Italy. As of now, the spread of the contagion is 250 times higher than anywhere else in the world. It is 120 and 56 times higher than in Iran and China respectively. The stories coming from that country are heartbreaking. It’s not as though situations in China and Iran, for example, were of an order that wouldn’t stir the heart. Put it down to the way global media operates.
When the Corona Virus first surfaced in China, there was palpable smirking. Some predicted that it was the beginning of the end of China’s economic surge. When Chinese authorities moved in to bring the situation under control, lock-down and all, they were vilified as brutes. Now that China has managed to put the brakes on things, people have gone quiet. Wait, no. They are quiet because they’ve suddenly realized the gravity of the threat. At first ‘lockdown’ was talked of as a rights violation. Now it has graduated to ‘highly recommended.’
It is now accepted that the virus could strike anywhere and everywhere. Sri Lanka will not be China simply because the disparities in population, size and capacity. Sri Lanka could be Italy in terms of the trajectories of virus-spread if we are not careful. But I write of and for Italy for different reasons.
Sri Lanka is an island that is not isolated. We trade. For various reasons, including strategic considerations, the world does not leave us alone. This we saw and continue to see with respect to our struggle to first defeat terrorism and second to get over it. Italy is not an island but right now is isolated. Sure, European Union members have their own virus-induced issues to worry over, exacerbated of course by the systematic dismantling of public health systems. Not as bad as the USA, but bad enough to give nightmares.
And yet, Italy is suddenly being treated as an untouchable. Left to perish even, one might say. Something dark has happened to Italy, says Tobias Jones (‘Orderly, dour, cowed:how my beloved Italy is changed by coronavirus’). An eerie atmosphere has enveloped this country, known for sociability, chaos and fun, we are told.
Jones tells us of prison riots, policy patrols and blockades. ‘Free movement within a borderless Europe already seems like a distant memory,’ he reports. Everything is closed. Hospital wards are spieling into corridors, tents, car parks, gardens and commercial warehouses, he says. Sounds like something written about a war, one feels.
It is not understandable of course and this is acknowledged, considering that Italy has the highest infections rate. While poignant out that Italy has received more aid from China than from the US or the EU, Jones says that Italians feel ‘the country is being left to rot.’
What can we say to Italy? What can we do? We are not China. We are certainly not the USA or the EU. We are willing to give, but what do we have to give? Not much.
I’ve never been to Italy, although I was stranded at the Rome Airport due to an Air Lanka flight being delayed. I’ve read about that country and its history. The image I have of Italy and Italians can pretty much be captured by the following: ‘It’s Europe’s Sri Lanka.’ Not in terms of wealth, obviously, but in terms of spirit and the willingness to embrace life in all its colors. Only, now there are somber as opposed to vibrant hues.
We can’t provide test kits, gloves, medical professionals or ambulances. We can’t write cheques. We can’t send food-aid. We could send music and literature, but Italy is not poor in these things. We can pray as per our respective faiths. That’s about it.
We could, theoretically, become like Italy very soon. The same dourness would envelop us then. If that happens, we might not have space in hearts and minds to think of China, South Korea, Iran, Italy or whatever place is named the next epicenter of the pandemic. We will have to deal with it, much like how Italy responds, recognizing that in the end, one is one’s own refuge —‘attā hi attanō nāthō.’
Then again, this is a country that has affirmed in practice, regardless of the faiths of its citizenry, the worth of that noble wish, ‘sabbe satta bhavantu sukhitatta.’ May all beings be happy. ‘All’ includes known and unknown, fair and foul, human and otherwise. Italians included.
Tobias Jones’ note poignantly captures the pathos and in a sense the hope embedded in the tragedy. Things that have gone unnoticed suddenly make themselves present.
‘I never knew there was someone in the next block of flats who played the guitar. You can hear them strumming late at night. The natural world – all the turtle doves and cherry blossom – seems brighter or emboldened. That quietness extends to the football. Watching Juventus v Inter Milan the other night you could hear, in the absence of the crowds, almost everything from the actual game: the laces on leather, the players’ groans, shouts and insults. It made them seem mortal, like Sunday league players.’
We can always find solace. We can reinvent ourselves or rather rediscover those elements of nation and citizenship we have forgotten or been made to forget on account of endless and mindless vilification, century after century.
What can I say to Italy? What can I say to Italians? I don’t know. Italy has countless voices and they all speak of Italy’s predicament. The images say so much. There was the visual, since gone viral on social media, of the Italian Air Force putting on an incredible air display with a set of jet fighters using colored smoke to paint the Italian flag while playing the late Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma.
And through Tobias Jones, I heard someone strumming a guitar. And he gave me eyes to see turtle doves and cherry blossoms.
I heard Italy and the moment the music grazed heart, Italy ceased to be isolated and Sri Lanka ceased to be an island.
We will get through this. Together. Have heart, Italy.
This article was first published in the DAILY MIRROR [March 19, 2020]