The best and the worst

Like a bolt out of the blue, it became deadly serious

Sarah Crowe
March 15, 2020 - 16:34

First, there was racial distancing: locals taking a wide berth around Chinese tourists. Then, there came the jokes: Italians having a good time when the world thought they were in the midst of a plague. Locals scoffed when one after the next the foreign universities and colleges in Florence closed. “It’s just like the ‘flu,” many said. Others cringed at hysterical headlines about their beloved country. That was late February and there were only a handful of Coronavirus cases in northern Italy.


Then, like a bolt out of the blue, it became deadly serious. It was as if a war had been declared and every day the frontline shifted. All schools and universities closed and the quarantined area expanded as the cases of infections shot up.



This is about trust in each other that we will do the right thing collectively

February 27: 655 cases, 17 deaths... March 1: 1,694 cases, 41 deaths... four days later, 3,089 cases, 107 deaths...



Last weekend, the red zones turned orange as the closed-off area expanded from 50,000 people to 16 million people in the north. Across the country, places of art and beauty joined places of learning in lockdown. Yet, on Sunday, the Tuscan spring sun shone gently, Florentines poured out onto the streets wandering across the Ponte Vecchio licking gelato, hanging out around Palazzo Pitti in bars and restaurants. It was as if, once again, they could claim back their magnificent city as their own. Some reminisced nostalgically about how it was when they were young, before the tourists came, before the likes of Airbnb made them foreigners in their own city. They basked in the warmth of the empty streets.



March 7: 5,883 cases, 233 deaths

March 8: 7,375 cases, 366 deaths



On Monday, March 9, at around midnight, we learnt that Italy was to become the first country in the world to lockdown entirely. Stay at home and stay apart (minimum one metre) came the strict government decree. One day later, the decision came to close almost everything, except food stores and pharmacies. Silence. Emptiness. Order. This was not Wuhan. This was not China. This was vibrant bella Italia. Imagine Italy without bars and cars, restaurants and museums, without church bells ringing.



March 13: 17,660 cases, 1,266 deaths



This virus has plucked out the country’s social soul, a society founded on the family, la nonna and love of the good life, a genuinely generous and warm people. Up until a week ago, you were greeted with a “ciao bella”, downed the world’s best coffee for one euro and sipped aperitivo on someone’s terrazza. In normal times, our street around the corner from the Duomo is so thronging with locals and tourists that you cannot ride a bike, and often you cannot sleep with the noise from people having far too much fun in the bars.


These are not normal times. Every day, we read the heart-wrenching stories of grannies not being able to hug their grandchildren and children for the last time as the virus takes them “as if they were drowning,” one doctor is reported to have stated. We see pictures of nurses collapsed with their masks still on. And every day the infections and deaths go up and up.



March 14: 21,157 cases, 1,441 deaths




Outside the Istituto degli Innocenti. ph. Francesco Spighi, March 13, 2020 / Important disclaimer: please note that this photo was taken for journalistic purposes, using the utmost precautions




I’ve spent my life covering disasters, civil unrest, South Africa’s turbulent apartheid years, South Asia’s terrorist wars and the migration crisis in Europe as a journalist and UN/UNICEF worker around the world. This is my second “biological war”; I covered the Ebola crisis in Liberia in 2014 and for those of us who were there, it is a nightmare from which we never fully awoke. These times have shaped and enriched my life in unimaginable ways, a learning that only comes from living. But these experiences have also shattered a base for family and firm friendships. Ironically, when I had the opportunity to work in Florence and fell in love with the place, I decided I could not do another field post and stayed on. Who would have thought it would have come to this, here.


Crises bring out the best and the worst in humanity: the crazy panic buying, stocking up on toilet paper, fighting over a bottle of sanitizer. In Italy, there is little sign of that; instead there’s a tangible sense of “we’re in this together”, keeping one meter apart in the shops, no hugs, no handshakes, no aperitivo. In Italy, there’s somber solidarity: children across the country have been bravely hanging out signs from their windows and the same sentence is repeated time and time again as a mantra: andrà tutto bene (everything will be alright).


On Friday, March 13, after a week that uprooted life as we know it, I held a digital drinks party with colleagues as much of Italy threw open their windows, came out onto their balconies to sing their hearts out, bang pans and drums, and shout out in defiance, evoking the same spirit of the Italian resistance to fascism, against the cursed virus.


This is not just about a medical response: testing, tracing, treating, hand washing and social distancing are all lifesaving. This is not a virus like Ebola, which destroys most of its hosts. Covid-19 hops about unseen and unprejudiced from the young to the old, killing them first. With this virus, you are only as well as the next person. You could be a super-spreader; you could be asymptomatic. The masks and the tests must be kept for those in real need.


This is about trust in each other that we will do the right thing collectively: trust in a public health system to deliver; trust in knowing the food stores and pharmacies will remain open. Other countries around the world are fortunate that they now have some time to learn from Italy. They must be prepared to help, not to hoard; to obey orders; and to change, like Italians have had to. It is for the greater good and for the good of everyone.


Life as we know it in Italy has changed beyond imagination, but la dolce vita will rise again, bars and churches will fill again, and friends of Florence will return. This I know.



* The data for Italy includes deaths, positive cases and the clinically healed, and is taken from the Protezione Civile websiteAs of March 14, 17,750 positive; 1,441 deaths, 1,966 healed;  total 21,157

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