Italy is the soldier returning from war after battle with COVID-19: Reporter's notebook

Italy feels like it's recovering from a national trauma.

May 06, 2020, 11:12 AM

MILAN, ITALY -- There’s a girl taking a selfie a few seats over from me. In the row of chairs opposite, a man is having a very loud conversation on his phone. Over by a window, a father is struggling to get his kids to sit still; an iPad finally given up as a bribe for their good behavior. These are the kinds of scenes you witness all the time in airports. Except this time, these people are wearing a mask, all of the shops around us in the departure lounge are shuttered and ours seems like the only flight out today, from this lonely Milan airport.

This country feels like it's recovering from a national trauma -- a deep emotional and psychological pain. Italy is the soldier returning from war, not running from the train as fast as possible, but walking slowly and slightly unsteadily -- as though shell-shocked -- back into the light. When China’s outbreak was kept a mystery, and Iran was slow to reveal the truth, it was Italy that lived its nightmare in the spotlight. Italians found themselves at the center of a global pandemic, struggling to understand what was happening to them.

COVID-19 struck at Italy’s soul because it took aim at the family and specifically at the elderly; at the parents and grandparents around whom family life revolves, and define in many ways what it means to be Italian. Not only did it take so many lives (the mayor of the town of hard-hit Bergamo has said the true number of dead may be fives times the number reported in his area) but in a country where every aspect of life is shared, isolation has been a cruel tonic.

This week’s family reunions meant Italy came a step closer to being itself once more. Domenico’s reunion was captured by the cameras, shutters clicking as he swept up his 5-year-old granddaughter Cecilia in his arms.

“During the quarantine we were desperate,” he said as he blinked through tears, standing next to his wife, Mariantonia. “Now I can’t even speak for how excited I am. We have only seen her on video calls for two months. But it’s not the same. It couldn’t be the same.”

PHOTO: A view of the seaside town Sperlonga and its beaches, about 80 miles south of Rome, April 28, 2020
A view of the seaside town Sperlonga and its beaches, about 80 miles south of Rome, April 28, 2020. Though Italy is gradually reopening from a two-month lockdown, there is no word on when and how beach establishments can open for visitors.
Luigi Navarra/AP

This is only a cautious first step. Although some have gone back to work, Italy is still mostly shut down. Documentation is required to leave the house. It will be two more weeks before larger shops are able to reopen and a month before restaurants and cafes. Italy’s tourism industry -- a huge part of the economy -- has yet to move a muscle. As with so much of the rest of the world, there is huge economic damage here.

PHOTO: People queue using social distancing outside a patisserie in Codogno, the small northern town where Italy's first patient was diagnosed with the coronavirus disease, as the country begins a staged end to a nationwide lockdown, May 5, 2020.
People queue using social distancing outside a patisserie in Codogno, the small northern town where Italy's first patient was diagnosed with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in February, as the country begins a staged end to a nationwide lockdown, May 5, 2020. Codogno residents had been on lockdown for over 10 weeks, as they were part of a small cluster of northern towns where cases and deaths immediately surged after the first patient was diagnosed.
Marzio Toniolo via Reuters

But you get the sense that their trauma was so big that many Italians begrudgingly accept these economic hardships. For now. Especially in the north, where things were very bad. Already small protests have started and government popularity is on the decline. Opponents are seizing on the economic cost of the lockdown. Large parts of society -- especially in the south -- are some of the poorest in the whole of Europe. And in areas that were less affected, the somber mood is turning into impatience.

But as Claudia told me from the gate to her house which she literally hasn’t left since March 3, “the virus is not finished.” The possibility of a second wave means her family has no plans to go out soon. Everyone here is aware of that danger.

Sitting here at the airport, though, there is something quite heartening about all this in an odd way. As I look at these strangers with their masks on, they are somehow not so strange because of this weird experience we are all sharing together, and I’m struck by our capacity for resilience.

In Milan, London or New York, we are rarely tested like this. I’ve covered stories in parts of the world where life is much harder for most of the time: earthquakes in Indonesia, the war in Syria, migrants in camps with nothing. What binds all those stories is the human ability to adapt and to survive and to look out for one another. In our own way, we are doing that now. Italy’s heartbreak may take longer to heal, but like communities all over the world, things will go back to normal eventually. The dad with his kids has finally got them to calm down. The man on the phone has stopped screaming. The girl is still taking selfies.=

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