Opinion

Italians are showing us how to survive this ordeal with courage – South Africans can do the same

15 March 2020 - 00:00 By sarah crowe
Residents wearing respiratory mask are pictured at the entrance of the small town of Casalpusterlengo, southeast of Milan, under the shadow of a new coronavirus outbreak, as Italy took drastic containment steps as worldwide fears over the epidemic spiralled.
Residents wearing respiratory mask are pictured at the entrance of the small town of Casalpusterlengo, southeast of Milan, under the shadow of a new coronavirus outbreak, as Italy took drastic containment steps as worldwide fears over the epidemic spiralled.
Image: Miguel MEDINA / AFP

First there was racial distancing - locals taking a wide berth around Chinese tourists - then there were the jokes - Italians having a good time when the world thought they were in the midst of a plague. The locals scoffed when, one after another, foreign universities and colleges in Florence closed - "It's just like the flu," many said. That was late February and there were only a handful of coronavirus cases in northern Italy.

Then, like a bolt out of the blue, it became deadly serious. It was like a war had been declared and every day the frontline shifted. All schools and universities closed, the quarantined area expanded as the cases of infections shot up: February 27 - 655 cases and 17 deaths... March 1 - 1,694 cases and 41 deaths... four days later - 3,089 cases and 107 deaths.

Last weekend the closed-off area expanded from 50,000 people to 16-million people in the north. Across the country, places of art and beauty joined places of learning in lockdown. Yet on Sunday the Tuscan spring sun shone gently and Florentines poured out onto the streets, wandering across the Ponte Vecchio licking gelato, hanging out around Palazzo Pitti in bars and restaurants. It was as if, once again, they could claim back their magnificent city as their own.

Then on Monday, around midnight, we learnt that Italy was to become the first country in the world to lock down entirely
Sarah Crowe

March 7 - 5,883 cases and 233 deaths.

March 8 - 7,375 cases and 366 deaths.

Then on Monday, around midnight, we learnt that Italy was to become the first country in the world to lock down entirely. Stay at home, stay apart (minimum one metre) came the strict government decree. Nothing would be open except food stores and pharmacies.

Silence. Emptiness. Order. This was not Wuhan. This was not China. This was vibrant Italy. Imagine Italy without bars and cars and restaurants and museums and church bells ringing (never on the hour, it's not Germany).

March 13 - 17,660 cases and 1,266 deaths.

This virus has plucked out the soul of Italians - a society whose very foundations are la famiglia, la nona (granny), love of the good life - la dolce vita - genuine, generous and warm people. You're greeted with a ciao bella, you're invited for the best coffee in the world for €1 and an aperitivo on the terrazza.

I've spent my life covering disasters, civil unrest, the turbulent apartheid years in SA, South Asia's terrorist wars, the migration crisis in Europe, as a journalist and UN/Unicef worker around the world.

This is my second "biological war" - I covered the Ebola crisis in Liberia in 2014 and for those of us who were there, it is a nightmare from which we never fully awoke.

These events have shaped me and enriched my life in unimaginable ways, a learning that only comes from living. But these experiences have also shattered a base for family and firm friendships. Ironically, when I had the opportunity to move to Florence to work, and fell in love with the place, I decided I could not do another field post and stayed on. Who would have thought it would come to this, here?

Crises bring out the best and worst in humanity. The crazy panic buying, stocking up on toilet paper, fighting over a bottle of sanitiser. Here there are no hugs, no handshakes, no aperitivo. But there is a real solidarity - Italian children across the country have been bravely hanging out signs from their windows and online saying "Andrá tutto bene" (Everything will be all right).

On Friday night, after a week that utterly altered life as we know it in Italy, I held a digital drinks party with colleagues as much of Italy opened their windows and came out onto their balconies to sing their hearts out.

This is not just about a medical response - tracing, testing, treating, hand-washing and social distancing are all vital. This is not a stupid virus like Ebola that destroys most of its hosts. This virus hops about unseen and without discrimination from the young to the old, killing them off first.

With this virus you are only as well as the next person. You could be a super-spreader, you could be asymptomatic, be well but infect others. Keep the masks and the tests for those in real need.

This is about trust in each other that we will do the right thing collectively. Trust in a public health system to deliver. It is about trust in knowing the food stores and pharmacies will remain open.

South Africans are fortunate that they have the time to learn from the Italians. They have to be prepared to help each other, not to hoard. To change their ways - like Italians have had to - to be willing to obey orders. It is for the greater good and for the good of each and everyone.

I know South Africans. I am one. The spirit that got us through apartheid, the Rugby World Cup, the Fifa World Cup, will get you through. Like la dolce vita will rise again in Italy, this challenge can also bring out the best in South Africans.

• Crowe, a South African, is a former international journalist who has worked for the UN/Unicef for the past 16 years. She lives in Florence


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