ROME - A young mother painstakingly applies disinfectant cloths to clean meticulously the baby rattles for her gurgling blue-eyed infant bouncing happily on her lap.
This is normally a wet and cold season in Lazio, but this year there have been many days of blue skies and warm temperatures. Unless you are a farmer praying for more seasonal rain, all should feel right with the world.
But it doesn’t.
We are the only ones sitting outside a usually bustling piazza bar on the outskirts of Rome sipping mid-morning coffees — and, in my case, nibbling on a ciambella cake.
Journalist and author Beppe Severgnini wrote this week a column for The New York Times, noting that most young and middle-aged Italians have no firsthand experience of war or epidemics, unlike their elders, who suffered greatly during the Second World War and after. Italians, he argued, are finding it hard to find their bearings to navigate the current coronavirus contagion — one many fear will morph into a much larger and disruptive epidemic.
“Most of us don’t know what to think,” he wrote. “Mood swings are obvious around any dinner table. Is coronavirus just a nasty flu, and we are overreacting? Or are we facing a serious epidemic and there are plenty of reasons to be worried?” He adds: “So they struggle to find a suitable reaction.”
Many go to extremes away from their dinner tables, too, displaying a split national psyche.
Either they storm supermarkets depending on the latest spike in numbers and steer sharply and ostentatiously clear of anyone’s path they may cross, especially people of Asian appearance. Or they display a theatrical nonchalance, insisting on shaking hands while lamenting loudly how absurd it all is that championship soccer fixtures are being postponed. A video of an elderly man complaining in a store about shelves empty of pasta, of course, went viral this week.
But bravado aside, the roads are becoming less traveled, the restaurants emptier, and ordinary stores are seeing foot-fall trailing off — even in towns with no confirmed cases for hundreds of miles around.
Lazio has — at time of writing — just 12 confirmed cases of infection. The latest involve two family clusters. But noticeably as the numbers climb up north in Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia Romagna, the worst affected regions, people here are becoming more somber. They scan the evening reports published online by Italy's Civil Protection Authority with the furrowing of brow once reserved for the soccer results.
A friend and local restaurateur has stopped following the news. He says it is all too depressing. Better not to know. Better to stay ignorant. But that is just a trick. He can tell when the case numbers have jumped from how many or how few diners he gets that day. He tells me this in his empty restaurant. I am the only diner, so far, this night. In his face is the same alarm I see in the faces of other small-business owners wondering whether they will survive the economic impact of coronavirus.
This is the greatest fear for most Italians. Most under the age of 60 don’t appear concerned about contracting the virus. They’re confident — as they should be — that they will survive and just undergo a few days off flu-like discomfort. What is terrifying for them are the potential ramifications on the economy, on their job, on their business, and on their family. Will it dash dreams and shatter hopes and undo years of hard work?
While the young may be less anxious about the actual virus, the old are certainly alarmed. On Tuesday, the country’s civil protection agency confirmed the virus has killed 79 people so far in Italy, all aged between 63 and 95 with underlying pre-existing illnesses. Italy is an old country, not just in terms of its rich history but also in terms of its demographics, nearly a quarter of Italian are over the age of 65. An increase in new cases doesn’t mean an increase in serious cases, officials say. That doesn’t sound reassuring to seniors though.
One thing is clear a viral spread can’t be stopped, or even slowed, by government action alone, even the kind of decisive and quick intervention taken by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s coalition. Everyone will have to contribute — if only by paying more attention to personal hygiene and washing their hands frequently, and sneezing and coughing into paper tissues which are then promptly discarded securely.
Reducing travel. Social distancing. All will play a part in avoiding abrupt surges and peaks of infections, otherwise healthcare services will fracture, say Italian officials. Their comments are echoed by counterparts in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, who watch with anxiety the climbing numbers in Italy, fearing their fate is also being foretold.
But are we able to be self-disciplined? Shockingly, there have been at least five attempted escapes from a “red zone” around 10 locked-down Lombardy towns. They were frustrated by police, although one escapee managed to make it to another region.
In London, columnist Clare Foges worries that “we are too selfish to stop coronavirus spreading.” She wrote her biggest concern is not about the resilience of the country’s health service or the time it might take for researchers to develop a vaccine, but about the public’s willingness to respond to the challenge.
“To contain this virus governments around the world must rely on citizens doing as they are told… In the age of entitlement, the age of the individual, the age of anti-establishment populism, this seems a very flimsy safety net indeed,” she wrote.