Sunday, Feb. 23
152 positive COVID-19 cases in Italy, three deaths. Personal fear rating (out of 10): 1
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte places 11 towns in Northern Italy – collective population 50,000 – into strict quarantine. “That’ll fix that,” I think. Normal life continues.
Thursday, March 5
3,297 cases, 148 deaths. Personal fear rating: 2
It’s the day after all Italian schools were closed. Tourists are vanishing.
I hop on my Vespa and head into the centre of Rome for a stroll. Delighted to see Rome’s most beguiling sites – Piazza Navona, Pantheon, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Campo de’ Fiori – almost entirely empty, as if they were abandoned movie sets for Roman Holiday. For the first time in my dozen years in Rome, I hear the water from the Baroque fountains the moment I enter Piazza Navona, which is normally a sea of jostling, noisy humanity.
Sunday, March 8
6,387 cases, 366 deaths. Personal fear rating: 3
Conte extends the quarantine to almost all of Northern Italy and our family makes an executive decision: On Monday, my wife, Karen, our 20-year-old daughter, Emma, and I will flee to our rented country place in Umbria, near Spoleto, an oasis of beauty and tranquillity where we will probably not notice any quarantine, should one be extended to the rest of Italy. No rush; we probably have a few days before a national quarantine decree is signed.
I take a long bike ride into the hills outside Rome with a NATO friend, not realizing it would be my last taste of freedom. Stephen and I bump elbows when we meet – handshaking, hugs and cheek kisses had disappeared many days earlier and the one-metre distance rule is in force.
Monday, March 9
7,895 cases, 463 deaths. Personal fear rating: 4
Too busy writing stories about the disease spreading through Italy to get out of town. We will leave at dawn Tuesday, pedal to the metal in our new Alfa Romeo, stuffed with toilet paper, long-life milk and vitamins. But the national quarantine order lands that night and we are suddenly grounded. All of Italy is the new Wuhan.
Tuesday, March 10
8,514 cases, 631 deaths. Personal fear rating: 5
Our new world is a prison. We can only leave the apartment for pharmacy and food market visits, and then only if we carry a signed declaration to assure the police our escape is essential, because we don’t want to die of starvation or need medicine. The front door is the frontier beyond which lie potential infection and death. But since the streets are empty, meaning murderous Italian drivers are absent, I wonder if outdoor Rome is actually safer now than it was pre-quarantine.
Inevitably, theatrical Italians reference the plague – the Black Death – and I find my copy of Boccaccio’s Decameron and read his cheery little opener: “They fell ill by the thousands. Many fell dead in the open streets. … Such was the multitude of corpses there was not sufficient consecrated ground to bury them.”
My British author friend, Matthew Kneale, who lives in Rome, contemplates calling his diary “Under the Tuscan Plague."
Thursday, March 12
12,839 cases, 1,016 deaths. Personal fear rating: 5
No corpses on the streets. By now, I have a Groundhog Day routine that goes more or less like this: arise early as usual, don’t shave (why bother?) and check Worldometer’s coronavirus infection and death tally, always a good reminder to wash your hands until they bleed; make a lousy cappuccino, wondering why my version, using the same beans as my local barista, is barely drinkable; stroll aimlessly around the apartment dodging piles of unwashed laundry – our cleaning lady is in quarantine, too – in a feeble attempt to stretch legs; spend several hours looking at coronavirus memes; write a story about death and despair for my newspaper; get on bike trainer for an hour while I stare at the walls in a sweaty, bored stupor; look at more memes and grim COVID-19 statistics.
I read somewhere that the real reason the quarantine is making Italians miserable is that it means they can only sleep with their spouses. I suspect there is some truth to that.
Saturday, March 14
17,750 cases, 1,441 deaths: Personal fear rating: 5
Hooray, it’s the weekend! We can do … absolutely nothing.
I don a face mask and rubber gloves, and venture to the local supermarket. To my surprise, the customers are uncharacteristically disciplined. They are lined up outside, several metres apart. When one customer leaves, another enters, ensuring only a few shoppers are inside at any one time. It is the highlight of my weekend, like the escape in The Shawshank Redemption.
My spirits lift somewhat when, at 6 p.m., we open the windows to hear the locals play the Italian national anthem, sing Volare or blow on a trumpet from their balconies to honour the utterly courageous medical workers, hundreds of whom have tested positive, and the patients who didn’t make it. This little tension-buster becomes a daily routine.
I also hear Spoonful of Sugar, from Mary Poppins.
Monday, March 16
20,073 cases, 2,158 dead. Personal fear factor: 6
The daily routine remains unchanged. I hear delightful stories of Italians pitching in to help one another and one story that saddens me to the core.
The former involves my local fruit and vegetable man, Roberto, one of two food shops open in my ‘hood, which is near the Circus Maximus. Roberto sends his sister and aging mother home when the quarantine hits and works the place himself, putting in long, tiring hours. My kind-hearted American neighbour, Brook Edinger, takes pity on him and brings him elaborate breakfasts and lunches, one meal being omelette with asparagus tips.
The latter involves a friend of mine in Milan, a young lawyer. She learns that her cancer has spread. She needs chemotherapy, but her hospital might be jammed with COVID-19 patients and she can’t risk getting their infection.
Tuesday, March 17
26,062 cases, 2,503 deaths. Personal fear factor: 7
We enter the second week of quarantine. Stress and anxiety all ratchet up as the body count rises and the number of positive cases continues to surge – no indication yet that the curve is flattening. I am a guest on TVO’s The Agenda and am shocked when I watch the replay. Tired and unshaven, I look like I’m auditioning for a stand-in role in a war movie.
I worry about Costanza Azzi, a widowed dear friend who lives in Venice. Costanza is 82, a retired English literature professor and one of the last of the true Venetians. An e-mail I had sent her a couple of days ago has gone unanswered. The moment I pick up the phone to call her, her e-mail pops into my inbox: “We are coping as in wartime,” she writes. “Venice has become a ghost city, very sad, but on the other hand very beautiful. I do not go out and I do not see anybody except my son, who does my weekly shopping."
Having lived in Italy for 12 years, I have become superstitious. For good luck, I put on a pair of blue wool socks my Italian grandmother, Regina – my beloved nonna – knit for me 20 years ago. She survived two world wars and made it to the age of 99. I immediately feel better.
Wednesday, March 18
28,710 cases, 2,978 deaths. Personal fear factor: 7
First shave in 10 days. I head out for a shop. My ’hood is pleasantly bipolar. If I turn left from the apartment, I enter Rome’s most international street, Viale Aventino, whose stores cater to the thousands of foreign United Nations employees who work nearby; if I turn right and head to the top of San Saba hill, near the ancient Aurelian Walls and the Baths of Caracalla, I could be in a Tuscan village. I turn right. The San Saba piazza is a dream. It is sunny and warm. There is zero traffic, zero noise. I can hear the birds. The air is clean. A couple of old men sit on benches in the piazza, under towering Roman umbrella pines, in defiance of the quarantine. They wear wrinkled suits and spiffy straw fedoras, and are reading actual newspapers (remember them?). I smile. It feels as if I’ve stepped into 1920s Italy. I think: “Postquarantine, can we just ban cars and keep it like this?”
My spirits, already low, sink again after deadline. The government reports another alarming leap in coronavirus cases and deaths. Photos show army trucks carting off an endless stream of coffins from hospitals in Bergamo. Social media is full of speculation that the quarantine will be extended.
Thursday, March 19
33,190 cases, 3,405 deaths. Personal fear factor: 8
Bad, bad day. The total number of fatalities now exceeds China’s – though Italy has one-20th the population.
Conte extends the quarantine beyond the original cut-off date of April 3 and, ominously, sets no new expiry date. Another five front-line Italian doctors are reported dead, bringing the total to 13 martyrs.
I call my Italian buddy, Lorenzo Tondo, one of The Guardian’s correspondents in Italy. He lives in Palermo, Sicily. He, as with every other reporter in Italy, is exhausted and deeply worried. Southern Italy has relatively few COVID-19 cases, but the numbers are spiking up and the southern hospitals have nowhere near the resources of those in the wealthy north. “Some of our hospitals don’t even have isolation wards,” he says. “One positive patient could shut down an entire hospital.”
I call my friend Damiano, a Roman epidemiologist who went through the HIV crisis. He’s from a small town in Northern Italy. “My sister just told me four of our family friends in our hometown died," he says.
At 6 p.m., Italians come out once again to their balconies to sing. I am proud of them, proud of their spirit, their good humour and generosity, and of the sacrifices they’re making in a time of crisis. They’ve seen worse. They’ll get through this. But maybe not soon.
Friday, March 27
66,414 cases, 9,134 deaths. Personal fear factor: 8.5
Now we’re getting truly scared. In 24 hours, 969 Italian fatalities are recorded – a record high. Until a week ago, the daily toll had been under 500. My first thought is: Damn, I’m never gonna get sprung from my domestic prison. My second thought is: Damn, my first thought makes me a self-centred asshole. I vow to stop whining about my missing bike rides when thousands across Italy are checking out of the game.
My mother, Ada, was born in Italy, not far from Venice, and we have dozens of blood relatives, young and old, who live in the area. I call my cousin, Eros Bello (the loose translation of his name is “Beautiful Love God”), to ask how they’re doing, half-dreading the response, given the shocking fatality rates in the north. “We’re all okay,” he says. “We hope the quarantine ends soon, but I think it will last a long time.”
Wednesday, April 1
80,572 cases, 13,155 deaths. Personal fear factor: 8.5
I have severe cabin fever and am tired. The first piece I wrote that mentioned “coronavirus” appeared on Jan. 23 – a century ago, it seems, when the reported number of global deaths was 17. I have worked on the COVID-19 story pretty much non-stop since then. It’s a perfect Rome spring day, and I decide to treat myself to a short walk. I tuck my personal declaration form and my press pass into my pocket, put on blue rubber gloves and a mask and head out, rounding the corner past the daunting white bulk of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization building, then swinging left to stroll along the edge of the Circus Maximus – think Ben-Hur.
So far, so good. The streets are empty, and I relish the sight of the crumbled Palatine palaces that loom over the Circus Maximus, a sobering reminder that all empires come to an inglorious end. Within 200 metres (the arena is 620 metres long) I am stopped by gun-toting Carabinieri, the Italian military police, and one of them questions me as if I were a defendant in a criminal trial: Who are you? Why are you out? Where are you going? Is your trip necessary? Where do you live?
I explain that I am a journalist doing research. He doesn’t quite believe me, says he could fine me up to €3,000 for breaking quarantine, but won’t – grazie press pass – and sends me home. As I start to head back, a young woman jogs by and is pulled over. The Carabinieri hit her with a €400 fine on the spot for having strayed too far from her home on a non-essential mission. I feel guilty that she was fined and I was not.
Sunday, April 5
91,246 cases, 15,887 deaths. Personal fear factor: 7
My weekend is like almost every other weekend since the quarantine started a month ago. I yearn to be outside and vow to resist of the lure of death stats, but I can’t pry myself away from the computer. I am miserable, but my mood does a U-turn in the evening, after the new coronavirus stats are published.
We appear to have a trend, one that’s going in the right direction: The number of new Italian deaths and infections is falling. The new death tally for the past 24 hours is 525, almost half its March peak. The number of new cases is 4,316; the peak was 6,557.
There is hope, and the Italian government drops delicious hints that plans are being made to lift the quarantine, though we all know it could last a few more weeks and only ease off in stages, with the hard-hit north no doubt emerging last from complete lockdown.
My daughter and I celebrate with vodka martinis, and I place an online order for a new bike jersey, even though I don’t need one – I just feel the need to do a normal consumer activity.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is COVID-19-positive, goes into the hospital for “routine tests," triggering nasty schadenfreude postings on social media.
Monday, April 6
93,187 cases, 16,523 deaths. Personal fear factor: 6
RAI, the Italian state broadcaster, reports that Boris Johnson is on a ventilator many hours before he is sent to intensive care in a London hospital. The report is false. Turns out RAI picked up the ventilator item from a Russian newswire – more evidence that fake news is thriving in this crisis.
The number of new deaths rises Monday over Sunday, though a pretty big drop in new cases keeps the hope alive that the worst is over. But Italians, entering the fifth week of full lockdown, have a bad case of quarantine fatigue and are worried about their jobs and businesses. The daily 6 p.m. singing from balconies and open windows to lift morale has been fading. Today, I hear nothing.
Friday, April 10
98,273 cases, 18,849 deaths. Personal fear factor: 6
Morale sinking again. Giuseppe Conte, the Prime Minister, announces the quarantine is to last until May 3 – we have another three weeks in our bunkers. Will it be extended again? Probably. The new cases and deaths are well down from their late-March peak but still tragically high. Today, 570 new deaths are recorded, which is more than Canada has lost in total. If that were not sad enough, 109 front-line Italian doctors have died trying to save the lives of others. Their deaths make me angry; clearly, some of them made do with inadequate protective gear. An independent inquiry is needed to determine why.
The highlight of my nonwork day is an outing to buy milk. There are more people than usual outside. Many of them look tired and frazzled. A nonfestive Easter weekend awaits us all. The churches are closed for the first time in their lives, the restaurants too. But the sun is warm, the sky a deep Mediterranean blue, the flowers in full bloom. Those of us who are on the streets are in no hurry to dash back to our prisons.
Monday, April 13
103,616 cases, 20,465 deaths. Personal fear factor: 6
I make a second attempt to walk through Rome’s historic centre and it works!
Armed with my media pass and a government declaration stating that journalist endeavours demand my exit from domestic Alcatraz, I stroll from the Circus Maximus to the Trevi Fountain, then to the Pantheon, Piazza Navona and the Ghetto, skirting the Roman Forum on the way home. At the Trevi Fountain, the police question me for 10 minutes before setting me free.
In a sense, my stroll is the trip of a lifetime – I have never seen Rome entirely empty and never will again. There is no off-season in Rome any more, thanks to the miserable miracles of mass tourism: Airbnb, the discount airlines and monster cruise ships. Other than three bored cops, I am the only visitor at the fountain and am mesmerized by the human void and the water cascading theatrically under the god Oceanus into the baroque basin. What could be more perfect? My Answer: If only Anita Ekberg would magically appear in her black gown and cavort in the fountain, as she did in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.
The cars, idle and dirty, look entirely out of place in a city that was not built for them. I wonder if mayors everywhere will close city centre streets to traffic forever once the quarantines are lifted, seizing the opportunity to profit from crisis by handing urban real estate back to the people.
Don’t count on it, says urbanologist Brent Toderian, Vancouver’s former city planner. In an interview, he tells me that, postcrisis, the fear of using buses and subways will ensure that cars will be more popular than ever. Lockdown is miserable, but at least it comes with clean air.
Tuesday, April 14
104,291 cases, 21,067 deaths. Personal fear factor: 6
The lockdown enters its fifth week and Italians are going crazy. The ones desperate for a moment of freedom invent ingenious ways to break quarantine. My favourite is the Roman woman who takes her “pizza-sized” tortoise for a walk today and is fined €400 for her audacity. Talk about animal discrimination (as one does); it’s legal to walk a dog during quarantine, but not a reptile?
I notice that the avalanche of quarantine memes starts to slow, but Instagram stars like Emily Ratajkowski are more popular than ever. A clip of her in her underwear brushing her teeth gets 3.7-million views.
I get used to wearing gloves and a face mask every time I leave the house to shop and resent those who do not. We are all macro-parasites. Going mask-less is not like not wearing a motorcycle helmet (I drive a Vespa). If I refuse to wear a helmet, and hit a car, I die, not the occupants of the car. If I refuse to wear a mask, I can get infected with a potentially deadly disease more easily, and more easily infect others. Washable fashion masks are inevitable. Arrivederci lipstick industry.
The blondes in my 'hood are no longer blonde.
Sunday, April 19
108,257 cases, 23,660 deaths. Personal fear factor: 7
I no longer look forward to weekends. Work is a distraction; sitting on the sofa with a half-read New Yorker article on your lap while you stare out the window, yearning to be outside, is close to torture.
Quarantine is lonely, and must be terribly sad for people who live by themselves. I have not seen my Roman friends in the flesh in almost six weeks and miss them a lot. I send some of them quick notes, and call a few others. No one has a lot to say, because nothing has much changed in their lives since the lockdown trapped us all on March 9.
My boozy party years ended years ago, but my life was is still a social affair – or was.
I especially miss my morning cappuccinos with my gaggle of smart and sassy friends from the ‘hood. They are United Nations employees, journalists, teachers, diplomats, military types. We would collect around a big table at a local bar every morning and regale one another with stories of the pleasantries and inanities of life in Italy, of work trips to desperate countries in Africa or the Middle East, of our kids’ triumphs and tribulations and – of course – how lovely you look today; che bella.
Italian bars are not like a Starbucks in Canada. People are talking, not banging away on their computers. The clatter of china cups, the hiss of the steam from the coffee machines, the cheery greetings from the baristas who are your friends, the exquisite pleasure of delicious coffee for €1 – the scene is the vibrant Italian stage in miniature.
We know by now that bars and restaurants will be the last to open once the quarantine eases off, meaning they could be closed for the rest of the year. I can’t imagine Italy without them. It’s like cancelling the whole country.
Tuesday, April 20
107,709 cases, 24,648 deaths. Personal fear factor: 7
Belle notizie – good news! For the first time since the start of the crisis, in late February, the number of active positive cases falls. The number of patients in intensive-care units has been in decline since April 4, but I don’t know how to interpret this trend. Are ICU beds freeing up because so many are dying?
Morale lifts and I decide to head out to shop – anything to escape my domestic correctional facility. Shopping is an elaborate process. I send a message to a friend whose apartment overlooks the local supermarket. If he reports back that the line outside is short, I put on rubber gloves and a mask, tuck disinfectant gel in my pocket and bring my phone so I can kill time while I wait for the unsmiling supermarket door bouncer to allow me inside. The adventure doesn’t end when I get home, because all the packages have to be wiped down with disinfectant. The fruit and vegetables are placed in bowls near a window so the sun and breeze can work their natural sterilizing magic.
Some Italians change their clothes the moment they return from a shop, but I think this constitutes paranoia. Or does it? I wonder whether I should do the same. To be honest with myself (never a good policy), COVID-19 scares me more than ever since I am now using medical journals to intensify my misery. I read about young people dying of blood clots, sepsis and multiple organ failure, not just the lungs. I lost a kidney three years ago. You can live a perfectly normal life with one healthy kidney. Your life expectancy with no kidneys is a few days.
Saturday, April 25
105,847 cases, 26,384 deaths. Personal fear factor: 7
Weekends are always dispiriting for me. The lack of freedom makes me mad – as in crazy, not angry. After almost two months in the can, I wonder when I will morph into a Canadian version of King George III and greet trees as if they were the King of Prussia.
Covering the COVID-19 story has been hard and it’s not because all I do is write about death. As a foreign correspondent, it’s been hard because the story, probably the biggest one I will ever cover – bigger than 9/11 even – seems a surreal abstraction. I have yet to see a body even though I am at the European epicentre of this murderous pandemic; I have yet to do a face-to-face interview. Foreign corresponding is marvellously simple at a certain level. You go to the tragedy zone (riot, war, uprising, terrorist attack), look at the blood or choke on the tear gas, interview the officials and weeping bystanders, return to your hotel and bang out a dispassionate story. Repeat the next day. That process is broken in this story. I could be on Mars.
I covered 9/11 and it will forever haunt me in a way this story never will. While I didn’t see the towers fall, I arrived in Manhattan, my former home, 24 hours later. I saw everything – the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center, the shattered cops and firefighters, the caskets. I went to the funeral of Father Mychal Judge, the Franciscan priest who had married my wife and me in a gallery in Hell’s Kitchen in 1994. He was chaplain for the New York City Fire Department and was death certificate No. 1. In that sense, the story became personal and charged with emotion. I get none of that with the coronavirus story. A tragedy that is playing out in the hospitals within walking distance of my house in Rome is completely inaccessible. I know no one who has died of COVID-19 and I hope it stays that way.
Sunday, April 26
106,103 cases, 26,644 deaths. Personal fear factor: 6
Not much different from Saturday – still yearning for freedom, for travel, to sit in a crowded, noisy bar with friends, to dance. The last time I danced was in an ancient hole-in-the wall bar in Valletta, Malta, in November, when I was reporting on the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder case and how it had finally caught up with certain cabinet ministers and their business cronies. After deadline, a few of us hacks swilled martinis and swayed to the music. The DJ-barman was particularly good. He spun the Jobe edit of London Grammar’s Hey Now and we all went into a sort of trance in our little corner of the Med, and it felt good, really good.
I try to cheer myself up by imagining what Rome will be like this summer. By then, the lockdown will be partly lifted, at least, but the madding tourist crowds either won’t be able to come or will be afraid to.
We Romans – by now I consider myself Roman – will have Europe’s most sensual and enchanting capital, a city entirely devoid of hideous skyscrapers, to ourselves. It will be a dream come true – Rome as Audrey Hepburn saw it.
In the evening, the emotional roller coaster takes me on another ride, this time up, up, up.
Giuseppe Conte, the Prime Minister, goes on TV to announce quarantine-dismantling plans even though the death and new infection count, while less than half of their March peak, are still tragically high. From May 4, the parks and restaurants will reopen (the latter only for takeout) and outdoor exercise beyond your immediate ’hood will be allowed. Hurray! That means my gang and I can saddle up again and ride our racing bikes into the hills or to the beach, as long as we spread apart, which is how bikers ride anyway. I am giddy with joy. One more week and a degree of freedom returns.
But will it last? Will the infamous curve rise again? It could.
Tuesday, April 28
105,205 cases, 27,359 deaths. Personal fear factor: 6
Italians have a new pursuit: Trying to figure out what liberties, exactly, are allowed under Conte’s new decree.
The decree, issued Sunday, tells us what we can and cannot do starting May 4, when “Phase 2” begins – the partial lifting of the two-month quarantine. But after reading and rereading the document, Italians are more confused than ever. The document says we can visit “congiunti” – an archaic term that vaguely means “relatives” or “kin" – but not friends. The decree, of course, does not define the term. Ever so unhelpfully, Conte later explains that it means “relationships of steady affection," which in turn triggers a clarification from the government explaining that the category includes “relatives up to the sixth degree … and relatives up to the fourth degree." Gotcha, like you spouse’s fat miserable cousins, twice removed, who eat all the desert at family reunions.
And do “relationships of steady affection” include boyfriends and girlfriends? Again, more confusion and much mockery on social media. In an instant, fake self-declaration forms – the signed forms Italians are obliged to carry to explain their presence outside of their homes – are in circulation. One lists a “stable affection” option as “someone you once had sex with,” followed by a blank space to fill in the date of said encounter.
Exasperated, Italians take the view that you can see anyone you want as long as you wear a mask and stay a metre apart, unless you are inside, where the police can’t see you, in which case “stable affection” is left to the imagination.
Saturday, May 2
100,704 cases, 28,710 deaths. Personal fear factor: 6
Another Saturday with nothing to do, no freedom; morale slips again.
What’s tough about the pandemic, other than the loneliness and realizing that the coughing guy in the shopping line could land you in intensive care, is the inability to make plans, not that I have ever been much of a planner. We journalists just sort of show up and see what happens.
By now, normally, we have made our summer plans, which for me usually involves a trip to Toronto and our heavenly wilderness cottage near Thunder Bay, Ont., to see my sisters and mother, followed by an Italian holiday with my immediate family. Last summer, we went to Ponza, an ancient island south of Rome that is unknown to foreign tourists and is locally famous for its clear water, aquatic limestone caves and unpretentious seafood cuisine.
What will our summer look like? No idea. We don’t know if we will be able to leave our Italian region – Lazio – let alone fly overseas. If the latter, do we face quarantine after we land? Our eldest daughter, Arianna, is at university in Montreal. Will she be able to return to Rome? My mother, Ada, is not well. What if she takes a turn for the worse? The pandemic and all its known unknowns and unknown unknowns utterly rules our so-called lives.
Bored, I make music lists for my home bike-trainer sessions to test my theory that loud, primitive, three-chord rock 'n' roll, punk or post-punk makes me pedal harder and burn more calories, though I already know the answer. Today’s list includes: The Hives (Hate to Say I Told You So); Garbage (Paranoid); The Romantics (What I Like About You); Jet (Are You Gonna Be My Girl); Fun Lovin’ Criminals (Scooby Snacks); and Foo Fighters (Learn to Fly).
The list works its sweaty magic. I burn 100 more calories than I did listening to yesterday’s catatonic music list.
Monday, May 4
99,980 cases, 29,079 deaths. Personal fear factor: 8
Lockdown is over! Well, not really; a bit. We can go to parks and ride our bikes and run beyond our immediate ‘hoods. The cafe bars and restaurants are open, but only for take-away or delivery. I head out early to my local bar, Ristretto 35, and greet Michael, the young owner, from a distance. He passes me a cappuccino in a paper cup through a window facing the street. The coffee makes me beam with delight. Michael doesn’t look happy, oddly. He tells me the two-month lockdown has left him in financial distress and that he is not expecting a lot of customers since the nearby United Nations building and other offices remain closed.
A walk to nearby Testaccio, the old market ‘hood that housed the granaries in Roman times, reverses my spirits pretty fast, not because it is empty and desolate, but the opposite. The streets are virtually packed. Non-essential shops that should not be open are open. While a lot of people are wearing masks, a lot aren’t, and many of those who do have them are wearing them around their necks, not their faces, or on their faces but not covering their noses. I see two friends remove their masks while they talk to each other in the piazza, which rather misses the point.
If the new normal looks a lot like the old normal, we are doomed, I think, and my fear factor rises. The Italian pandemic has not disappeared, even if it well past its peak. There are still almost 100,000 active positive COVID-19 cases, more than 1,000 new confirmed infections every day, and God knows how many asymptomatic cases. The infected Chinese cities lifted their quarantines only when their new cases approached zero. Italy still lacks mass testing and a contact tracking app has yet to be deployed. The pharmacies have insufficient supplies of face masks.
What could go wrong? A lot. I get it; an economic meteor has hit Earth and Italians need to get back to work. They say there are no atheists in foxholes. I am praying Italians are careful and don’t plunge themselves into another lockdown. The economy may not not survive the first quarantine. It certainly would not survive a second.
I need a haircut.
Wednesday, May 6
91,528 cases, 29,684 deaths. Personal fear factor: 7
Extra-urban Rome is a cyclist’s paradise. Yes, the suburbs are dreary but they don’t sprawl into the next time zone like they do in Toronto and other amoebalike North American cities. Pedal for an hour or so and you can find the Med, volcanic lakes, hills and mountains and delightful towns such as Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence, and Bracciano, dominated by the gloomy hulk of Castello Orsini-Odescalchi, which features a trap door over a spiked well into which Isabella de’ Medici would toss any lover who bored her.
Today, two days after the partial lifting of the Italian lockdown, Brook, my bike-mad American neighbour, and I go for our first outdoor ride since late February and head to Castel Gandolfo, about 30 kilometres to the southeast, much of it uphill. We are careful to ride 20 to 50 metres apart.
The first 15 kilometres or so feel like a scene from Mad Max. The undisciplined drivers and huge, diesel-belching trucks are back with a vengeance, bent on crushing us like insects. But turning off the main road suddenly puts us into the country, even though we are still well inside Rome. We are surrounded by olive groves, farms and remnants of ancient aqueducts – and almost no cars.
The sensation of freedom for the first time in more than two months is intoxicating. It feels … rebellious, like I have broken out of a prison (which I have). My four walls are gone. I had forgotten what a warm breeze feels like. I am out of shape, and the climbs are painful after a couple of kilometres, but it’s a pleasing pain. I do have muscles after all.
Brook and I part ways at Castel Gandolfo. He heads higher and I head lower, toward home, more tired with every rotation, but happy. Except for one thing: The view from the hills over Rome is distressing – the smog has returned. If there is anything I will miss about the quarantine, it is the near-pristine air. Do we really want to go back to clogged, fume-filled streets?
Friday, May 8
87,961 cases, 30,201 deaths. Personal fear factor: 8
My fear factor is rising again even if it is falling among Romans, who are getting more relaxed as the daily body count falls. Their physical distancing and mask etiquette are getting sloppy, and that scares me. They are dancing with the invisible devil.
I wake up from a nightmare about a botched kidney operation. Kidneys are a thing with me. Three years ago, I learned my entire left kidney was diseased. I went under the knife to have it removed. We now know that COVID-19 doesn’t attack just the lungs; it can attack any vital organ. I freak out when I read this in the Financial Times: “Kidney damage has emerged as another of the most frequent serious consequences of COVID-19, with 23 per cent of patients in intensive care requiring renal support.”
I am healthy and athletic. My lungs are strong. But being reduced to one kidney means the coronavirus could kill me. There are some days when I want more isolation, not less.
Speaking of death, the Italian and European economies are circling the drain. My investment banker friend Joe Shlesinger has a perfect summation of what we are going through as COVID-19 wrecks one economy after another: “We’ve gone straight from 1918 flu to 1929 depression without the fun of the Roaring Twenties in between.”
Tuesday, May 12
81,266 cases, 30,911 deaths. Personal fear factor: 8
As the Italian quarantine winds down, I think about what we have learned from the pandemic and how it turned our lives upside down virtually overnight.
A few items:
Many of my friends have learned that offices are unnecessary. Why commute two hours a day to stare at a screen when you can stare at one at home and raid the fridge at the same time? I have known this for a long time. As a foreign correspondent in Europe since 2007, I can’t imagine going back into a hideous glass office tower. And my commute – three metres from bedroom to desk – is remarkably low on carbon output. If I hold my breath for those two seconds, it’s precisely zero.
You can be lonely even when you’re stuck inside a house with your family. Loneliness comes in different forms. I miss my friends, but I also miss people I do not know – the buzz of street life.
I.F. Stone, the groundbreaking American investigative journalist who wrote I.F. Stone’s Weekly in the 1950s and 1960s, was right: All politicians lie all the time. The coronavirus crisis confirms this every second of every day.
When you are in quarantine, every day is a bad hair day. But who cares?
In cities, we are ever so distant from nature; cars are the dominant moving objects. It wasn’t long after the quarantine started that the birds returned, and we could hear their glorious chirping because the cars were idled. Is it my imagination, or are the trees and plants lusher now that the air isn’t heavy with fumes and soot? Nature can bounce back quickly if we let it.
Masks should become the norm. They are in many Asian cities, where infection rates are generally much lower than those of Western cities. The challenge is to design ones that are effective, comfortable and inexpensive. Obvious low-tech solutions are often ignored.
The bicycle is perhaps mankind’s greatest invention. They are inexpensive (compared with cars or even yearly metro and bus passes), don’t pollute, are easy to park, healthy and make our lungs stronger, therefore less susceptible to pulmonary diseases such as COVID-19. Post-pandemic cities should be built around the bicycle, not the car.
The sharing economy may be doomed. Who wants to share a bike or scooter or car that might be infected with potentially deadly viruses left by the previous users?
Millionaires quarantined in pool-equipped mansions singing inspirational songs at us can stop. Just stop. Forever.
Thursday, May 14
76,440 cases, 31,368 deaths. Personal fear factor: 8
Rome is reopening. The traffic, pollution and noise are creeping back to normal levels, and, hypocrite that I am, I add to all three by driving my Vespa to a bike shop that is not supposed to be open but is – most shops are to remain closed until May 18.
I already know what I will miss about quarantined Rome: The sense that the city, overnight, had decided it wasn’t built for the modern era and traded it for the languid, car-free 1800s. There were moments during my quarantine “journalistic” walks through the empty historic centre when I felt I had stepped into a sepia-toned vintage postcard. Today that feeling is gone.
Well, not entirely.
As I zip past Santa Maria Maggiore, a papal basilica whose original structure dates to the fifth century, I spot a priest outside, standing alone on the ancient cobblestones next to the battered base of the Column of Peace. He is wearing a black cape over a traditional white cassock and is gazing down as he feeds the pigeons collected at his feet, as if he were a latter-day St. Francis. I pull over and take photos of him – he doesn’t see me. As if by magic, no cars come by for a minute or so, and the street is utterly quiet. I am mesmerized. The scene is my last living postcard from another era.
In my idle moments, I wonder what post-quarantine social life might look like, assuming COVID-19 doesn’t politely disappear. Here is one idea: the coronavirus-inspired masquerade ball.
Masquerade balls were popular in Venice in the Medieval and Renaissance periods. The pre-Lent Carnival celebrations were meant to let off steam before Ash Wednesday kicked in weeks of self-denial. Their other purpose was anonymity. Noblemen would dress as peasants, and vice-versa, men as women. You could say what you wanted, do what you wanted, because no one knew who you were. While public health was the last thing on the Venetians’ minds, the masquerade ball could be adapted to our virus-wary world. Imagine a medical mask underneath an elaborate Carnival mask, or a Carnival mask that is actually built as a medical mask. And once you are wearing the safety-first covering, why not go all the way with the rest of the costume?
Monday, May 18
66,553 cases, 32,007 deaths. Personal fear factor: 8.5
It’s over! The quarantine is officially finished. Almost every shop that wants to open can open, as long as physical-distancing and hygiene rules are followed. The streets are full and I see lots of people smiling – and that’s the problem. I wouldn’t see them smiling if they were wearing their masks; many are not, and my fear factor ratchets up.
It’s not like the pandemic has gone away. It’s not like the fatalities or the new infections have stopped. Epidemiologists and hospital bosses, and a few enlightened politicians, warn that a second outbreak – and lockdown – is inevitable if life fully returns to normal.
My friends ask what will change for me this week. My answer: not much. I will still avoid restaurants and bars for anything but takeout, still avoid parks and evening strolls, still avoid museums. Having come this far without getting infected, why risk everything?
My fitness club reopens soon. Pre-quarantine, it was a big part of my life. I wonder if I should go back. I decide that being surrounded by puffing, sweaty people in Lycra to firm up my muscles is potentially suicidal. There is no such thing as a healthy corpse.
The ancient Aurelian walls at the top of my street, Rome’s protective barrier since the third century, are amazingly intact, and the grassy areas in front of them are favoured by dog walkers, joggers – and prostitutes. The latter returned this week, restoring my ‘hood’s rich and weird social tapestry. They do not demand physical distancing, apparently.
Tuesday, May 19
65,129 cases, 32,169 deaths. Personal fear factor: 8.5
A wonderful day. The Canadian ambassador to Rome, Alexandra Bugailiskis, and her husband, Alex – Alex and Alex to their friends – invite us for lunch at the official Canadian residence.
Called Villa Grandi, it’s a magnificent house that was built in 1934 and is named after Dino Grandi, Benito Mussolini’s foreign minister, who played a key role in the dictator’s downfall in 1943. It sits in the heart of ancient Rome, at the start of the Appian Way, on two acres of gardens that include an olive grove, fish pond and the remnants of a Roman villa. The main floor houses a small museum that commemorates Canada’s victory in the particularly nasty Battle of Ortona in 1943, where almost 1,400 Canadians were killed.
I have a special fondness for the property and played a minor role in saving it. The Harper government put Villa Grandi on the auction block in 2013 as part of its mystifying plan to unload Canada’s showpiece overseas properties and stuff Canadian ambassadors into small, bland apartments. The move triggered outrage from former Canadian diplomats and some historians, which I wrote about, and the Trudeau government took it off the market in 2016.
Even though we dine outdoors overlooking the gardens, the Alexes insist on strict physical distancing. We don’t shake hands. We pour our own drinks and sit at opposite ends of a rather long table while we half shout at each other to make ourselves heard. But all I can do is smile. It is my first meal outside my own home, and first social visit, since the Italian lockdown began on March 9.
The last 10 weeks have been physically and psychologically wearing, and the small respite in the warm Roman sun, surrounded by beauty and history, in the company of charming friends, feels like a small, priceless holiday.
Wednesday, May 27
52,942 cases, 32,955 deaths. Personal fear factor: 8
It’s 9:30 in the morning, and I am on the Frecciarossa – Red Arrow – high-speed train from Rome to Venice. I am both terrified and excited to make my first reporting trip beyond Rome since January, when I was in Lebanon after the American assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, waiting for the World War III to start. None of us knew at the time that a non-shooting world war, against COVID-19, was imminent.
I am taking every precaution to ensure my four-hour journey to Venice does not land me in ICU. I am wearing rubber gloves and an N95 mask, and my pockets are stuffed with small bottles of disinfectant gel. As it turns out, I could have arrived at the train station without them; the Frecciarossa staff hand me a bag that contains all those items. I had bought a business-class seat, to give me more physical distancing, but even that was unnecessary because every second seat is blocked off. In my train carriage, I am one of two passengers.
I relax. The trip is a delight, not just because of the scenery as we shoot north at near-aircraft speeds through Lazio, Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna and Veneto, but because of the sense of freedom and purpose. We foreign correspondents travel for a living, and three months in domestic quarantine in Rome felt professionally alien, surreal even, as well as crushingly lonely.
My first trip to Venice was in 1970, when I was a kid, and I have visited La Serenissima dozens of times over the decades. My love affair with the car-free city, which I had considered the model urban plan for the 21st century, ended about 15 years ago, when the monster cruise ships began to use the city as a vomitorium (in the Latin sense) for thousands of day-trippers. Venice became a medieval and Renaissance amusement park, and the Venetians fled to terra firma.
I step off the train in the early afternoon and see Venice as I have never seen it before, and never will again. It is not empty, but nearly so. The lack of propellor wake had cleared up the waters, and I learn from an old Venetian friend that even the octopus had returned to the canals. Yes, give Mother Nature a chance and she responds in enthusiastic ways. As I try to find my rental apartment in the Santa Croce area, I have entire canals to myself. Venice feels peaceful and authentic – not dead – as if it has gone back in time to its true self. I cannot stop smiling.
My first appointment is at the Gallerie dell’Accademia museum, repository to some of Venice’s most treasured High Renaissance art, including works by Canaletto, Titian and Tintoretto (my fave). My guide is the director himself, Giulio Manieri Elia, and I am in for a treat. While the museum had reopened the day before, it is almost empty, so my tour feels like a private viewing. I learn so much. Elia even shows me the plaster cast of the bust of Canova’s Leopoldo Cicognara from the early 19th century, which would be the model for two similar works in marble. The bust is dotted with small black holes; they are the measuring points for the protractor-like instrument used by Canova to calculate his human geometry. The nearby urn, made of porphyry stone, used to contain Canova’s heart.
Friday, May 29
46,175 cases, 33,229 deaths. Personal fear factor: 6
Thursday had been a tiring blur of interviews, during which I was asking everyone how Venice can reinvent itself for the post-COVID-19 future, and I decide to take it easy for few hours before hopping on my train to Rome. I get up early, but I don’t go far because the 'hood around my apartment is bewitching and much more authentically Venetian than the junk-shop-laden tourist hellhole around St. Mark’s Square. After about 20 minutes of wandering, I find a bit of heaven – a narrow residential alleyway, covered by a wooden roof supported by enormous wooden beams, at the end of which is an arched stone portal facing a peaceful canal. The orangey-pink palace on the other side of the canal reflects on the greenish water, giving the scene a pastel effect, like an Impressionist painting. I sit on the stone steps that drop down to the canal for the better part of an hour. There is no hint of the 21st or 20th centuries. I am lost in time.
Wednesday, June 3
38,297 cases, 33,601 deaths. Personal fear factor: 7
A big day for Italy. For the first time since the lockdown started on March 9, free travel between regions is allowed without restriction and borders are open to the Schengen area – the European countries in the passport-free zone. While physical-distancing rules remain in place and mask use is obligatory in small spaces such as food shops, Italy is pretty much back to normal. Except that 40 to 70 people are being killed by the coronavirus, and hundreds of new COVID-19 cases are being reported, every day.
The virus is far from vanquished, and the high number of asymptomatic cases means our assassins could be a metre away every time we step outdoors. Some of my friends are dropping their guard; I am not. The end of the quarantine has really not changed my life much. It’s going to be a long, hot and potentially secluded summer, at least for me and my family. How does this pandemic end? We don’t know.
Monday, June 8
34,730 cases, 33,964 deaths. Personal fear factor: 4
My stress level is plummeting for the first time since Italy went into full lockdown in early March for the very good reason that I am in the middle of nowhere, by Italian standards, and no one is around to cough on me. Late last year, we rented the country house of Canadian neighbours in Rome who were transferred to Abu Dhabi. It would have been the ideal spot to wait out the plague, but the tight lockdown prevented us from going there until this month.
The house is about a 15-minute drive from Spoleto, the ancient Umbrian city in central Italy that was attacked by Hannibal in the Second Punic War, 2,200 years ago, and is home to a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Basilica di San Salvatore. After the incessant din of Rome, the tranquillity of Umbria comes as a pleasant shock. The house is actually a 15th-century farmhouse with bomb-proof, metre-thick stone walls.
Each window has a view of the property’s hundreds of olive trees, which produce Moraiolo olives. The small, round green fruit, indigenous to Umbria and Tuscany, is prized among growers for its high yield and among connoisseurs for the oil’s gorgeous emerald-green colour and fruity aroma, with hints of artichokes and herbs.
What a relief to be able to wander the property and country roads without a mask, rubber gloves and a bottle of disinfectant gel. Our only contact with humanity comes when we drive into town to load up on groceries. When we do, we are pleasantly surprised by the attention to safety. Unlike in Rome, almost everyone is wearing a mask and maintaining physical distancing, even though Umbria was spared the worst of the pandemic. By mid-June, the region had seen only 77 COVID-19 deaths and just under 1,450 cases. Lombardy, by comparison, had almost 16,500 deaths and 93,000 cases.
There are various theories to explain why Umbria and a few other regions, most of them in Southern Italy, were spared the coronavirus onslaught. In Umbria’s case, I think abject fear had a lot to do with it. Umbrians watched in horror as the morgues overflowed in Lombardy and other parts of the north and acted responsibly by taking simple precautions.
Wednesday, June 10
31,170 cases, 34,114 deaths. Personal fear factor: 4
I flip open my computer at dawn and learn that one of my oldest friends has died in Toronto of cancer, well before her time was up. She spent most of her career as a diplomat, a woman of extraordinary compassion and grace who had fascinating stints at the United Nations and in Europe after the Berlin Wall came down. I am not mentioning her name because she and her family were always very private and stoic about her seven-year battle with the disease.
I go to a small country church to light a candle for my late friend. Inside is an old woman, sitting alone. She gives me a friendly, sympathetic smile, and I explain that I just lost a dear buddy – but not from the coronavirus. “Mi dispiace” – I’m sorry – she says.
Wednesday, June 17
23,925 cases, 34,448 deaths. Personal fear factor: 7
I am back in Rome for the week.
Tourists have a romantic vision of my adopted city. They see the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Art Nouveau and Deco parts – more or less the historic centre – and think that much of the urban spread is similarly delightful. In truth, the historic centre makes up just 5 per cent of Rome, and what lies beyond is rather unlovely stretches of look-a-like, post-war condominium buildings in various states of disrepair.
The shop where I take my Vespa scooter for its annual tune-up is in one of these unlovely areas, but it’s the real Rome – the tourist areas are economic and artistic fantasy lands. The mechanic tells me the job will take about two hours and invites me to disappear into a café for a while. But first, I explore the ‘hood. I notice that every third storefront is closed; many of them have For Sale signs stuck to the steel shutters. In defiance of physical-distancing rules, the cafés are fairly full – lots of old people, but also lots of young adults. It’s late morning, and I realize that the young clients are not on their coffee breaks; they are jobless and just hanging out because they have nothing else to do. Café after café is the same. Welcome to the COVID-19 jobs crisis.
Europe went through hell during the pandemic, and I wonder whether the feeble recovery will be even more miserable, especially for the newly unemployed and students who have just graduated only to find that no one wants to hire them. The youth unemployment figures are grim across Europe. In Italy in April – the month after the lockdown rush – the youth jobless rate was 20 per cent and much higher in Spain, Greece and, oddly, Sweden. But that doesn’t tell the whole story, because hundreds of thousands of young people have given up looking for work, so are not officially classified as unemployed. The overall inactive category – Italians who are not working, not looking for a job and not in training – rose to 38.1 per cent in April from 36.1 per cent in March.
I am the father of two young adults. My daughter in Montreal, Arianna, is a year away from graduation; my other daughter, Emma, is in Rome and just starting her university journey. I especially worry about Arianna, who might be thrust into the worst job market since the Great Depression. I feel terrible for her, for her friends and anyone else in their 20s whose dream of launching a great career has been snuffed out virtually overnight. At what point will their frustration turn into rage? Will there be a Youth Spring in a year?
Tuesday, July 7
14,242 cases, 34,899 fatalities. Personal fear factor: 5
I have been writing about COVID-19 for five months on the trot, and personal medical curiosity finally gets the better of me: I will get tested.
I have no reason to believe I have or have had COVID-19 but I do want to know if I have been exposed to the virus and have antibodies that might protect me from infection and possibly save my life. I find a private clinic in Perugia, the main city in Umbria, about a 45-minute drive from our rented farmhouse, and make an appointment for a serological test. The clinic is modern and clean, and I wait only a few minutes before my number is called. A nurse takes a vial of blood from my arm and hands me an access code and PIN so I can check my results later in the day. She also gives me a sheet of paper explaining the possible results. This is not a simple yes or no exercise, I realize.
“Negativo” means I have no COVID-19 antibodies in my blood but doesn’t exclude an asymptomatic infection. “IgG Positivo” means I have the antibodies, indicating a past infection. “IgM Positivo” means the viral infection is currently active. And “IgM” and “IgG Positivo” together means the infection is active and antibodies are simultaneously being produced.
My crash course in virology has left my head spinning. I am nervous all day. I go to the clinic site at 6 p.m. and punch in my access code. Negativo.
Instead of being relieved, I am disappointed. I wanted the test to show that I have antibodies. I don’t, which means I have no protection from this bastard disease.
Monday, July 13
13,157 cases, 34,967 deaths. Personal fear factor: 7
I am in Padua, in northeastern Italy, not far from Venice, to interview Andrea Crisanti, the Italian microbiologist who is considered a hero among many Italians for having urged health authorities before the first COVID-19 outbreaks in late February to conduct broad and quick testing. He was convinced asymptomatic transmission was rife. Almost no one believed him – certainly not the World Health Organization, which was then advising health authorities to test only people who were showing symptoms. On Feb. 21, an elderly Italian died in Vò, a town of 3,000 near Padua; he would become death certificate No. 1 in the Italian pandemic. Vò went into lockdown three days later. Every resident was tested and – guess what? – Dr. Crisanti was right. He and his team analyzed the results and found that 40 per cent of the positives were asymptomatic. At that point, the world became doubly aware of the extreme danger of COVID-19. Dr. Crisanti thinks a lot of lives could have been saved had his warnings been taken seriously even a week or two earlier, when the virus was surreptitiously galloping across Northern Italy. “I am angry about this,” he tells me.
After the interview, I check into the small Hotel al Prato in Padua. I am anxious, because this is my first hotel visit since the outbreak. But the staff are maniacal about cleanliness and physical distancing. Masks have to be worn in the hotel’s public areas. Guests are advised to avoid the elevator and use the stairs. If you sit down for a drink or a snack in the lobby, your table is sprayed with disinfectant the moment you leave.
I tell the woman at the hotel desk, Debora Pala, that I have just interviewed Dr. Crisanti. She gives me a big smile. “Nostro salvatore,” she says – our saviour.
Tuesday, July 14
12,919 cases, 34,984 deaths. Personal fear factor: 3
I drive to Vò, and my fear factor drops faster than ever. How can that be? I am at Ground Zero of the Italian pandemic, where the first Italian fatality was recorded. But Vò is safe. Everyone in the town has been tested not once, not twice, but three times, with the results going to Dr. Crisanti for analysis. There is no town on the planet that has been tested more carefully and extensively for COVID-19 than this one. The last new positive was two months ago. Still, masks and hand sanitizer are ubiquitous. No one is taking chances, given the murderous hell the region went through in February, March and April.
Mayor Giuliano Martini is also the main pharmacist in Vò. Talk about dedication. When the town went into military-patrolled lockdown on Feb. 24, he, his wife and his son – all pharmacists – locked themselves down inside their pharmacy, sleeping on the floors upstairs. For two weeks. They did so to keep the pharmacy open for crucial medical supplies. “I am a former Boy Scout and a former Alpini,” he tells me, referring to the elite Italian Alpine infantry. “I believe in community service.”
Italy made a lot of mistakes in the early days of the pandemic. But it also learned fast and got a lot right. The fatalities and new cases have plummeted since April, and the country has reopened. I am half-Italian and, after visiting Vò and Dr. Crisanti, I am especially proud of my adopted country. Forza Italia!
Wednesday, July 22
12,322 cases, 35,082 deaths. Personal fear factor: 4
In the early 1970s, my father, Bob, then the Toronto Star’s Mediterranean bureau chief, was based in Rome and my mother, Ada, ensured that her three young kids had rich cultural lives, knowing that our time in Caput Mundi would be short – we lived here for only three years. One of my most vivid memories was attending a performance of Verdi’s Aida in the majestic ruins of the ancient Baths of Caracalla. It was a thrill. The stage, set in the caldarium – the warm water bath area – featured dazzling lights and fireworks and walk-ons by real live camels and horses.
Tonight we have a similar experience, in the nearby Circus Maximus, which was the largest stadium in the Roman Empire – think Ben-Hur and a lot of blood – and still very much in the game today, especially in the summer, when the oversized ditch is used for concerts and sporting and charity events. The Teatro Dell’Opera di Roma is putting on a performance of Rossini’s Barber of Seville, a rather silly musical marathon with memorable songs, like Figaro’s Aria (adored by Bugs Bunny, too). But the choice of opera is not really the point; the point is that the opera is happening at all in the time of plague.
The City of Rome is keen to show the world that it has survived the pandemic largely intact and is returning to normal, sort of – tourists are still elusive. What better than an open-air opera on a hot Roman summer night in the Circus Maximus? In fact, the Rome opera company is the first to reopen in Europe.
Of course, there are precautions. The orchestra members and the actor-singers are positioned well apart, as are the audience seats. Ticket holders are tested for fever on the way in, and no one is allowed to leave the seating area during the intermission. There is no bar. The performance itself is stripped down, presumably to reduce the number of stagehands bumping into one another during set changes.
What a magical evening! Many of the Roman women in the seating area are wearing their slinkiest summer dresses, as if they couldn’t wait to raid the “evening out” sections of their wardrobes after almost three months of lockdown. The breeze loses its blistering edge later in the evening, and when we aren’t watching the very animated conductor, we are looking at the stars and the ruins of the imperial palaces on the Palatine Hill, which flanks the Circus Maximus. Best of all is the escape from reality. For three hours, we feel we are living in a parallel, virus-free universe.
Thursday, July 23
12,404 cases, 35,092 deaths. Personal fear factor: 4
I need a holiday.
Checking The Globe and Mail archives, I find that the first story I wrote that mentioned “coronavirus” appeared on Jan. 24, when “pandemic” wasn’t even in the World Health Organization’s vocabulary and a full month before the Northern Italian lockdown. Since then, I have been writing about the plague pretty much non-stop, including weekends, almost exclusively from my home office – a three-metre commute from the bedroom. The stress during the peak of the Italian pandemic, in March and April, was intense. The endless ambulance sirens and the TV images of convoys of trucks laden with coffins were relentless reminders that thousands of people were dying and many more thousands suffering terribly as inflammation scorched their lungs. Back then, we had no idea when we would legally be able to leave our homes for anything but a masked run to the food shops. The worst is over, but the virus hasn’t gone away and our full pre-pandemic freedoms are still elusive. I suspect they will remain that way for a long time. Every virus scientist I have talked to says an effective vaccine is not imminent. The development, testing and approvals for the Ebola vaccine took almost five years, a lightning-quick response for an infectious disease. Most vaccines take far longer or get nowhere. A vaccine for COVID-19 could be similarly elusive.
My holiday starts this weekend. This time last year, I was at the family cottage on Lac des Mille Lacs, a big, wild lake just west of Thunder Bay, Ont., where the sky is full of eagles, the lake full of pickerel and pike and the bush roads crossed by bear and moose – we carry air horns in case we run into them while jogging or biking. That’s where I want to be this summer, in a virus-free paradise, away from everyone, paddling my red Chestnut canoe along endless kilometres of shoreline bearing not the slightest hint of humanity. And not wearing a mask.
I can’t get to the lake this summer – afraid to fly, don’t want to go into quarantine once I arrive in Canada. Instead, we will go to our rented country farmhouse in Umbria. It’s a beautiful spot, but there is nothing like a cool Canadian lake in the summer. My Canadian friends with cottages, I envy you. Happy holidays, everyone, and wash your hands!
Monday, Aug. 24
19,195 cases, 35,441 deaths. Personal fear factor: 3
It’s Monday at dawn. It’s already hot, and I am packing my Vespa for my 140-kilometre journey from our country house in Umbria, in central Italy, to Rome – my long summer holiday is winding down. I want to hit the road before the Sahara-level heat hits. A Vespa, with its small wheels and relatively low power, is not the ideal vehicle for highway cruising, so I’ve planned a low-speed backroads cruise through mountain passes and valleys. The trip is a lovely little adventure, taking me past hilltop medieval towns that I did not know existed. One is Arrone, a completely non-strategic little town that dates from the ninth century and was sacked by Napoleon’s troops in 1799, probably because they were bored and needed to tune up their pillaging skills.
As I get close to Rome, along the ancient Via Salaria (derived from the Latin name for “salt" – it was originally a salt road), the traffic builds, the heat becomes almost unbearable and the garbage lining the roads disgusting. The street prostitutes are in full display. Yes, I am back in Caput Mundi, in all its louche and grubby decadence.
Making my final push into the city centre, my anxiety level rises – not because my holiday is over but because the pandemic isn’t. During my four weeks in Umbria, my visions of dying a slow, miserable COVID-19 death had all but vanished. Umbria’s pandemic fatalities were among the lowest in Italy, and no one I met talked about it much – life seemed perfectly normal among the olive groves and cafés in the countryside. Our house was isolated; the nearest town of any size was eight kilometres away. I wore a mask only when I went to the supermarket every two or three days. The pandemic that had kept me and my family sealed tight in our Rome apartment for almost three months, in the spring, was simply not on my mind. Today it is. When I left for Umbria in late July, Italy had only about 12,000 active COVID-19 cases; a month later, the tally had climbed to almost 20,000.
Would we face another lockdown in Rome? The very idea fills me with dread, but the curve is definitely going in the wrong direction.
Thursday, Sept. 11
36,367 cases, 35,597 deaths. Personal fear factor: 5
I am sitting outdoors with a friend at a café on the Aventino, Rome’s most international neighbourhood. The street is busy, and almost everyone is wearing masks. An acquaintance of mine strolls by and doesn’t notice me, but I notice him. I do a double take. I know that he returned only a week or so ago from an overseas trip, meaning he should be only halfway through his quarantine. So unless he has a special exemption – they can be granted to certain professionals – he is breaking quarantine. I debate sending him a mischievous message saying something like, “Welcome back, aren’t you relieved you are out of quarantine?” and decide against it. In reality, a lot of travellers have a rather liberal definition of quarantine, and I assume the vast majority are super careful when they venture outdoors. Still, it shouldn’t be done.
Tuesday, Sept. 22
45,489 cases, 35,738 deaths. Personal fear factor: 6
I am glad my Globe and Mail bureau is in Italy and not France, Spain or Britain. The pandemic is back, the infection numbers surging across Europe, but Italy, the original epicentre of the European outbreak, is being spared the worst of the virus’s rude renaissance. For several weeks, Italy has been reporting 1,000 to 2,000 new cases a day. The daily increases in France, Spain and Britain have been three, four, even five times higher. The numbers are bound to get worse, perhaps much worse, because schools have reopened, flights have increased and flu season is approaching. Britain, whose response to the pandemic has been confusing and half-hearted, is back in partial lockdown.
I am not ruling out a nightmare scenario in Europe, perhaps darker than the dark days of March and April. Britain’s top scientists are warning that the country could see 50,000 new cases a day by mid-October – the ugly math of doubling rates. Were that to happen in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, you might see governments commandeering vast swaths of the economy, including Amazon, UPS, private hospitals and the big food and pharmaceutical companies, to deliver food and health care to the masses.
Italy could go either way, but I am praying that the fear of reliving the early months of the pandemic will prevent wholesale COVID-19 slaughter. Italy learned from its mistakes. The Prime Minister’s emergency power to rule by decree is still in place. As the infection numbers rose last month, he ordered the closure of all discos. Masks must be worn in all crowed places between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. The police are fining people who don’t wear masks where they should be wearing them. Mask use is among the highest in Europe. For the most part, Italians are behaving themselves in public. The Rome and Milan airports have introduced quickie COVID-19 tests ahead of flights. Hospital care for COVID-19 patients has improved dramatically.
Still, my fear factor is rising. Is the worst over? I thought so in the summer. I am no longer entirely convinced it is.
Wednesday, Oct. 7
62,576 cases, 36,061 deaths. Personal fear factor: 7
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte still has the luxury of ruling by decree, and the dapper little dictator today implements a new law: Masks are to be worn any time you leave the house – that is, if you are more than six years old. The penalty for not wearing one is €1,000.
Before the new decree came into affect, masks were the law in indoor public spaces, such as supermarkets, and in crowded outdoor spaces, where physical distancing was difficult. The new decree makes no difference to my life, since I have always strapped on a mask the moment I leave my Rome apartment. I expect compliance to be low, but I am wrong. I see that almost everyone – I would estimate 99 per cent – of Romans are wearing masks, though a few are still slipping them under their noses. Did they skip their high school human-biology classes? I think about telling the offenders that – surprise! – their noses are connected to their lungs, too.
My favourite mask story comes out a few days later, care of CNN, from the little Umbrian mountain town of Nortosce, in central Italy. In the last official census, in 2001, Nortosce had seven residents. Today there are two – Giovanni Carilli, 82, and his only neighbour, Giampiero Nobili, 74. They wear masks every time they meet and respect the one-metre rule. "I’m dead scared of the virus,” Mr. Carilli, who sports an Italian flag mask, tells CNN. "If I get sick, I’m on my own. Who would look after me? I’m old, but I want to keep living here, looking after my sheep, vines, beehives and orchard. Hunting truffles and mushrooms. I enjoy my life.”
More or less my view, too – a mask is a minor inconvenience in a deadly pandemic.
Saturday, Oct. 17
116,935 cases, 36,474 deaths. Personal fear factor: 7.5
The COVID-19 caseload is exploding across Europe, and Italy is part of the mess. A few weeks ago, Italy’s daily increases were trending between 1,000 and 1,500, and Italians were congratulating themselves on a job well done; the numbers in France, Spain and the U.K. were three or four times worse.
Not any more. Today, Italy sees almost 11,000 new positives – two-thirds higher than the March peak, when the pandemic had locked down most of Europe. The numbers are not directly comparable, because the testing rate is much more intense now. Still, they are scary, and Italy is again on edge. The government prepares new restrictions that would stop short of lockdown, but we all know that shutting the whole country down is not out of the question if the hospital ICUs get overwhelmed, as they were in March, April and May.
With our freedom once again under threat, I rally my bike friends and suggest that we saddle up for a long roll in case the curtain comes down. I pick a run that would take us along the Mediterranean coast south of Rome to the delightful town of San Felice Circeo, up the steep mountain behind it, then back – about 75 kilometres in total. The idea is to soak up the sea and mountain vistas while we still can.
Four of us, all UN employees in Rome except me, set off at dawn. The first 90 minutes or so are lovely, but once we start grinding up the mountain, the rain comes – the weather forecast is dead wrong. We keep climbing, expecting the black clouds to disappear, but the rain gets more intense. At the top, the rain is so ferocious that we can barely see 10 metres ahead and the road starts to flood and fill with gravel and rocks. We are soaked, the temperature drops, the wind picks up, and we start to shake. So we head down the mountain for fear we will freeze if we stay put. I pull with all my might on my brakes, but they barely slow the bike because the brake pads and wheel rims are so wet. The rear brake on Erin’s bike fails, putting her in a dangerous situation. I stick with her, and we end up walking part of the way down as the frigid, muddy water sloshes over our ankles.
I take our disastrous ride as a bad omen.
We make it to the café in San Felice Circeo, pour hot tea down our throats and wonder how we will reach our cars, which are 35 kilometres up the coast. Heiko has an idea. The villa of a German friend of his is only five kilometres away. He phones his friend, who invites us over. When we get there, of course, the clouds break and the sun shines. We dry off and are driven back to our cars in a Volkswagen van.
I take this reversal of fortune as a good omen. Italy needs good omens as the virus tears through the country again.
Tuesday, Oct. 20
142,739 cases; 36,705 deaths. Personal fear factor: 8
I am thinking about Pope Francis.
I like Francis a lot – even though I am more or less a lapsed Roman Catholic – and would prefer that he keeps kicking for a while, all the more so since his barely disguised dislike of Donald Trump might help push U.S. Catholic voters toward Joe Biden. But he’s taking too many risks during the pandemic.
He is almost never seen in public wearing a mask – and he’s in public a lot, sometimes meeting and greeting dozens or hundreds of people. The math says he will breathe the same air as an asymptomatic COVID-19 carrier at some point; it’s just a matter of time. The Vatican, the world’s smallest state, has already recorded a couple-dozen cases. Francis is 83 and is missing part of a lung, the result of a nasty bout of pneumonia that nearly felled him when he was 21. He might not beat a bad case of COVID-19.
Any pope is a strongman; there is no democracy at the Vatican. The point being, no one can order him to wear a mask. I have tweeted that Francis should wear a mask, but he doesn’t follow me on Twitter, oddly, so I was writing into the wind.
In recent days the faithful have taken to the media and social media to try to convince him to get in the game, mask-wise. One who did was a good contact of mine – Thomas Reese, an American Jesuit priest who writes smart stuff about the Vatican for Religion News Service. In a piece this week, he gives six reasons why Francis should wear a mask, other than to save his life. Here is one of them: “There is another major world leader who does not wear a mask, Donald Trump. Do you really want to be in company with a man who builds walls rather than bridges, who demonizes refugees and immigrants, who turns his back to the marginalized? I don’t think so, but that is where you are as long as, like Trump, you do not wear a mask.”
I wonder if Reese’s remark got to him. Today, Francis is seen in public wearing a mask. It is a saintly white one that matches his gleaming white cassock, and he wears it at a prayer service for peace around the world at the magnificent Basilica of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli in Rome. Bless you, father.
Tuesday, Oct. 17
255,090 cases; 37,700 deaths. Personal fear factor: 8
By now, it is gruesomely clear that Italy is firmly in the teeth of a second wave. With new infections and deaths soaring, community spread is a clear and present danger and I decide I should get another test. But how, and where? The Italian health authorities have been slow to make good on their mass testing promises, even though every epidemiologist and microbiologist in the land have urged the regional governments for months to make testing easy, convenient and cheap. In my effort to get tested, I have to settle for cheap.
The first part of the exercise is to get a requisition for a test – tampone in Italian – from my regular doctor. A full day passes before he gets back to me. Part two is to pick a testing centre where I would not have to wait hours in line, and I definitely do not want to wait indoors. I chose a drive-through, pop-up site next to a hospital in a distant Roman suburb. The site comes recommended by the UN agencies in Rome – an encouraging sign.
So off I go and half an hour later, I am in the hospital parking lot behind about two dozen cars, as if I were in an annoyingly popular McDonald’s drive-thru. Not everyone is in cars. There are three men behind me and they are patiently standing in line. I moan, thinking I will be here for hours listening to bad Italian music on the radio. But the line moves pretty fast. A medic comes to my car and asks me if I want the rapid antigen test or the more accurate, but far slower, molecular test. I opt for the quickie version and pay her 22 euros. Half an hour later, another medic rams a swab at the end of a stick up each nostril, going so deep if feels like they’re hitting the back of my brain. The pain is sharp and short, like reading a Donald Trump tweet.
I wait 45 minutes for the results. For reasons that escape me, they cannot be delivered by email or SMS. They come in low-tech fashion. A medic emerges every now and again from the tent with a pile of papers and shouts out names. If you happen to be nearby and hear him, you are in luck. I am negativo.
The whole process, including drive time, is a bit more than three hours. Not bad, but not great. My conclusion is that Italy will never bend the pandemic curve unless its testing centres are within walking distance, or a short drive, of most Italians’ homes. Pharmacies everywhere should have testing tents on the sidewalks out front. The tests should be free and not depend on a doctor’s requisition. Italy has a long way to go on this front. It can do far better.
Thursday, Nov. 12
635,054 cases; 43,589 deaths. Personal fear factor: 8.5
Che disastro! The Italian pandemic is reaching tragic proportions, with 500 to 1,000 people dying every day. New infections are clearly out of control and well beyond the health system’s ability to conduct efficient tracing. A video, of an old man dead or dying on the bathroom floor of an ICU ward in an overwhelmed Naples hospital goes viral and horrifies Italians.
The Italian government responds by tightening restrictions as the fear factor rises and recriminations are made, though there is plenty of blame to go around. I regret the early September article I wrote, which said that Italy learned its lesson in the spring crisis and would quickly flatten any second wave for fear of another tight lockdown. I was spectacularly wrong.
The government’s latest pandemic-control decree assigns one of three colours – red, orange, yellow – to each of Italy’s 21 regions. The restrictions are tightest in the red zones, where you can go outside but everything except essential services is shut and you cannot travel beyond your immediate area. The yellow zones are mostly open, with orange in between. No one from outside an orange or red zone region can leave or enter that region. Throughout Italy, there is a 10pm curfew and all bars, restaurants and cafés must shut their doors by 6pm.
As usual, the details are frustratingly scant. Can we travel to our second homes if that home is in a red or orange zone? Can we leave the country? Can foreigners enter Italy? Can we walk the dog or go running in a red zone, or move to a new apartment? The maddening answer to each: It depends.
Rome is in a yellow zone. In the daytime, the city seems pretty much normal. Everyone is wearing masks and even that seems normal. At night, just before the curfew approaches, the city feels haunted.
Wednesday, Dec. 16
645,706 cases; 66,537 deaths. Personal fear factor 8.5
It’s nine days before Christmas, 5 p.m. and already dark. For weeks, I have lived within a 100-metre radius of our house. Coffee shop, pharmacy, supermarket, butcher, bakery. Repeat, like Groundhog Day. I need to live dangerously and start walking. In less than ten minutes, I am at the Colosseum, no one there, though it’s still awe inspiring. I keep walking, more out of curiosity than anything – I want to see Rome at night, before Christmas, before the curfew, in a pandemic. And I am pleasantly surprised. It doesn’t look like the backdrop for a zombie movie.
There are people on the streets, but no crowds, as least in the non-touristy bits I stroll through. Some shops are closed, perhaps permanently; many are open. I notice that the bakeries and pastry shops, like Biscottificio P. Cipriani, which opened in 1906 and is cherished by Romans for its honest, old-style biscuits and cakes and woody interior, are doing brisk business. Ditto the florist shops and the outdoor tables at the cafés. Rome is doing what Rome does best, which is eating and drinking and being merry. I have alway loved Roman Christmases, which is more about food, wine, friends, music and religion than about crazed shopping trips and fake Santas. It’s less blatantly commercial than than the Christmases in other cities I have lived in, including Toronto, London and New York. The Roman pandemic Christmas will be even less commercial than usual, and that’s just fine with me. The walk lifts my spirits. My adopted city is still alive – at least until the curfew hits.