Two years ago, a month after the Covid pandemic reached Italy, Paolo Giordano, author of How Contagion Works, wrote the following article. It was a response to a situation that now feels dismally familiar, but back then was new and unnerving, and, even for those of us outside Italy, watching the virus overwhelm their country’s health service, downright terrifying.
Now, with vaccines against the virus, medications and methods to treat it and, as each new wave breaks over us, the growing feeling that we know what to do, a piece written at the beginning of the pandemic might seem redundant. Not so with Paolo’s article. Every item on his list of things he wants to remember from that time feels relevant and important – giving the list as a whole a prescience only a writer capable of thinking beyond his current situation can achieve.
We hope and believe Paolo hasn’t forgotten any of these things – and take his list as a reminder that we shouldn’t either.
It’s been a month since the unthinkable broke into our lives. Just like the virus – burrowing into our lungs – the unthinkable is already manifested in every fold of our daily existence. We never thought we would need a permit just to throw away the rubbish. We never thought we would schedule our lives around the daily briefings of the Civil Protection Agency. We never imagined that someone could die without their loved ones around them. Stuff like that doesn’t happen here, to us.
On 21 February 2020, the front page of the Corriere della Sera – one of Italy’s most widely read newspapers – was devoted to a meeting between our prime minister and the leader of one of the many parties that prop up his government. I swear I don’t remember what the meeting was supposed to be about. And then, just after 1.00 a.m., it was announced that the first official case of Covid-19 in Italy had been recorded in the small town of Codogno, Lombardy. There was just enough time to add it to the last edition of the paper, in a short column on the right of the front page.
The following day, the coronavirus became the main headline, splashed across every newspaper. It’s still there today.
Looking back, you get the feeling of a very fast approach. The contagion was in China, then in Italy, then in our region, our city, our neighbourhood. Then someone famous tested positive, then a friend of a friend, then one of our loved ones. Then someone from our building was taken to hospital.
Thirty days. Every single step – although statistically plausible – was met with disbelief: moving in the domain of the unthinkable has been the advantage of the virus from the very beginning. We started with ‘It’s never going to happen here’, and now we are stuck inside, printing out the official form from the Ministry of Interior so that we can show it to the police patrolling the streets when we go grocery shopping.
There are now more official deaths in Italy than in China. By now, we should have understood that the relentless advance of the unthinkable will not end today: it will not end in a couple of weeks or when the lockdown is finally lifted. The unthinkable has just begun and it’s here to stay. Perhaps it will be the defining trait of this era.
There is a phrase by Marguerite Duras that has come back to me in recent days: ‘Peace is coming. It’s like a big darkness falling. It is the beginning of oblivion.’ After a war, everyone hastens to forget, and something similar happens with diseases: suffering forces us to confront otherwise blurred truths, to re-think our priorities; it encourages us to give new meaning to the present. But as soon as the healing begins, that sense of enlightenment disappears.
So I’m compiling a list of everything I don’t want to forget. It gets a little longer every day, and I think everyone should have their own, so that we can take them out and compare them, see if there’s anything in common, if it’s possible to do something about it together. Mine goes like this.
• I don’t want to forget all the times that – in the first few weeks and in the face of the initial, cautious measures – I heard people say, ‘They are crazy.’ Years of dismissing experts have produced an instinctive and widespread distrust that finally materialised in those three words: ‘They are crazy.’ A mistrust that led to delays. Delays that caused casualties.
• I don’t want to forget that I didn’t cancel a plane ticket until the very last minute, even when it became clear that taking that flight would be beyond reason. Only because I really wanted to go. Stubbornness mixed with selfishness.
• I don’t want to forget the fickle, contradictory, sensationalistic, emotional and borderline inaccurate information that accompanied the initial unfolding of the contagion – perhaps the most obvious failure of all. In an epidemic, clear information is a vital form of prophylaxis.
• I don’t want to forget the moment when – all of a sudden – the political chatter was turned down to zero: it felt like my ears had popped after that flight I couldn’t take. That background noise – constant and self-referential – which filled every moment of our lives had suddenly vanished.
• I don’t want to forget how the emergency made us ignore the fact that we are a composite multitude, with different needs, different issues. When we claimed we were speaking to everyone, we were actually speaking to everyone who has a good knowledge of Italian, owns a computer and knows how to use it.
• I don’t want to forget that Europe was too late – always too late – and that no one thought to show, together with the national curves of the contagion, a European curve, a graph that would make us feel united across borders in this misadventure.
• I don’t want to forget that the origin of the pandemic is not in a secret military experiment but in our compromised relationship with nature, in the destruction of forests, in the recklessness of our consumption.
• I don’t want to forget that the pandemic has found us largely technically unprepared and scientifically lacking.
• I don’t want to forget that I didn’t manage to be heroic, or strong as I tried to keep my family safe and together. That when my help was most needed, I couldn’t cheer anyone up – myself included.
The curve of new cases will flatten – that curve whose existence we ignored until a few weeks ago and which now rules over us. It will reach its coveted peak and then start its descent. It’s not wishful thinking, it’s the direct consequence of our discipline right now. We need to be aware that the descent may be slower than the ascent and that there may be new spikes, perhaps other temporary closures, other emergencies, and that some restrictions will have to stay in place for a while. But, at some point, it will come to an end and the reconstruction will begin.
It will be the moment for the congratulatory handshakes among the people ruling over us, praising each other for their readiness and seriousness and self-denial. While we, distracted by our newly found freedom, will just want to finally shake it all off. The great darkness that falls. The beginning of oblivion. Unless we dare to reflect now on the things we know must change, unless we take a moment to think – on our own and then together. I don’t know how to make our monstrous capitalism a little less monstrous, how to change an economic system, how we can rebuild our pact with the environment. I’m not even sure I can change my own behaviour. But I know for a fact that you can’t do any of these things if you didn’t dare to think of them before.
Let us stay indoors for as long as necessary. Let us take care of the sick. Let us cry and bury the dead. But let’s also imagine what comes after, starting now, so that the unthinkable won’t catch us, once again, by surprise.
By Paolo Giordano
Translated by Federico Andornino
Published in agreement with MalaTesta Lit. Ag. © Paolo Giordano, ‘Quello che non voglio scordare, dopo il Coronavirus’, originally published in the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera on 20 March 2020.
This English translation first published by Tortoise Media, 17 April 2020 (tortoisemedia.com).
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