Metaphorically, if not yet literally, coronavirus is on everybody’s lips in John Cabot, an American university in Rome where I teach. Most of our conversations revolve around the autocratic might shown by the Chinese government in shutting down an entire city of 11 million people, two and a half times the population of the Republic of Ireland, and, of course, we marvel at that time- lapse video of the hospital going up in just 10 days. Two Chinese tourists in Rome are hospitalised with the Corona virus, which prompts me finally to learn the name of that huge unknown city, Wuhan. I set my students a paper on epidemics, but remain comforted that the nationality of the tourists confirms my essentially racist belief that this is a Chinese thing.
On the day my father, who embodies the concept of pre-existing condition, turns 80 in Dublin, the extent of the remarkable electoral surge of Sinn Fein is becoming apparent. I resist the temptation to triumphalism, and explain to my colleagues here in Rome, who, being professors, are practised at feigning polite interest in others’ academic obsessions, that the victory, similar to the victory in Italia 90 when Ireland hammered England 1-1 in Cagliari, has more to do with health and social justice than with reunification. For the next few weeks I luxuriate in long-distance outrage at the anti-SF machinations of Fine Gael and, especially, Fianna Fáil – the real class traitors.
Two people, not Chinese, are hospitalised in Padua, one of whom then becomes the first Italian fatality. Seventeen new cases appear in Lombardy. The Italian government announces quarantine measures for anyone who has been infected.
The region of Lombardy suffers its first coronavirus death, bringing Italian fatalities to two. There are 79 recorded infections in the country.
Today is my son’s 21st birthday. He is up north in Tyrol skiing with friends. I worry slightly about enclosed cable cars full of coughing and snuffling holidaymakers from northern Italy. I just hope my son won’t bring it home with him, because now, with 25 new cases in Veneto, the ghastly symptoms of the disease are being talked about. When my sleep apnoea jolts me awake at night gasping for breath, it now takes me longer to calm myself. A third person dies in Crema (Lombardy); there are now 152 recorded infections.
My old schoolmate Eamon Ryan, whose father, Bob, was a very kind mentor to me in the Dublin of the 1980s, is putting a brave face on the poor showing of the Greens. England hammers Ireland at Twickenham, and my interest in the 6 Nations tournament, Italy being my other team, evaporates. Surgical masks vanish from pharmacies in Italy.
Three more deaths in Lombardy, one in the beautiful hill-top town of Bergamo, from whose city walls, on a rare clear day when the mists and industrial smog of the Po Valley have dissipated, the view extends all the way to Milan, which stands at the centre of what is essentially a single vast city the size of seven provinces. Only by looking for the 16th-century bell towers and 20th-century chimney stacks is it possible to distinguish from the sprawling conurbation the industrial and post-industrial towns of Stezzano, Dalmine, Brembate, Trezzo sull’Adda and, in the distance, Monza, Cologno Monzese, and Gorgonzola, and finally, the dim outlines of the new skyscrapers of Milan, markers of the stubborn economic survival of this part of the country in the midst of Italy’s 25-year-long economic slump.
The Italian government closes schools, universities, public offices, museums and lawcourts in the regions of Emilia-Romagna, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Lombardy, Veneto, Piedmont and Liguria. Travel outside the infected zones is prohibited.
Veneto now has 111 cases, 42 of them in the tiny hamlet of Vò. Two of its inhabitants die, and over the next few days everyone there is tested. Less than 2% are positive. Cases are reported in Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna, where the victims are reported as having returned from abroad, almost as if to emphasize the non-endemic nature of the disease. Ireland gets its first case, a woman who travelled from Dublin to Belfast and thus solomonically resolved the problem of which side of the border deserved the first blame.
My daughter flies from Rome to Dublin to interview my father for her Master’s thesis on Irish literature. She packs a surgical mask – an extravagance, but my father is poorly, and people are beginning to look askance at Italy. Touchy about these things, I detect some cultural stereotyping in Ireland and the UK of the tactile, gesticulating all-living-together Italians, an attitude that my father’s late friend Edward Said would have called orientalism.
Covid-19, as the infection is now being called, reaches the French-speaking region of Aosta, the last hold-out of Italy’s twenty regions. My daughter returns from Dublin, having not met my father face-to-face after all, but having stayed with my active and healthy mother (81). Rumours begin to circulate in my university that the students, most of whom are non-Italian, might take fright and start returning to their homes. My classes remain full. An Irish woman who returned from Italy becomes the second case on the island of Ireland and the first in the Republic.
Owing to the impossibility of quarantining only some cities and provinces, the Italian government of Giuseppe Conte issues an emergency decree declaring the entire country subject to restrictions of movement, and orders schools and universities across the entire country closed.
My university calls a meeting of all professors and instructors, and tells us to prepare for remote teaching. The closure almost coincides with the spring break, which mitigates the sense of upheaval. Even so, the mood at the meeting is an odd mixture of detached amusement, disbelief, confusion and anxiety.
The Ireland v. Italy rugby international, my least favourite game of the tournament, is suspended, but Italian fans from the rugby-playing north of the country continue to arrive in Dublin. The number of recorded cases in Italy now exceeds 3,000, almost all in Lombardy and Veneto. The death toll is 107.
My daughter and her boyfriend along with my niece from Dublin, who has been studying in Siena, travel to Tyrol to spend a week skiing. The boyfriend’s parents, who live in China, are very unhappy at their son’s decision to travel and urge him to reconsider. My wife and I rationalise that they will be travelling through the infected zones safe in a car, and that there are few reported cases in Tyrol. But I am thinking more seriously about those enclosed petri-dish cable-cars. My daughter reports gloriously empty ski slopes and beautiful weather.
The ski slopes are shut down. Flights from and to Italy are being cancelled in their hundreds. My daughter, niece and friends prepare for the return journey. I warn my daughter that the government, unable to contain the flow of people from north Italy back to their native towns in the south, is about to declare a lockdown of the whole country, and that she will have to choose between staying with us or her boyfriend. She chooses the latter. The Irish government announces the cancellation of St Patrick’s Day parades.
11 March – Lockdown
12 deaths, 462 confirmed cases, an increase of 23%. Lombardy and Veneto are still by far the worst affected regions. Ireland has its first fatality. The Italian Government extends the “Stay Home “ decree to the entire country. The Italian lockdown has begun.
My daughter arrives home, picks up some clothes, keeping a safe distance from me and my wife. As she is on her way out of the house, I instinctively pounce at her in a pretend tickle attack. My niece reluctantly complies with an order from my brother to return to Ireland. When she finally arrives on 13 March, it is on the last flight from Italy. She goes into quarantine in a house in Wexford, and at the time of writing is there still. I am at home with my wife and son, and thankful for both. I have not seen my daughter for one month.
I learn to hate Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google Docs and Moodle, and I refresh my loathing for PowerPoint as I struggle to build online lessons. I allow my Spotify subscription to lapse and in the coming days start listening to full CDs again. The WHO declares Covid-19 a pandemic.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar orders the closure of schools, universities and creches as the number of cases in Ireland reaches 27. By now, Italy is beginning to count deaths, 189 on this day, rather than mere infections, the number of which is contingent on the availability of testing kits anyhow. The idea takes hold that Ireland is two weeks behind Italy.
These are the days of Italians singing from balconies, but not so much in Bergamo, now the epicentre of the disease. People clap for health workers and the general feeling is that at least the disease attacked the wealthiest and best equipped part of the country rather than the impoverished south. Prime Minister Conte starts addressing the nation almost nightly on TV and, having been a university adjunct with no political experience until catapulted into power by the politically ambiguous 5-Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle), is refreshingly forthright and honest in answering video-relayed questions from journalists. His government announces sweeping unemployment benefits and tax holidays, and his popularity soars to an unprecedented 70%. The leader of the Lega, a far-right racist party, Matteo Salvini, on the cusp of power only a year ago, snipes from the side-lines, but has become an irrelevance (for now). The mood darkens as the EU fails to respond with assistance of any sort. China sends supplies. Russian troops arrive in Rome and travel north – it is not entirely clear why troops were thought necessary. Cuba sends doctors; EU partners block respirators; the Dutch press scoffs at the panicky Italians.
Ireland records its third death and Varadkar issues a stay-at-home order. 427 die in Italy, which overtakes China at the top of the mortality table. Ireland’s caretaker administrators, in common with the unspeakable governments of the UK and the USA, claim that they are doing all they can to avert the reckoning that decades of their policies made inevitable, and start blaming the public for failing to respond to their ambiguous messaging. The recriminations in Italy, like everything in Italy, vary from region to region, and the lack of adequate PPE for medical workers and the high death toll among doctors and nurses has caused consternation and anger, but most of the rage is turned outwards at the EU, which, having already betrayed Italy during the immigration crisis, is now abandoning it during this epidemic. Nationalist self-interest and reasons of state easily prevail over specious claims of “European values”, a lesson unlikely to be forgotten.
27 March – Peak mortality
No-one is singing any more in Italy on the day that 969 die. From this day on, the rate of increase will slow, but at an agonisingly slow pace. It is now very clear that Italy is headed for economic annihilation. Conte makes it clear that Italy will accept only debt mutualisation rather than an ERM bail-out, which comes with untenable conditions attached. Few Italians (37% according to a recent poll by Kantar carried out on behalf of the European Parliament; 22% according to a poll taken the other day by an Italian broadcaster, La 7) believe in the value of the EU. If this spells the imminent demise of the union, Ireland had better prepare for the loss of its temporary leverage over its big Brexity neighbour.
I have been sitting pretty in Rome with death to the north of me and increasing social unrest to the south, where the Mafia is now distributing food parcels. I am no more at the centre of this pandemic than any Irish person reading this. As of today, Ireland, with a population of 4.9 million has 288 deaths and 8,080 confirmed cases; Latium the region of which Rome is the capital, has one million more people, but roughly the same number of deaths (263) and confirmed cases (8,089). And Ireland is supposed to be two weeks behind.
From where I am sitting, Ireland does not seem to be doing well at all.
Conor Fitzgerald Deane grew up in Ireland and moved to Rome in 1989. He is the author of the best-selling Alec Blum detective novels and is a professor in the Department of English Literature in John Cabot University, Rome.