APRIL 2020. Everything will have to Change.

Everything will have to Change.

Friends come in all shapes and sizes, and one of the characteristics of ‘buon amici’ is a caring attitude. Here in Italy this appears to be taken quite seriously, and you soon learn to differentiate between a friend and an acquaintance. Sometimes it quite surprises you. On the realization of the tragedy of COVID-19 and its aftermath that forced a lock down on most of the world, ‘getting in touch’ became a proverbial aspect that underlined our importance to each other. In our case the telephone became very busy with those who considered we mattered, and vice versa. One dear lady phoned every day just to make sure we were safe and sound. No doubt the telephone companies will be one of the few businesses that will show any sort of a profit.

However, a subsidiary interest that was very noticeable to a foreigner centred on behaviour. The English news seemed full of citizens taking a ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude, and sadly this seemed to include a few of our friends. I’m cognizant that they are probably the tip of the iceberg and forage for the journalists who have been keeping up a repetitive dialogue in the journals and on the television screens, but the fact that they report so many miscreants after their being practically brainwashed by the government and scientists does not bode well for our society. The hacks, on the other hand, have taken on a holier than thou attitude castigating the government ministers for not doing this instead of that in a repetitious drone that only demonstrates too many ‘experts’ may have missed a ‘C’ in ‘O Level’ Biology. It should be obvious that no health system can be kept at the level required by the present pandemic as no nation could afford so vast a system lying idle in more stable times. For this reason, all governments are unprepared for such a catastrophic event and are therefore forced to create an organization for the purpose in an ad hoc manner and state of alarm. This the UK has carried out by assembling a team of scientists to advise them. The fact that those scientists left out may have a different opinion is quite irrelevant, as the advisory team would be analysing all available information and advice. The headless chicken comes to mind, if that was not so. Despite the public acrimony it seems that most European governments have had to learn on the hoof. When someone says, “We’re all in this together”, I shudder at the thought of it. Never mind the newspaper’s saying, being locked in can be a time for experiments and fitness regimes. I’m not so sure. Jamie Oliver is full of awful ideas, like spaghetti without spaghetti, which wouldn’t go down a bomb over here in Italy. The idea seems to be that experiments such as this may turn out to be a disappointment, but at least they’re a distraction. Exercise seems a reasonable proposition, and Italy appears just as enthusiastic with the local COOP advertising wonderful gadgets with names such as Multifunction Hydro Master; Leg Master, and a weird contraption called Ellittica Zeus. They all look dangerous. Of course, they’ll say, being locked in is different when you can wander out on to a terrace and gaze out on fifty miles of rolling Tuscan countryside to a hazy Mediterranean and towering Apennines still with a touch of snow, and not a pizza tourist in sight. Don’t believe it. The thing you’ll miss more than anything else when you’ve put down your third novel will be real people to chatter to that are not merely an image on video-telephony, handy as that is.

Here in Italy, where one would expect a slipshod attitude to authority, on the whole the opposite seemed the general case. Whether this was in respect of the police having a penchant for slapping a fine on a misdemeanour is not apparent, though the newspapers seemed to get a thrill out of reporting the numbers. How they collated such random figures must remain a mystery. No doubt in large cities anonymity disguises a multitude of sins, but in a sleepy small town like ours everyone is your next-door neighbour, and behaviour the subject of local gossip. My wife reports orderly queues with careful distancing of bodies outside chemists, and the few food and retail shops that are open. All for your own good – in reality for everyone’s good. One only hopes that Italy being the first European country in will be the first one out, but I have a feeling we’re in it for the long haul. Naturally we’re all boxed in with very restricted reasons for being out and about, and one very noticeable aspect of Volterra is wind and silence, giving one a sensation of what life in the country was like a century ago.   If it’s not too prosaic, you can actually feel the hushed sensation and softness of the wind. Our builder friend who, like me, shares a passion for Valpolicella Amarone, called in to appraise some essential emergency work, reported the city was bereft of souls and might have been louder at three o’clock in the morning. Conversation was rather strained through masks kindly supplied by the Council and the local bank. So far there have been two deliveries, the second providing two masks per person, both deliveries undertaken by the Misericordia, (ambulance service). Evidently, if one should need to purchase protective masks in the future, they will be free of VAT! At least the masks we received have sensibly been made in Italy, Tuscany to boot. Why more ‘home made’, in sense of national PPE is not available, raises questions. If Armani can get stuck in to help, then it must be down to political incompetence. Meanwhile, there are self-declaration forms to fill in if you care to travel. When stopped the police check the details and fill in any missing points before signing you off. There is one for local travel, and another when you leave the province. One gets the feeling it’s just like the old Soviets.

The rolling out of this pandemic was very strange, emerging very quietly despite the gathering storm in the north of the country. It represented a distant reality that might never escape and knock on Tuscany’s front door safely ensconced behind the Apennines. Therefore, it was something of a shock when the first local case was reported. So far we appear to have been lucky with only a few cases and we can only hope it stays that way.

Almost immediately the conversations has turned to the damage that will be done to the local infrastructure, as like so many towns in Tuscany its economy is heavily dependent on tourism. If the lock down continues into the summer many agriturismi businesses will be hard hit, especially those that are not genuine farms but vacation homes designed for the high end of the market. Perhaps many of these will have been created from expensive mortgages that will have to be met despite the down turn. They have a parallel in the towns and cities where restaurants and fast food outlets have boomed in the good years and now have closed doors that may not open until the autumn if things don’t improve. No one has yet measured how many subsidiary people are employed by these businesses – the cleaners and waiters, the cooks and the receptionists who are essential to their function. One dare not think of the plight of the self-employed who are not likely to have large reserves of money to see them through. The humorous note that even the world’s oldest profession has taken a hit only raises half a smile. Half a million tourists, on average, come to stay in Tuscany, with perhaps another million staying overnight., and three million passing through, stopping at least for panini and cappuccini. That is a lot of money to lose and means a great deal of hardship will result from it.

Unlike Greece Italy is too big an economy to let fail, and yet, too big to save. Its economy is ten times that of Greece and the third largest in the Eurozone now that the UK has left. It cannot be allowed to suffer a debt default if the EU is to avoid a banking crisis. Yet the COVID-19 virus will not only do that but also instigate a political crisis at the same time. Italy’s desperate cry for so-called Corona Bonds and a totally unacceptable lethargy on the part of the EU only emphasises the hidden flaws in their relationship. The mutualisation of debt is more than a step too far. Conte will not come out of this well, as his ostentatious and exaggerated condemnation of his fiscally careful neighbours will only reflect badly on the years of Italian budgetary irresponsibility. At least this exposes the Achilles heel of the EU, which should have been obvious, in that there can be no common fiscal policy between independent states. The fact that the UK and the US can roll out colossal financial aid to counteract the effects of the virus should be example enough. Paying it back will be the devil, but can and will be done. As an historical example, after the Second World War the United Kingdom had to repay its debt of c. £6 billion (an enormous sum in 1947 when the average weekly wage was £6.00 a week) to the US and Canada, for as long as it took. 61 years in easy payments at 2%, but at least it was all paid back. The UK didn’t expect any communally subsidised debt in a disaster far worse than this epidemic. It’s very easy to be wise after the event, but if Italy had stayed independent of the Euro it would not be in the mess it is now by virtue of having to balance its own books, thereby, not relying on the quicksand of the EU run by disconnected bureaucrats. All such a fiscal straight jacket has done is pauper the Mediterranean countries whose attitude is too dependent on an amiable lifestyle.

Still, things are not quite as bad as Fifteenth century Italy prone to epidemics of all sorts, where an abundance of godfathers seemed the norm. Michelangelo Buonarotti had eight, though in Naples, where ‘godfathers’ are legion, Scipione Pulzone probably had a lot more!

I only have one observation to make on the governments instructions, and that centres on the wearing of masks, with an easily overlooked problem. All the negative points are on the down side if you don’t wear a mask – wearing one has an obvious advantage, though it’s easy to accidently circumvent its effectiveness. To avoid it you should accompany them with disposable gloves. The virus will be attached to the outside of the mask, and to remove it, even touch the material with bare hands, will obviously readily transfer the virus, so reducing the effectiveness. It would seem judicious to remove the mask first with gloves still on so you can wash the mask before carefully taking the gloves off, and immediately disposing of them. Finally washing your hands in the prescribed manner

Meanwhile the future is in a state of turmoil with everything and everyone at odds, concerned, or completely oblivious to what tomorrow might bring. In these very trying times we should all seek an idea of the future, one where we’ve learnt lessons and skills, either contrived or devised that will make the nation more cohesive, caring and effective.


 Perhaps reality is as the author Giuseppe di Lampedusa intimated:

If we want things to stay as they are, everything will have to change.

Il Gattopardo (The Leopard)