Sicily in times of Coronavirus

I’ve often heard it said that when the Allies invaded in July 1943 in their bid to take Europe, that Sicily went dark overnight. When Coronavirus preventative measures were put into place, Sicily went silent overnight. The message was clear: we are a small island and the healthcare system would not be able to cope with a Lombardy-style outbreak. People are divided in two camps: those driven by fear who think everyone now is their enemy and potential virus-carrier, and those who still say hello and a give a resigned smile of complicity.

Now three weeks into an increasingly stringent lockdown scenario, the psychological effects are beginning to be felt. Airports have been closed for several weeks and this week ferries stopped crossing the Straits of Messina following urgent calls from mayors across the island as numbers of infected rose. Only one member per household can leave the house once a day for urgent (medical or food-related) needs; it is a criminal offence to break this law (crime of contributing to the risk of the spread of the pandemic). Why such severity? In small towns like Milazzo many people, especially the elderly, still favour la bottega to the supermarket and do several small shops a day, buying bread and fish in the morning, and focaccia or arancini for the evening meal. Now, even access to supermarkets is controlled to avoid buildup in the aisles where people linger distractedly, disorientated by the overwhelming sense of freedom of being out of the house. Evenly-spaced queues of masked people outside pharmacies and supermarkets has become a familiar sight.

My teenage students are much more subdued for this week’s Zoom English lessons; their parents haven’t let them leave the house out of fear of contagion or fines. Many of them live in apartment blocks where the only chance of a little sunlight on the skin is the balcony. One girl, a dancer, complained she’d put on 5 kilos. Another said her mother was obsessed with coronaphobia, spraying all post with disinfectant before opening it, and refusing to allow her go upstairs to the rooftop terrace of the condo, where infection could proliferate.

School responses to the enforced closure varies, with some schools providing online lessons, other teachers sending videos of themselves or via Youtube, and the school my son attends simply posting homework on the school website, obliging us parents to do the homeschooling. I’ve discovered that revisiting Geometry in Italian is not so easy, especially while trying to entertain my five year old daughter! The only way to get my own English lessons prepared and delivered is to allow for extra screen time (a negative) and give rewards for cooperation in housekeeping (a massive plus). My son has admitted he actually misses school, though the Department of Education has now basically confirmed that school will resume in September. Various options are under consideration including online examinations for school leavers and lessons throughout the summer, subject to teachers’ availability. All options are demotivating for students. There is a sense that head teachers are grappling to convince some technophobic teachers that we have no choice other than to face the future with virtual classrooms.

Group Whatsapps vacillate now between those still optimistically sharing the virtual virus jokes/videos of the day, and others who admit they are feeling sad and lonely. One mother with kids the same age as mine texted me that she was struggling to cope with the demands of looking after small children and household chores. One friend, not a drinker, started a group Whatsapp call with an empty bottle of wine in hand, in tears. Sicilians are a gregarious bunch. Social life revolves around the café culture; at 11 o’clock it is hard to avoid calls of “Buongiorno” across the street. Now, barely a word is heard as people avoid contact of any kind. The grocer told me he missed most of all the Sunday lunch, usually a gathering of 20-odd people in his house, with the obligatory morning visit to the Pasticceria to get a platter of sweet pastries and cannoli for dessert. Luckily I live in the old Spanish quarter of town, a picturesque warren of cobbled streets with a medieval Spanish church at one end and the ancient castle at the other end. A thoroughfare for no one, it has become a garden for me and my children.

The centre cannot hold. No one will forget the harrowing images of the army truck convoy carrying coffins away from Bergamo’s over-crowded cemeteries. The population of Lombardy will look different with a lost generation. The bravery and stoicism of healthcare professionals will need to be rewarded, and the fallen heroes of the emergency commemorated. But rather than get lost in Yeats’ apocalyptic vision, we need to seek solace in resetting ourselves for a different normality post-corona. Our creative resources will be called-on more than ever, the hero in everyone is being coaxed out and kindness and comprehension will be needed on so many levels to rethink the future. Psychologists will take over the work that doctors and nurses are doing now, literally till they drop.

I found myself reading Waiting for Godot the other night to my kids, perhaps not so absurd given the apocalyptic drama unfolding before us. The timelessness of Beckett resonates strongly now as each of struggles with the demons in our head to make sense of what is happening and ready ourselves for a future that will look radically different. People around the world enjoyed the videos of Italians playing music from their balconies to defeat the loneliness. Friends share yoga lessons and gong baths on Zoom to alleviate the boredom and lift the spirit. It is in these displays of generous camaraderie that we must place our faith.

I wonder: What is the first thing people will do, when freedom is regained? Italy is not an individualistic society, people do things together, from recreational walking to gym membership to the huge family lunches. I often have the stunning kilometres of coastline to myself on meditative morning walks (outside the summer months), but I suspect that as soon as the lockdown lifts, people will flock to the shore to feel the sun on their skin once more. To end on a positive note, the sky over Milazzo is less polluted by the fumes from the oil refinery, reduced to minimum function, and seagulls have once again made it their home. Time to look up and look in.

On the rooftop terrace in the old Spanish quarter of town after a virtual jam with musician friends across Sicily.