renounce the Sunday lunches round the big table in the courtyard.

Yet still in early September all was well. France and Britain had begun their second waves. Because they were less virtuous. Italy had a more serious track and trace system, opined star microbiologist Andrea Crisanti, even if few had downloaded the app. The purchase of 2.5 million single-place desks would allow schools to reopen safely.


But autumn arrives later in Italy, just as spring arrives earlier. A few chilly days and infections soared. Track and trace collapsed. Panicking crowds formed outside casualty departments. A three-tier lockdown was introduced at the start of November, complete with nationwide curfew. Schoolchildren over 13 were sent home, as were university students. It now appeared that while preaching to the negazionisti, little had been done to expand hospital capacity, especially in the south. In a TV interview, Calabria’s health service commissioner claimed he hadn’t known he was responsible for drawing up the region’s Covid plan. In terms of Covid deaths per million of population, Italy quickly overtook Brazil, the US, even the UK.

In Milan we were back to filling in forms to justify our every move. Forbidden to leave the city limits. Forced to hide our faces at all times. People obey, more or less, but without the old zeal. There is no sign of rebellion, but no belief either. The city lurches to a zombie step. It’s not unusual to see a driver alone in his car, or hers, wearing a mask but no safety belt. As one hangs a crucifix from the rear-view mirror perhaps. A primary schoolteacher tells me she starts each day by writing up the number of deaths on the board: “Otherwise the children forget.”

Announcing Christmas restrictions, ministers insist we must not repeat “the mistakes of the summer”. Apparently, the whole disaster is to be attributed to August evenings in discos. “We will still have to wear masks even when the vaccine arrives,” insists one of the virologists who have taken up permanent residence on the talk shows.

[see also: Italy in the wake of coronavirus]

You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, runs the adage. But what if you don’t know even when it’s gone? This is what is so unsettling about the present. What are the things that make Italy special? Its people. Their faces. A certain ease in company: smiling, moving, touching. A collective aesthetic of friendly living, revolving around cafés and open piazzas. A rich cultural scene of museums, theatres, concert halls. Beautiful streets to walk and talk in. But the virus forces us to establish a hierarchy of values; and for the foreseeable future one trumps all: the daily Covid body count. As long as anyone is dying of Covid it is obscene to imagine that the rest of life might have any value. So the daughter of a close friend went to the town hall to fix the day of her marriage and was met with the exclamation, “Why am I being exposed to mortal danger for something so inessential?” Only when we are Covid-free will it be possible to enjoy ourselves again, while people go on dying in the ordinary way, uncounted.

It is December. The government, a fanciful coalition whose one area of agreement is the wish to stay in power, has no project. But nor does the opposition. We are waiting for the vaccine. We are waiting for the EU Recovery Fund. We are waiting. And wearing our masks. What are people thinking behind them? It’s hard to say. Where orthodoxy and passivity are enforced, how can life manifest itself if not in conspiracy theories?

After authenticating a document for me, an elderly notary offers me a highly elaborate, deeply disturbing version of events. “But, please, Signor Parks, in confidence.” 

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This article appears in the 02 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed