The invisible enemy hit Italy just as I was preparing to leave Florence; containment measures had begun a week prior to my departure. At first the “red zones” of Codogno and other municipalities in Lodi were subject to quarantine, then the whole of Lombardy together with provinces in Emilia-Romagna, Veneto, Piedmont, and Marche. And then, on March 9, the entire country was placed under lockdown. I thought of my room in the Oltrarno, empty; I tried to imagine Piazza Santo Spirito empty, the library at the Piazza Torquato Tasso, filled with students studying for their final exams only the week before, closed, the enormous Palazzo Pitti closed, tried to imagine the Porta Romana crossing empty, the little café on the corner empty, the Via dei Serragli empty. The prospect of restricting the movement of sixteen million people, and then 60 million, seemed surreal—how had reality transformed into science fiction so quickly?—until the understanding sank in that all of Europe would quite likely soon be under quarantine.
The weeks I’d spent there, before the threat of the pandemic’s destructive power became manifested in exponential infection curves and a health system hopelessly overwhelmed, seemed as though they belonged to a distant past; the number of dead in Italy had been rising daily ever since. We read reports of wartime triage regulations, of doctors and nurses on the brink of mental and emotional collapse; reports of hundreds of coffins stacked up at the gates of cemeteries and convoys of army vehicles carting them away. Families were losing their loved ones without a chance to say goodbye; funerals were strictly prohibited. In Germany, we were still allowed to go outside if we kept at a distance to one another, but everyone knew that further restrictions were imminent. One evening, at a prearranged time, we stood at our windows and balconies and applauded the empty streets, a gesture meant to express gratitude to the medical profession, but as we began banging pots and cheering and the din reached a feverish pitch, it seemed as though we were engaged in an atavistic ritual, trying to make enough noise to shoo the invisible hobgoblin away.
Although hospitals were still waiting for the deluge to arrive, newspapers already reported shortages of protective gear, masks, disinfectant, ventilators, and staff. Following a two-week period of self-imposed isolation during which I read far too many articles on pandemics, the R0 contagion factor, and virus mutation, I left the apartment to go to the grocery store, and as my hand gripped the bannister and I made my way cautiously down the four flights of stairs (absurdly, I’d tripped in the apartment during my quarantine and sprained my ankle), I realized that I was potentially coming into contact with the pathogen, left behind by the hand of someone entering or leaving the building: no one knew for sure how long the virus could survive on a given surface. The front section of our building counts ten apartments and at least thirty people going up and down the stairs each day, not including postal deliveries. Outside, the hand that touched the bannister was the hand I used to zip up my jacket against the cold; this same hand took the items from the store shelf and placed them in the basket, fished the ATM card out of my wallet and paid and stowed the groceries in my backpack. Leaving the store, I squirted some homemade hand sanitizer onto my hands and rubbed them together, but if I’d picked up the virus, it was on my jacket now, or on the items I’d purchased, or on the handle of the basket I’d returned to the stack at the store’s entrance, waiting for the next customer.
We weren’t used to the idea of living in times of disaster; we’d been protected for so long that, although comparatively brief in historical terms, the period of post-war peace and prosperity we’d come of age in seemed normal. Other people, people outside the still-stable countries we lived in, had been going through hell for so long that we’d gotten used to the idea that—even if we were living from paycheck to paycheck, even if we were working class—we were somehow, magically, exempt from the world’s worst calamities. We watched them on television or on laptops, catching up on the news as we ate our lunch at our desks and closing browser windows when we were finished. Famine, disease, war, plague: these happened to underdeveloped nations or to dictatorships, and not to us.
As the pandemic spread throughout Europe and the rest of the world, those of us who could worked at home and read the news avidly. We stocked up on rice, beans, lentils, and oil, but then, wholly unaccustomed to disaster, for the first time we wondered how we’d cook meals if there were suddenly no water to be had, or no gas for the stove. Should we have been taking our cues from the survivalist movement? Stockpiling canned goods, fuel, water—flashlights and batteries, shortwave radio? Should we have been digging out bunkers? We were only just getting used to the idea of doing without cinema, museums, theater performances, readings, and already we were facing the prospect of mass death and worldwide economic collapse.
Newspaper articles instructed us on how we should be reaching out to the vulnerable, people with anxiety disorder, people who were alone and at risk, as though we weren’t already checking in with friends regularly. We settled in for the long haul, began disinfecting the food packages we brought into the apartment, downloaded patterns for homemade facemasks, and wondered if the sectors of the economy that had sustained our freelance existence would survive the impending recession. Our first impulse, when confronted with the online images of refugees trapped in the dangerously overcrowded Moria internment camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, was to turn away: we’d already cried over the thousands of dead in Italy, thousands more in France and Spain, we were waiting in dread for the peak of the curve to arrive, and for the moment, our empathy was limited to wondering anxiously who among us would catch the virus and succumb. Dark thoughts haunted us: it felt like an overdue punishment, as though we, in the rich countries, secretly knew that our wealth and prosperity had been stolen, that we’d been living at the expense of others and had been waiting all along for a calamity to come and take it all away.
Three days before Italy’s first recorded death from Covid-19, the UEFA Champions League soccer match between Bergamo and Valencia—which Bergamo’s mayor Giorgio Gori would later identify as the decisive “biological bomb”—took place on February 19 at the San Siro stadium in Milan. 44,000 fans crowded together to watch a game that had been heavily promoted as the largest in Atalanta’s history, holding up signs that read “Insieme da sempre, insieme per sempre” (always together, together forever) and cheering wildly while thousands more gathered with friends and family to watch the game on TV. Although the first domestic cases had already been confirmed, the Coronavirus was still seen as a Chinese epidemic. Unaware of the danger, a third of Bergamo’s population hopped in their cars and chartered buses, clogging the roads and causing three-hour traffic jams on a stretch of highway that normally took forty minutes. When Atalanta won, fans were delirious. Jubilant, they flooded the streets and squares of Milan and crowded into the bars and restaurants of their home towns to celebrate, hugging and singing and drinking well into the night and the next morning and turning virtually all of Lombardy into an epicenter of the pandemic as 2,500 disappointed Spanish fans who’d traveled to Milan for the game flew home, carrying the virus with them. In the press, Atalanta’s managing director defended soccer’s importance to the country’s morale. “Today’s results prove us right,” he said following Bergamo’s 4–1 victory, “and our city deserves it. Our boys will go down in history for society and for all of Italy.” By mid-March, when this turned out to be true—albeit not for the reasons the team’s manager had envisaged—I realized just how close I’d come to contagion. The day a third of Bergamo’s population flocked to the San Siro stadium was the day I left Florence to travel to Greci, the village my grandfather Luigi emigrated from nearly 120 years ago and that he never returned to; that his mother, Maria Luisa, never returned to; that none of his nine Bronx-born children, including my father, had ever seen; none of their children had ever seen. Had I boarded the Frecciargento in Bologna the following morning—the train heading south from Milan—I wouldn’t have sat next to Fabio during the four-and-a-half hour-trip, but quite possibly a hungover soccer fan who’d spent the night reveling and was now headed home, snoring in his seat. In which case it’s likely that I would have caught the virus and passed it on to Rita and Pino, my hosts, would have passed it on to their son Luigi, who drives the town’s ambulance, passed it on to Aldo and the rest of the staff at the Comune, from where it would have spread to Greci’s overwhelmingly elderly population. Three weeks later—just as Bergamo counted the highest number of Covid-19 deaths in the country, a third of the Spanish soccer team tested positive for the virus, and the number of dead in Valencia had reached more than three thousand—Bayern München was still planning to play Union Berlin until the Bundesliga, having come under heavy criticism, finally called off the match.
In the case of the Atalanta game, signs of the impending pandemic had appeared well ahead of the event. On the Regionale I took from Florence to catch the Frecciargento in Bologna in the early morning of February 19, Trenitalia broadcast a solemn announcement that it was taking the danger seriously and was implementing all necessary precautions, but when I got up to use the toilet, I was puzzled to find the soap dispenser empty. The first cases had already emerged, but the Coronavirus was still seen as something essentially Chinese. Italy had already suspended flights to and from China at the end of January, and in Florence, I saw Western tourists trying not to shrink from the remaining groups of Asians crowding the Uffizi and the rest of the city’s museums and churches. The prevailing perception was that the virus was something intrinsically alien; people feared that the nearby city of Prato and its huge Chinese immigrant population would become a hotbed of contagion. As it turned out, those first weeks of February were the calm before the storm, a period of incubation. Although the precise starting point of local virus transmission—in other words, Italians infecting Italians—remains unclear, there were ample warning signs that a mass event like the Bergamo vs Valencia match should have been canceled.
While Sinophobia flared up under the threat of the Coronavirus, anti-Chinese sentiment had been brewing for some time. As Chinese immigrant manufacturers successively replaced a once-thriving Italian textile industry, a region that had traditionally voted left now swung sharply right. Successful for generations, family-run artisanal businesses in Tuscany, Umbria, Marche, and Emilia-Romagna went bankrupt as Chinese sweatshops began manufacturing cheap copies of their designs. When Italy’s recent trade agreement with China resulted in a total export deficit of twenty billion Euros, populists jumped in to decry the foreign invasion, but then, when the northern countries didn’t come quickly enough to Italy’s aid, the arrival of the virus brought about a sharp reversal, replacing anger at aggressive Chinese business tactics with a new wave of anti–EU rhetoric.
In mid-March, I was struck by the image of Pope Francis walking through the empty streets of Rome, flanked by security guards. It was a pilgrimage to pray to the Salus Populi Romani situated in the Cappella Paolina in Santa Maria Maggiore, a Marian icon attributed to Saint Luke, brought to Rome by Saint Helena, and said to have saved the city’s people from the Plague during the papacy of Gregory I; Francis then walked to San Marcello on Via del Corso to offer flowers and pray to a wooden crucifixion accredited with having stopped a resurgence of the Plague in the sixteenth century. Two weeks later, in the presence of these two holy artifacts of the Catholic Church, which had been brought to the Vatican for this purpose, Francis gave his Urbi et Orbi blessings in a rainy and deserted St. Peter’s Square, reminding “the city and the world” that we hadn’t been “shaken awake by wars or injustice,” nor had we listened to the “cry of the poor or of our ailing planet.” It was two weeks before Easter, and I suddenly recalled that my son and I had been in Rome at this very time the year before, when the Notre Dame Cathedral caught fire and the images of its flaming roof and the smoke darkening the Parisian sky and the startling footage of its spire collapsing branded themselves in our minds like a terrible omen.