The Inevitable Wave, And The Grief That Follows

Can we rise to the occasion once more?

After a day of speculation from newspapers around the country and on the heels of two previous restrictions on movement and commerce, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced a new set of measures scheduled to take effect at midnight, 26 October and to last until November 24. second wave

After noting that the epidemiological curve had grown exponentially, with more than 20,000 new infections on Saturday and the Rn now standing at 1.5, Conte stated that the government “could not remain indifferent” to the stress that the rising numbers have placed on the national health system.

The measures include the closure of restaurants, bars, cafes, and gelato shops at 6pm (with the option of offering delivery services after that time), the closure of gyms, spas, thermal baths and public pools, as well as theatres, cinemas, and concert halls. Secondary schools will be asked to conduct at least 75% of their classes virtually, and ‘smart working’ whenever possible is highly encouraged. Movement should be confined to that which is absolutely necessary: work, school, or other necessary functions, with a strong recommendation to avoid mixing households and engaging in private visits.

Conte stopped short of calling for a national lockdown, stating frankly that the economy could not survive another wholesale shutdown of its industry. With the economy forecast to shrink by 10% this year (a number that was tabulated before the current rise in infections) which could set back development by more than twenty years, choosing between public health and the economy has become an existential matter. He refrained from imposing a national curfew and acknowledged the social unrest that regional measures have provoked, but also made a point of noting that episodes of violence did not reflect the general consensus but were instead instigated by ‘professionals’, such as the right-wing Forza Nuova, who clashed with police in Rome on Saturday night, October 24.  

As questions arose from the few journalists present at Palazzo Chigi and commentary exploded from Italians across the country on social media, Conte once again delivered his remarks with the steadfast resolve that has characterized his tenure throughout the crisis. For all of the gallows humor that has marked every announcement of another Decreto, every post by Le Bimbe di Giuseppe Conte, and every plantive cry that the cassa integrazione has not yet arrived in one region or another, Conte has remained as calm as he was during those halcyon days in February and March. He thanked every journalist for their questions, answered each in detail, and pledged that the government would stand beside its citizens. 

He not only explained the measures in detail as well as the resources that would be made available immediately, but he did so with sensitivity to the hardships that they have faced and continue to face. It is impossible to know what could have been with another leader in power, or how the crisis would have been managed in different hands. But it is worth quoting at length how this Prime Minister responded: 

“This is a complex moment. The country is tired. This is a pandemic that poses a difficult challenge, that provokes anger, frustration. It is also creating further inequalities, which only adds to those which already existed. There are sectors of the population who have been particularly hard hit, people with fewer safeguards who cannot count on a regular salary or a fixed income. And I am aware that there are also new sacrifices that we are asking of particular categories. I think of the restaurant owners, the managers of pools and gyms. I think of the artists and those working in theater productions, but also shopkeepers and artisans who are once again seeing a drop in their sales. But I don’t like to make promises. I prefer instead to make a commitment, in the name of the entire government. I am ready to make funds available to all those who will be penalized by these new measures.” 

There are those for whom these words will be cold comfort, and for whom this next wave of closure will be simply too much to bear, practically as well as psychically. And they will turn against the government that failed to stave off the infections, failed to stop the numbers from rising, failed to keep the inevitable at bay. The promise of assistance will feel too far off and when it comes it will be too little, measured inexorably against another universe where we all could have made more, where we all should have made more. But as we close our windows and doors to the impending cold and we make plans to fight off the darkness in our ever-shrinking orbits, it is worth remembering that there is no one to blame, and there is no one to hold accountable. That discomfort you’re feeling is grief, and there is no president, prime minister, or priest who can take it away.

But, there are some who can lessen the blow, even if only a little bit. And while it may not seem so now, right now, we in Italy have been fortunate to have a leader who has shown both hardiness and humanity at a time when both are in short supply. And yes, it is tempting to be cynical in times like this; indeed, it is often more comfortable to believe that a politician is incapable of being sincere, that no one in power could possibly understand what it is like to suffer at the bottom. While Giuseppe Conte has perhaps never been confronted with living paycheck to paycheck, or with seasonal work that dries up as the sun goes down, he has shown himself to be aware and attuned to the particular struggle that many Italians face. When asked during the press conference what he thought of the protests against curfews in the country, he did not reply with the strong arm of a seasoned dealmaker; he did not puff up his chest and fill the room with the bluster we have come to expect from our dear leaders. Instead, he said this: 

“Of course there are protests. If I was on the other side today, I would surely have plenty of reasons to feel pain, I would probably also protest against the government measures. But I ask that we stop and that we wait to see what result these measures that we have just announced will deliver. I hope we will be able to evaluate these measures along with the provisions we’ve made because I believe they will provide noticeable support, or at the very least, adequate.” 

There is no way to disregard the frustration we are all feeling, nor is it possible to look past the fear that we are all confronted with, particularly in a month which follows one of the most difficult years that many of us will have experienced. Those of us who depend on tourism have watched our revenue evaporate into thin air. Others who carry the weight of their families on their backs through the businesses that have survived for generations and now risk closure are paralyzed by the possibility of shutting our doors for the last time. Still more of us had plans, dreams, projections for this year and we can do nothing more than sit idly while the very seeds we planted dry up and shrink in the eroding earth. The shock of the first lockdown inspired a sense of solidarity, and through it we could believe that if we held on tightly enough that we would make it through. As numbers fell and spring gave way to summer, we all believed that we had beaten it back and that together we had emerged ever stronger, ever braver, ever better than before. 

And so perhaps we did get a bit closer than we should have during the summer; perhaps we visited our friends and family and stole a hug from one of them, starved as we had been for so many months before that. Did we let our guard down? Maybe. Did we think it was not that bad after all? Probably. Were we just a little less cautious than we should have been with our lovers, our neighbors, our children? Yes, each of us probably looked upon our most trusted companions and thought that it couldn’t possibly be dangerous to embrace, just once. 

We were wrong. We were unlucky. It’s not your fault. 

Months ago I made the case for amnesty, and I did so not for the moment in which we were living but for this moment, the one that was inevitably to come. As I said then, with no relish: “every single one of us will have to reconcile ourselves to the idea that we remain while someone who’s hands we held, who’s mouth we kissed, or in whose arms we laid, did not. We will not know definitively if it was our breath that took them away, and the utter impossibility of a definite answer will haunt us, each and all. We, the ultimate arbiters of value and signatories to the social contract, we will destroy what we value most. And it will destroy us.”

So here we are, faced again with the overwhelming knowledge that we may have been the cause of someone else’s suffering, and that for every little liberty we took, we held the fate of an entire country in our hands. But we did not, and we do not, do so out of malice, or out of greed, or even out of carelessness. We do so because we are human. Flawed, imperfect, easily amused and confused and prone to forgetting the suffering that we have just finished enduring. We are dangerously optimistic, and our inherent goodness prohibits us from appreciating how much damage we are capable of. Once again, we will have to reckon with what we did or did not do, and no confessional will be there to absolve us.

Before we succumb to the knee jerk reaction of blaming each other, or Giuseppe Conte, or anyone else for the closures and curbs and other restrictions, we would do well to forgive us our own sins. Because as the days grow shorter and the curve continues to rise, we will have to once again find the resolve that helped us through the Spring. And while right now you may not believe him, you might want to hold tight to the words upon which the Prime Minister ended his remarks. “Italy is a great country. When we were confronted with the first wave of this pandemic in the Spring, we did it. We will do it again.” 

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