Italy in Its Darkest Hour

By Miguel Angel Montero (El Toque)

The empty streets of Cagliari, Italy. Photo: Courtesy of the author.

HAVANA TIMES – Cagliari rises, coastal and copper toned, between the Gulf of Angels and the Bastion of Saint Remy. Looking south from the castle allows a unique perspective of the city. One’s eyes roll down, and further down, through that jumble of stone houses, marshes and medieval streets, which end up at Via Roma, more pretentious than extensive, and where any smell of fresh made bread and coffee rushes and dies against the azure saltpeter of the Mediterranean and the tourist boats.

The capital of the island of Sardinia looks as old as any other Italian city. It is, and so are its people. Of every four Sardinians, one is a senior citizen, and only 13 percent of the population is under 18 years of age. However, the bars, with their characteristic chatter, seem to deny it.

That’s how I found it during my first trip, and I assume that the company and the wine conspired in that enchantment. Also, the fact that from one of the crowded bars, the Van Van reminded me of what we well know: Cuba is always close.

One of those Cuban emigrants suggested that this was like Cuba “but well supplied, and without the fear that something is missing.” I don’t entirely subscribe to it, but I admit that Italy is similar to us.

Italians are warm, exaggerated, hysterical, sentimental to the extreme, and above all they have a powerful need to speak to you all the time. In greetings they give two kisses. The pizza tastes better when eaten with the hand, and each diner tastes the others. Someone else always fits at a table, and these are located in the middle of the street, on the spot. Not even the scariest winter manages to lock up those who learned to live outdoors without fear.

However, today Cagliari doesn’t look the same. The burners have been extinguished, the awnings and the chairs of the bars have been collected. Before, the punishing ringing of bells from a dozen churches served to hurry the faithful and made me get up to make coffee. Now I wake up with a hoarse voice that reminds me from the loudspeakers of what I have wanted to forget all night: “Stay home. Don’t go out unless it’s extremely necessary.”

It happened in a matter of days. Although on my arrival at the airport I found that sanitary control operation exaggerated, in the streets you felt safe. There was talk of the coronavirus, but it was something that was distant, like a lunar storm or a trinket from distant China that only comes in if you decide to import it.

This Friday, March 20, 2020, Italy recorded a new record in the death toll with 627 in 24 hours. The citizens of Cagliari remain in quarantine.  Photo: Courtesy of the author.

Italy had been one of the first countries to cancel its air operations with China, when it made any sense to still identify COVID-19 as “Chinese pneumonia” or “Wuhan fever”. In a matter of days, fifteen, twenty, thirty positive cases were registered, and despite the concern, the collective fear that is now trying to hide had not yet been generated.

Although it was in populous Milan, it was not believed that the situation could get so out of control. Then people began to die and in a matter of hours it was necessary to quarantine 16 million inhabitants in the region that constitutes the economic heart of the country. Then all of Italy would be in isolation.
In one of his interviews on the crisis, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte paraphrased Winston Churchill and assured the nation: “It is our darkest hour, but we will make it”. Then he reminded the country that Italy had one of the most robust health care systems in the world.

However, nothing yet indicates that the country has reached a turning point. The prime minister has assured that even the most critical moment, the peak of infection, has not yet arrived.

What went wrong? How did things get to this point? Italy was in fact the first European country to close schools and almost all companies and shops to stop the spread of the virus. Free medical assistance has been provided to each person affected and each patient. The executive has allocated 25 billion euros to deal with this crisis. Any other impression is distortion.

However, many seem to be sure that, even before the coronavirus would enter, containment measures had to be taken, isolating the outbreak as much as possible, acting more precisely and effectively.

Today it has been shown that there is no health system that can cope with the pandemic if so many people are infected at the same time.

These are truths that Italians repeat every day, and especially at six o’clock every afternoon, when the president of the Defense Council and the Minister of Health bring the figures for the past 24 hours to figures. Yesterday the dead were 627.

They are mostly elderly. Many of those who previously survived famine and bombardment now succumb with weakness in their lungs to a silent enemy, faceless, but as devastating as war. They die alone, without a hand to squeeze.

Hospitals are crowded even in their corridors; they don’t have enough ventilation equipment and there is talk of prioritizing those who have the best chance of survival. A nurse committed suicide in Venice.

In Cagliari, one of the least affected cities in the country, the few people who still go out to buy food or basic necessities must carry a document issued by the Interior Ministry and signed by themselves, otherwise they could be fined or detained by the Police.

People dodge even glances. Even though it has been repeated that children can be effective and asymptomatic transmitters of the virus, it is remarkable how the elderly are avoided more than the young. And the elderly avoid each other.

Before, the bubonic plague, malaria, cholera or smallpox exhausted entire cities, but war is the closest reference to explain the confusion and dismay of these days. Even the youngest when they make a call end up telling you about the war and those episodes that obviously they didn’t live.

People also sing and hang flags on their balconies, and it is repeated that everything will be fine. “The response, immunologically or resistance wise, will be more effective if we banish fear,” explained a therapist yesterday on television and I don’t know why everything seemed even more dystopian to me.

The loudspeaker returns with the now familiar indications. I finish my coffee and look for some Cuban music. I can’t stop thinking about my country.

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