I am writing to you from the future.
I may be a few days, two weeks or four weeks ahead of you. It depends on where you stay, in Spain, U.K., United States, Russia or India. A few days ago my Indian friends wrote me alarmed messages. “How are you?”, “I love Italy”, “Be strong!”. Now, it’s my turn to be worried about my Indian friends. “How are you?”, “I love India”, “Be strong!”. At least Covid 19 is making friendships stronger.
The virus is spreading fast. Watching President Emmanuel Macron speak to the French nation, announcing strong social containment measures, it felt like he was just reiterating the speech Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte gave a few days earlier to the Italians. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s first press conference a week ago mirrored that of Italy's more than three weeks ago: carry on with your daily life, just be careful. At his second meeting with the press just a day later, the State of New York suddenly became Lombardy. To reduce the spread of Covid 19, Governor Cuomo was obliged to drastically alter New Yorkers’ way of life, as we have altered our lives in Milano over the past weeks. Political leaders have displayed the same gravitas and sense of alarm across the spectrum - how far shall their fellow citizens accept the sharp curtailment of their freedoms?
There’s a lot to learn from Italy regarding the dynamics of this virus, not only how fast it spreads and which categories are more at risk than others but political administrators and the international scientific community could also draw lessons from observing how far the Italian healthcare system was able to cope with the crisis. The virus poses a stress test for any healthcare system and reveals how resilient a country’s healthcare facilities are - whether the state privatized the system or chose to invest national resources in public healthcare.
However, perhaps the key feature of the Italian experience is its political and social dimension. It is the first time a democratic society in the West has adopted such severe limitations on public and private liberties. After three weeks in the Italian laboratory and without any reliable date concerning the opening of my home cage, I can now observe a sort of mutation of us, as individuals as well as a community. We have been asked to stay home and keep strict social distance in a society where hugging and kissing is the equivalent of breathing; been unable to drive, bike or even jog and have been forced to walk strictly alone (or with a pet) no further than 100 meters from our homes; to buy only food, drugs, newspapers, computers/phones. The extraordinary event of needing a written self-declaration explaining why one has to go out in the street, in a free country inhabited by about 60 million individuals feels like nothing short of a revolution.
The reaction however, was unexpected. In every city and village, from windows, balconies and terraces, people participated in all sorts of spontaneous flash mobs - singing (our best), playing an instrument, reciting poetry and prose and cheering doctors, nurses, police, Carabinieri, soldiers, ambulance drivers and social workers. In Italy, we are mildly patriotic - due to our recent history, nationalism is still somehow close to fascism. Usually, you can see the Italian flag and listen to the national anthem only when Italy wins the football world cup, these past weeks however, every corner was full of white-red-green flags and “Fratelli d’Italia” (Brothers of Italy) was sung from every window.
But as we approached the second week of the lockdown, we saw a mutation. Our enthusiasm disappeared. No more songs or anthems, and fear became more intimate. We found solace in silence rather than in the erstwhile creative chaos. Perhaps we are becoming more and more scared as we wait at 6 in the evening day after day, for updates of the virus’ spread communicated by the National Civil Defence, trying to anticipate the magnitude of the economic earthquake that is waiting for us on the other side of this health emergency. A nightmare shall follow a nightmare. There is no panic, however, and the social fabric is still solid. We don’t sing anymore but solidarity and public discipline have reached unusual levels by Italian standards. The citizens largely concur with the personal and collective sacrifices imposed by the government, rarely has a Prime Minister in office in the Italian republic been backed by a public consensus rating of over 60 percent. If we exclude the limits on movement, all the basic freedoms of our Western democracy remain untouched – so far. In my opinion, the real danger will be when the health emergency will be over and we start to confront the economic damages of the massive lockdown. Will we be able to keep the same solidarity and trust, the painful requests of our government to contain potential foreclosures, bankruptcies or larger unemployment?
I define myself as a European citizen born in Italy - indeed I was born together with the European Union (EU) and I strongly believe in this endeavor. I worry, however, that several members of the EU are not going to understand the magnitude of the challenge we are facing, and the need to confront it collectively. The lack of solidarity and some nations’ attitudes signaling their belief that they can keep their economic advantages at the expense of others are dangerous. The emergence of the virus has already demonstrated the lack of a meaningful European health system. Now, waiting for the economic tsunami, we could soon discover the depths of our national selfishness. First, with respect to the containment of the virus, then in the quality of its common economic response, the EU must recognize that it is not just checking limits and capabilities. At stake, is its very survival.
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