It is a beautiful day today, cool fresh temperature and light breeze, the birds are everywhere and vocal, frogs have begun to call in the pond. If it weren’t for the terrible drought it would be heaven. And then there is the virus.
But how quiet! Quieter than usual, and the lack of tractors grinding, people calling out, cars whizzing by, airplanes overhead is…ominous.
As it should be. It is symptomatic of the paralysis gripping everything and everyone in this time of epic battle against an invisible enemy. The Black Swan holds sway whether we like it, believe it, or not. Our warm and fuzzy interdependence has coddled us through these many years of technological marvels and immediate gratification. How dare we be forced to endure this discomfort!
And yet people here in the south of Italy are not so easily shocked by hardship; they have had plenty of upheavals inflicted upon them; mistreatment by geography, history, ineptitude, poverty and graft. It gives them a psychological advantage.
I am here too, and I will remain here until traveling again becomes as simple as it used to be, hopping a plane over the ocean on a whim and back again. Not so easy now. Not easy for my husband and me, far away from our sons who are just beginning to experience the effects of the virus in the United States. At least our technology has made the distance between us bearable.
And it is going to get worse. If Italy is a bellwether, and experts believe it is, then things are going to get complicated in the USA. People are going to have to face the inevitable conclusion that sometimes quantity, not quality, determines an outcome. I heard pundits today talking about how Italy is in its current situation simply because their healthcare system is incapable of coping, inferior in every way to the American system. I don’t think people understand the dynamism that drives the Lombardy hub of Italy, nor do they understand that Italy is very much a nation of “pendolari”* who come and go frenetically from that hub constantly. And together with these commuting masses are far superior numbers of people from all over the world who pass through it daily. No wonder, that in those first days and weeks of poor and erratic information, things got out of hand.
You are welcome, world. Italy has provided your best guide as to how to deal, and not deal, with this situation. It really has nothing to do with the quality of care, (cushy single rooms, surgeons doing laparoscopies from Tokyo, well-stocked gift shops with flower delivery, state of the art billing), but that the needed quantity could not be met in the short period of time allotted by progression of the contagion. Too many patients, too little time, and too aggressive a pathogen. People tend to ignore that Italian researchers actually are on the cutting edge of scientific discoveries, some of the best being in the U.S.
Those of you who know me will know that I lean hard away from the “progressives.”* But among the things I have learned from living here are appreciation of community, and when government fails to provide, the carefully-cultivated network of friends, family and neighbors can take up the slack. The Italian healthcare system, with all its horror stories and scandals, is a machine that runs on attenuated funding, and lots of humanity. This humanity of the Italians, often denigrated as cowardice or lack of courage, is laudable. It allows mothers in prison to raise their children there. It forgives first transgressions with the law. It allows an extra place at any table, no matter how meager the fare. It allows nurses and doctors to dedicate their last strength to caring for their patients, and necessitates their collapsing in tears when forced to make a decision which turns someone away from that care. There surely can be nothing worse in this life than having to make that kind of call. It is a new, and devastating, effect of the virus.
But here in small town Italy we are getting along. The streets are deserted, and aside from the one family member permitted to buy groceries, no one can be out and about. But the supermarkets and pharmacies are stocked. Gas stations are open and I can ride my bike as long as I don’t go through town. If you are stopped, you will be greeted by a smiling officer with a mask, who will invite you to try and not venture out unless absolutely necessary. Trucks with megaphones crawl the streets at six PM, curfew, to warn people to stay in their homes.
And sometimes, as happened the other night, one might hear a frail orchestral version of the national anthem wafting from the quarantine trucks, music which seems to be joined by a tenuous accompaniment…which grows in strength and volume until the town stridently vocalizes its defiance, its faith and its grief— in song.
It isn’t perfect, but it is human.
“A Little Slice of Heaven” oil
*1 Italy has woken!
*3 Where “progressive” is intended to mean “forward-moving,” but actually means (simply) moving, heedless of trajectory or consequences.