An Open Letter On the Virus From A Canadian Editor Living in Italy

Dear Reader.

The normally heavily populated Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan.

 

Since this letter was published the situation in Italy has changed dramatically. Editor Claudia Cusano has issued a follow-up, here.

 

Today’s story was scheduled to be about a great new hotel in Milan. A lot has changed since I wrote it. In light of the COVID-19 outbreak in Italy, I am uneasy about my decision to hold the story for a later date. As a public relations executive asked me this week, “Is coronavirus impacting coverage opportunities? Is NUVO holding on all Italy stories?”

As figures stand, 107 people* (all aged over 65 and with pre-existing health conditions) have lost their lives to the viral outbreak in Italy, and more than 3,089 are infected*, primarily in the regions of Lombardy and Veneto. Conversation is monopolized by coronavirus. News media talk about nothing else. Virologists try to explain what is going on. Schools are closed. Soccer matches have been cancelled. Salone del Mobile in Milan, the largest furniture fair of its kind, has been postponed from April to June. Streets are half empty (flip side, one can find parking). Many countries are restricting travel to and from Italy. New rules of socialization have been mandated to apply to the whole country for at least 30 days: handshakes, baci and abbracci (kisses and hugs) are banned; maintain at least one metre distance between people at all times; seniors stay home.

Regions have been deciding things on their own, causing fragmentation and finger pointing amongst politicians, and organizations are behaving randomly. Tuscany has extended its health-care system to international students, tourists, and all those in the region for business purposes. Economically—especially in the travel sector—businesses are suffering. In February, hotels had 50 per cent cancellations, and that was before Italy was declared a hot spot. Family-owned restaurants are laying off staff as a result of too few diners. Licensed guides with masters and doctorates in art history are out of work. We are all preoccupied and a bit baffled about what to do.

DUCO, which is the annual travel summit in Florence representing the best hotels in Italy, is a go and is set to commence March 30—although there was some consideration given to cancelling*. Once it was announced the organization was sticking with the original dates, its message was: “In this sensitive moment, we reinforce our commitment and support to the Italian hospitality industry.” On social media, #welcometoItaly, #italywelcomestheworld, #visititaly are popping up. (American Italy enthusiast Yolanda Edwards initiated the #theresnoplaceidratherbequarantinedthanitaly when posting to her @yolo.journal.)

There does seem to be a note of hysteria in the reporting in North America, based on the messages I receive from Canada. And while I decided to hold the Milan hotel piece, NUVO will not be holding back all Italy stories. From my makeshift office in Florence, I realize the importance for stories about Italy to continue even during this strange suspended time the country is currently in. Perspective is everything, and mine is influenced by my place here in Italy.

There is a wonderful letter Domenico Squillace, the principal of Volta High School in Milan, wrote to the student body. This is a translation and I highlight it here:

To the students of these times,

This is nothing new under the sun, and yet, the closing of our school requires me to send a message to you. Ours is one of those institutions that with its rhythms and rituals marks the passage of time and the orderly unfolding of civilian life, and the forced closure of a school is something that the authorities resort to in rare and truly exceptional cases. It is not for me to evaluate the appropriateness of this measure as I am not an expert nor do I pretend to be. I respect and trust the authorities and I scrupulously observe the indications.

What I want to tell you, however, is to keep a cool head, and to not let yourself be dragged by the collective delusion, to continue—with due precautions—to lead a normal life. Take advantage of these days to go for walks, to read a good book, there is no reason—if you are well—to stay indoors. There is no reason to storm supermarkets and pharmacies, leave the masks left to those who are sick, they are only for them. The speed with which a disease can move from one end of the world to another is a sign of the times: there are no walls that can stop it, and centuries ago, they moved equally, only a little slower.

One of the greatest risks in such events, Manzoni teaches us (and perhaps even more so Boccaccio), is the poisoning of social life and human relationships, along with the barbarism of civilian life. The instinct when you feel threatened by an invisible enemy is to see him everywhere, and with this comes the danger of looking at each of our fellow citizens as threats, as potential aggressors. Compared to the epidemics of the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, we have modern medicine on our side, and believe me, its progress and its certainties are not small. Let us use the rational thought that allowed us to create said medicine so that we may preserve the most precious asset we possess, our social fabric, our humanity. If we can’t do this, then the plague will have really won.

I will see you all at school,
Domenico Squillace

 

Piazza Santa Maria Novella.

 

Lungarno with Ponte Vecchio in the distance.

 

*As of 2 p.m. on March 4 2020.

*As of noon March 5 2020, DUCO was forced to postpone due to a government mandate prohibiting public events.

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