The Ballad of the Covid-19 Gaol, part 2

(DIEM 25 Magazine, April 2020)

Modena, Emilia-Romagna, Italy, May 4,2020

Outside in my street…

Modena, city centre

.. there is no one around, of course. A blistering sun is shining on the terrace from where I am writing the weather is very warm, inviting you for a stroll downtown or a walk in the parks already green. But, still, there is no one around.

So two months have gone by since my return home from the ‘chaplinesc’ weekend on the Dolomites that I describe in part 1. I began my lockdown in skiing clothes and now I am about to enter ‘phase2’, partial easing of the quarantine’s measures, in T-shirt and shorts. Ever since I have stayed home, like most of my fellow countrymen and Europeans. To prove that Murphy’s law exists, the Easter week was sunny and warm like today, perfect for the beach, for suntanning, maybe for an early swim, or for cycling, walking, enjoying seafood outdoor – the traditional Easter break in Southern Europe, a period in which we can already ‘smell’ summer.

Surprisingly, I have not felt my quarantine as a prison, as a modern Reading Gaol where people are for punishment. What is happening is almost impossible to conceive, and I routinely wake up at night and wonder if this is just a dream. I thought this could happen only in Hollywood disaster movies or in the past ages. I reckoned the plague, Black Death, was now confined to history books or novels. In fact, I have taken the opportunity to read again parts of I Promessi Sposi by the romantic writer Alessandro Manzoni, our national literary hero, a historical novel set in an XVII century Milan exterminated by the peste, the plague, brought by the German army. Wait a minute: Milan living a tremendous deadly virus outbreak brought in by the Germans! Isn’t it like today? And in the 1600s, like today, ignorance, prejudices, errors and lobbies’ pressure enlarged the scale of the pandemic. Milan authorities, then and now, made a series of mistakes, involuntary and voluntary as well, that gave the city the sad record of death tolls.

 Two opposite realities: left and right, in this fake post-ideological age, still count

Let alone the chronic cut to our welfare state, and to Public Health consequently, that the troika imposed us after the 2008 crisis in a surreptitious manner, it is well known that Northern Italy has one of the best health systems in Europe. But Milan and its region, Lombardia, have had the highest numbers of contagions and deaths in Italy and in Europe. Bad luck? Not only: some superinfected areas were not closed before the general lockdown because some national and multinational very important factories and companies did not want the shutdown and used all their political influence to avoid it in the name of ‘business first’, a local version of ‘America first’. As a consequence, thousands of people lost their lives in vain. Then, private retirement homes were infected because no protective apparatus was used until late March and old people simply died, and that was it, given out as normal casualties. Today some directors of these retirement homes are under investigation for negligent multiple homicides. Moreover, the regional board of public health made a series of amateurs’ mistakes like the no testing policy, the lack of protections for hospitals’ workers, the non-separation of hospitals’ areas, the lack of coordination, the neglecting of home cures and so on and so forth. A paradoxical example of the ridiculous slogan ‘The Italians first’. They spent a lot of their precious time in a sterile sickening political quarrel with the central government, and time, under these circumstances, was as precious as gold. No wonder: this area is a stronghold of Matteo Salvini’s Lega and the local government is strongly in the right-wing parties’ hands. The basic fact is that in Lombardia the right-wing local government has constantly favoured the development of the Private Health Service and the corruption it brought in a city nicknamed Tangentopoli (bribesville) since the Clean Hands investigation in the 90ies which led to the end of the ‘first republic’. Consequently the public sector, besides the constant cutting in public funding, has had to compete to get patients, as if they were customers, with the private sector, with all the ominous consequences we all know well. There are private hospitals and services of great quality, of course, if you can afford them, but there are also very bad ones, where now people simply die. Apart from letting old men die in retirement homes, what has the private health sector done for the pandemic? Where are they? We wonder with horror what would happen to the whole country if Salvini was PM and its gang of politicians ministers. God have mercy!

On the other hand, where I live, even if the contagion hit as hard as Lombardia, a neighbouring region, we have seen much better handling of the crisis and a much smaller number of deaths. Emilia-Romagna is a study case for historians: since the end of WWII, it has always been governed by left-wing coalitions becoming one of the richest, most advanced and efficient regions in Northern Italy and in Europe, not only because of its industrial production but also in welfare. Like Hannibal, the modern barbarians tried to invade Emilia-Romagna from the North in the recent regional elections but were stopped, giving an important contribution to halt the new March to Rome by the fascists of today. Left and right, in this fake post-ideological age, still count and make a difference. Diemmers helped elect Elly Schlein, candidate of Emilia Romagna Solidale, a young promising left politician, a new clean political face recently appointed vice president of the Reginal government.

Runnin’ on empty

Snowpiercer – the movie

In these fifty days life has slowed down and, in a way, we have gradually become more human, with more time to think, to relate to our family members, to cultivate interests and culture in general. This should be a favourable time to reconsider the rush we all live in, how inhuman, immoral and toxic it is. In the industrialized Western world, poisoned by the clay giant of constant growth, ‘serene degrowth’ is just a utopian dream, confined to the writing of a philosopher. It reminds me of the movie Snowpiercer by Hollywood-awarded Korean director Bong Joon-ho. The movie takes place aboard the Snowpiercer train, forced to run perpetually around the globe, carrying the last remnants of humanity after an attempt at climate engineering in order to stop global warming has unintentionally created a new Ice Age. Running crazily without stopping is the only possibility to survive because it the only way to create heat. The protagonist is a member of the lower-class tail section passengers: they try to lead a revolution against the elite of the front of the train, a science-fiction version of the class struggle which is, in turn, science-fictional in our real world. Indeed the movie is a metaphor of the hyper-industrial, neo-con, unique-thought capitalist society we have created, a civilization that can never stop or slow down even for a very limited time, slave of the competition dogma upon which it is based, with social security shrinking all the time, the disappearance of permanent jobs and the consideration of human beings measured on their economic potential. A worldwide cage: Woke up this mornin’ and I looked at the same old page / Same old rat race, life in the same old cage in Bob Dylan’s couplet from Highlands, gentle and fair with honeysuckle blooming in the wildwood air. Isn’t this the right time to reconsider the whole lot, to imagine and plan a new kind of society, a post-capitalistic society that doesn’t look back at history with nostalgia but treasures ideas – and considers mistakes too – from past experiences and ideas about new forms of society? This ugly pandemic, giving us a little break from the perpetual snowpiercer run and no time to think, could offer a chance. History has taught us that disastrous events have always been a watershed: doesn’t Sir Christopher Wren’s London exist thanks to the Great Fire?

Paradoxes in these lockdown days

This virus has shown we are very vulnerable even if we are rich, well-fed, have comfortable homes, good jobs, have access to the best medical care, travel first class, go on exotic holidays. This infection is cross-country but also, up to a point, inter-classes. And the upper-middle-classes are not used to this kind of disrespect, they find it outrageously irreverent, even if, to be honest, poor people’s and discriminated minorities’ death rate in the West is much higher: just take a look at the number of the Afro-Americans casualties in the richest country of the world.

There are many paradoxes in these lockdown days. The greatest one is, of course, the unimaginable amount of fake news that floods us every day, an embarrassing side-effect of the globalized and hyper-hi-tech world. A tweet is a modern version of an official bill, but its truthfulness does not really matter in the age of ‘post-truth’. If it was not tragic, it would be hilarious to see some uneducated Americans intoxicated by the swallowing of disinfectants after Trump’s surreal press conference on the subject. Like most of our politicians, he disregards science and knowledge in general, and I daresay mental sanity too. But here we go again, as I have recently written, as soon as a monster politician appears on the scene, we hurry to elect him. In Italy we were the forerunner with mafia-linked media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, so we know better. One more example of these paradoxes in my country is watching Matteo Salvini&friends asking NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) for help during the pandemic peak after calling them ‘smugglers’, ‘sea-taxis’, ‘death merchants’ and the like when they were trying to save the migrants stranded at sea because he, as home secretary, refused to let them land on our coasts. Has he – them – now learned how it feels to be the ones in need? Has the fast reversal of the situation given him a second thought? I doubt it, obviously.

No one knows where the time goes. 

Looking back at these two months of quarantine, I would like to remember the positive aspects that unexpectedly bloomed amid this global tragedy. My family reunion, for example, sixty days spent with my wife (as a teacher of Italian at Ferrari she luckily could keep on working from home) and my children who all of a sudden had to come back home, one from Milan (my son, a professional footballer) and the other from Spain (my daughter, a University student in her Erasmus semester). Even if they were in very dangerous zones, they came back safe and sound. After such a long time of separation, it was a risky business, but we went along unexpectedly alright and almost got rid of the everyday quarrels due to the snowpiercer rhythm of working life. I, a recent pensioner after a life spent teaching, have enjoyed the luxury of time to think about life, its meaning and scope. In Wordsworth’s famous stanza: For oft, when on my couch I lie / In vacant or in pensive mood, / They flash upon that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude; / And then my heart with pleasure fills, / And dances with the daffodils. I have also rediscovered the pleasure of playing music, of reading books and watching movies at random, without rushing to organize an evening out I often did not enjoy. And, last but not least, the pleasure of writing, of course.

Now ‘phase two’, the slow return to normality, is about to begin. I am quite scared of it because I fear the return of the old odd habits of the Italians, their chronic disrespect for rules. I fear we forget our good intentions and behaviour in a second and find ourselves where we started very soon. But, like Sandy Danny sang in a crowded London theatre in the late 70ies when I was a broke happy student in the swinging city, no one knows where the time goes.