Archive for December, 2020

Photo: Il Fatto Quotidiano

Written by Mary Rizzo
Italy is probably going to get another major lockdown. After weeks of closure of many things in the cities, to contain the spread of this deadly disease, “suddenly” it looks like a normal Christmas. Streets resemble oceans of people, exactly like they always have in years before the plague. Yes, I repeat that… in the days when the recommendation is to lower the risk by giving the virus less hosts to infect, the streets in major cities were as full as any Christmas in the past. But, did this human flood violate the restrictions? Absolutely not. People were actually encouraged to go to the shopping districts and to purchase something in at least 10 stores, because that was how they were being “rewarded” by a special bonus (with public money earmarked for it) that was supposed to help all those shops closed during lockdown and restrictions and give a boost to the economy in the period when the fate of businesses is sealed by sales that are the equivalent to a quarter of their annual turnover. The “Cashback” was announced during the televised speech by the Prime Minister to present the measures to contain the spread of the disease, and to illustrate the exceptional lockdown measures on three of the key days (when stores are closed but families traditionally gather). We were again to be told that the government was working hard on saving the health system and the economy, so we had to take these sacrifices in stride (the tradition of the family gathering would be affected due to a restriction on leaving town) but we were also being offered the carrot of discounted shopping with a scheme to prevent the use of cash and the tracing purchase through credit cards and debit cards, to fight tax evasion.

All of that stick and carrot that every Italian is used to would even have been somehow acceptable if that speech were not given on that single day when almost 1,000 Italians died from Covid. The bland measure to encourage shopping was announced in pompa magna, as if THIS was what we had been waiting for, in a week when the deaths were climbing, but all of our awareness of death has been tranformed into waiting for the number shown on the screen every evening, when they announce the statistics, and feeling a twinge of pain, but also jumping immediately into “analysis of the trend”.

Death has become nothing but a statistic if you are an ordinary Italian, and rather than acknowledge this “event” of at least one or two jumbo jets of Italians dropping off into the sea every day, the PM unveiled a rebate system for shopping in physical stores. He made absolutely no mention of the deaths. The deaths from Covid, and therefore, deaths in general, have become normalised and the trend to ignore them has continued. It was deemed more important to our well-being, morale and society to give us the hope of €15 back on a purchase of €150, and if we want to enjoy the full extent of the measure, to spend €150 in ten different stores. Not online stores, stores in cities, where people are all clamouring for gifts to give their loved ones and need to see them before the holidays because on the 24th and 25th they will be prohibited from doing that.

When people get mixed messages, and what the government gave to us was a mixed message, they ignore the part that they don’t feel is convenient and they are still doing the right thing, because they are respecting the law in fact and in principle. And now, talk is ongoing of a corrective lockdown measure because people “exaggerated” by actually going shopping as they had been encouraged to do. When someone is upset, they fall into mechanisms to feel better. “Shopping therapy” is something a lot of distressed and traumatised Westerners are familiar with. But they also recognise that they are reacting to a negative event or a trauma, and shopping alleviates feelings of loss.

But the people of this country have undergone a trauma that they are not allowed to actually process in the natural and normal way. They are not allowed to discuss it because, “the holidays”, “the economy”. No other country in Europe has been so hard hit by Covid. There are quite a few reasons for it, including the economy of Italy that is so dependent on tourism, culture and the movement of people, all aspects of life and the economy that took a beating or even have been slaughtered. Given the population density and lack of employment opportunities, Italian social life is largely spent outdoors and with a “promiscuity” of generations, with grandparents taking on a role of babysitters. Even the physical proximity and gestures of greeting that involve the handshake together with the kiss on both cheeks have been radically altered in the space of only a few months. You would think it is difficult to strip a culture of such an ingrained habit, but it isn’t. People can adapt if they need to, they do get used to it and they change. If it means survival, yes, you change. But the suffering soul of the Italians has not been addressed. The need to mourn, the acknowledgement of the loss of loved ones, all of this has not been in any way addressed.

It is a trauma for a country that loses so many people to see their citizens represented solely as a statistic, with merely a few exceptions, which I will mention later. In Italy, during the first wave there was the shock that this virus had actually taken hold here and turned so deadly so fast. There was a feeling of grief that the entire country felt at the death toll, watching our hospitals being converted into places where many entered just to die, where the only services were life support for Covid patients, and this kept the lockdown going. Every time you heard an ambulance, your heart ached, every time a helicopter flew overhead you knew that was because your local hospital had all the beds full and this was someone being brought to a place to die far from home. The only traffic in those days was a traffic of death and police, to enforce the lockdown. Because you knew that death was involved as well as the weight on the healthcare system, people quickly complied and the disease was nearly eradicated after almost 3 months of enforced quarantine on an entire country of “individualists”. But in the second wave, when the deaths are at peaks unheard of back in the Spring, talk of death has been erased. Higher numbers of deaths do not automatically repeat the mental process of the Spring, because the government cannot save the economy from an even worse depression if they close the country down again. It is the economy that is front and centre in the discourse. Sickness and death are just statistics mentioned a few times during the news.

If a country does not allow its people to process the death of their loved ones, because in addition to the lack of funerals, there is an absence of memorial services, there is a mutation to the natural order of things, which have historically included the acceptance and awareness of death as an event every family would face many times, bringing them together to contemplate and support one another. It always involved a period of mourning to process the sudden painful separation from those we love. One of the main victims of Covid is the status death has been given and the way it has been shoved out of our awareness as a reality and exists only as a statistic.

The end of life is only “acknowledged” and celebrated if you are a football star. We have just witnessed the televised funeral in a stadium of Paolo Rossi, the hero of the World Cup in 1982, and this happened just weeks after the death of another football legend that meant a great deal to Italians, Maradona. Neither of them died of Covid, since death finds other ways to abruptly end a life. There were television specials and the usual amount of mystification of their (real or imagined) heroism. Everyone knows and accepts the wild trajectory of Maradona, his tarnished personal life was vastly compensated in the public opinion by his great talent. It’s a good idea to draw the sums on what he meant to this country and to the spirit of an area that felt he was lifting them from a kind of misery, but inserted within a culture that was more than capable of a Hosanna on a Sunday and a crucifixion of the same saviour the following Friday. When his dedication to his own national team prevented him from accepting the defeat his Italian home turf public thought was owed to them, he was dismissed as rapidly as possible and the tax authorities sent him running. His substance abuse, which was not a problem earlier, was suddenly an issue. The blind eye was blind no more when he could be chewed up and spat out. But, at least, he played that match of matches fairly. He did not cater to anything but to a sport ethic at that moment, and his team’s victory forced Italy to be left out in the cold in our own World Cup. It could be that THAT was the beginning of his downward spiral on the pitch, his human story was as glorious as it was pathetic, in equal measure.

But, Italy wants “its own” heroes that didn’t have to be imported. They are to embody a unifying national sentiment that serves a social purpose. Something we can all “feel” as well as “feel the same about”. The tributes lasting many days, almost to the same level as those for Maradona, not once mentioned that Rossi was involved in one of the most squalid economic and sport scandals in the history of Italian football. It cost him 2 years of disqualification for having accepted to fix the games for the betting of the criminal world, he “paid” his debt, and miraculously, his image also became as pure as the driven snow.  That “football betting/calcio scomesse” wasn’t mentioned during any of the televised comments of “all of Italy being in mourning for our great champion”, nor was it mentioned that he was a candidate with Alleanza Nazionale, (a far right party) for the European Parliament. He had to be depicted as a unifying figure and he was somehow “selected” to be the one every Italian mourns, if you take the words of all the tv channels seriously.

National mourning has been chosen to take place for one individual. Where are the State funerals commemorating the 65 thousand deaths and the pain and loss of 65 thousand families and the communities they were part of? Why is the State so silent about this ghastly haemorrhage? Why do they suggest the “shopping cure” for depression of every sort rather than deal realistically with this trauma and even allow us that sobering moment of acknowledgement of the national tragedy and the catastrophe? Why?