Where Goes Italy, So Goes the West?


“We need to take this seriously,” Dr. Jerome Adams, Surgeon General, told the public on an NBC News interview.   Dr. Adams explained that the US was about two weeks “behind” Italy as far as the effects of the coronavirus spread was concerned.  But what about Italy?  And if we look at Italy, are we in the United States going to endure the same fate?  What do we know about the reality there and what, if anything, will be done?

Forewarned is forearmed.  It can’t be said enough, from either side of the Atlantic: stay at home.  Flatten the curve.  Wash your hands.  Keep away from people.

But some people don’t listen, for whatever myriad reasons.  Short of using the kind of state power that the Chinese Communist Party wields over its subject people, the western world has been struggling to get their residents to comply.  By and large, as the situation worsens, most people have changed their behavior at least marginally.  Every step counts.  But also, just as critically, every second counts.  And because of this, we see the tragic results in Italy.

Italy was not the cradle of western civilization but it was the engine of western civilization.  The peninsula has seen plagues, wars, triumphs, defeats, heroism, cowardice, beauty, and ugliness.  The full spectrum of humanity’s heights and depths have manifested in some way or another over three thousand years of Italian civilization.  Italy is often subjected to earthquakes, the looming volcanoes of Vesuvius and Etna perpetually threaten the peace and safety of the land of Caesars and Salvinis.  So, the COVID-19 pandemic is not a new tragedy, but it is a present one, and a brutal one.  It has so far claimed more lives as a historical event since the German occupation in the last years of World War Two.  It is also the only catastrophe in living memory which can be mitigated with the exact opposite of action: stay home.  Flattening the curve.  Washing hands.  Staying away from people.

In the 1970’s, my aunt had made a trip to visit our Italian relatives.  They were the last of the generation that knew her grandfather, who emigrated to the US and lived out the rest of his life in New Jersey.  The family was doing well, educated, prosperous northerners in the countryside of Italy’s Piemonte region.  Piemonte, from where the Savoia royal family descends, has its seat in bustling Turin, where the Shroud is kept and where industry drives much of the country along with neighboring Lombardy, Veneto, and Tuscany.  Proud folks.

But, for whatever reason, contact afterwards stopped.  Then nobody knew what became of the family on the other side of the ocean.  Some forty years had passed before, almost accidentally, we were able to reconnect again.

For about half a year or so, through email and WhatsApp, the two sides got reacquainted with their respective second and third cousins.  In fact, we were planning to visit our cousins who had last seen my aunt decades ago, and we were looking to land in Milan around March, initially.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, China’s COVID-19 crisis had overspilled its borders.  The swift and steely fist of the Communist Party imposed a lockdown on millions and millions of people.  Wuhan ground to a halt while the hospitals overflowed with patients.  It was bad.

But it was also “over there” and, while tragic, did not really strike close to home.  We did not know anyone or with family directly affected.  We knew it was serious, however, and then it quickly appeared in other Asian countries.

Then Iran and Italy were struck, and struck hard.

My cousins’ emails over the course of one month changed in their tone.  We had just finished celebrating my father’s 67th birthday and I reached out to see how our overseas family, who had (successfully) prayed for his childhood Legg-Calvé-Perthes disease affliction to pass in Catholic masses, was faring.

Two of my cousins, brother and sister, worked in the technical field in Milan and said that they had left the city and taken up with the family in the Piemontese countryside.  They were lucky, they said, that they could work from home.  Lombardy was a “red zone” they said, and Milan was cut off.

“We all hope that the virus starts decreasing, but today in Italy [there are] more than 1200 new infected people,” my cousin said.  Now, at the time of this writing, there are 67,000 confirmed cases in Italy, set to overtake China’s alleged 82,000 soon.  Iran, as far as their reports can be assumed to be accurate, is a third Italy’s.

Her English was not perfect but far better than my Italian.  She described March 8 as “days of anxiety” and that they were not worried for themselves so much, being in their forties, but for the older folks.  She sent her hopes that America would be able to contain the spread.

The Italian government was responding with ever more restrictive protocols to try to slow the spread.  Lombardy’s world-class hospital system was being swamped.  People were beginning to die for want of resources.  The country went into total lockdown by order of President Giuseppe Conte.

Four days after the first email, another came.  Two weeks ago, the message would sound familiar to Americans now, vindicating Dr. Adams’s assessment that we were about a fortnight behind Italy.  “Things are not getting better.”  She reported that stores except essentials like food and pharmacies were closed.  Everyone was encouraged to work from home.  The police were now patrolling the roads to enforce the self-isolation critical to slowing the virus.  If you were found outside, she said, you needed to have a good reason.

“Hospitals are full, she said, “but it is even worse if people need intensive care.”  She related that a shortage of ICU machinery was compelling overwhelmed doctors to make “decisions”—namely, who would get the ventilators and who would not.   Doctors, themselves becoming infected, were having to make the hardest decisions any physician ever could.  “I hope in the US it will not get as worse as here.”

About a week later, I wrote again.  People were being told to stay inside.  Governor Phil Murphy was imposing restrictions on the state as the cases began to mount.  At first, the numbers were small, just like in Italy, but they very rapidly began to rise with Bergen County, our neighbors, getting hit the hardest.  County Executive Jim Tedesco had taken measures to close down businesses and government offices, which would later result in a bit of a head-bump from Trenton.  Nevertheless, we were starting to see parallels from Italy.

“Unfortunately here in Italy the virus is not slowing down,” my cousin said.  “Only today more than 600 dead in total 4000.”  Today, three days after, another 2,000 Italians have died bringing the number to 6,000.  She said that most of the infections were in the north, around Milan, and it made sense.  This is the most urban part of the country.  “South is not impacted yet strongly. But virus is moving fast also there.”

Even more worryingly, “And if you have only small temperature, headache and cough you are not tested… you are tested only if you are getting worse and need the hospital.”  At least, for now, in New Jersey you can finally get testing if you exhibit symptoms.  The crisis and the shortage of supplies has meant that asymptomatic carriers will go under the radar unless they were identified as being potentially exposed to a known carrier.  This is a slow, time consuming process.  Anyone could be an unknowing Typhoid Mary or Typhoid John in the meantime.

Trenton is conscious of this.  Again, the mantra: stay home, wash your hands, keep your distance.

Hunkered in the house with the family, she said she was trying to avoid the news to keep herself from getting too depressed.  The younger people, however, were proving quite vulnerable, too.  Initially, the elderly and those with preexisting conditions were considered the most at risk, but as the virus spreads, more and more exceptions have begun to appear.

She said she hoped the government would impose even more restrictive measures.  “I hope that there you can react faster and may be the virus is not as strong as in Italy.  We are worst than China for number of victims!  Unbelievable!”

“Unbelievable”—the word struck home because it summed up the whole moral and psychological impact of the crisis.  Today, March 23, New Jersey was reporting 2,844 cases—doubled from the day before.  Nationwide, according to Johns Hopkins, the US has 41,708 cases in total.  Half of China’s and two thirds of Italy’s.

For most people, this situation is unbelievable and that’s what has been hampering government efforts to enforce social distancing behavior and keep stores closed.  In Italy and the US, two countries more kindred than might first appear, aside from natural disasters, the majority of people have been relatively safe from the most fascinating (read: devastating) of historic events.  In the 1970s, Italy was wracked with domestic terrorism from Communists.  At the same time and into the 80s, the war on organized crime imperiled many before heroic judges, police, and prosecutors managed to break the mob’s back.  Prior to this, the Second World War had burned disaster from Sicily to the Alps.  Italy’s experiment with totalitarianism ended with the Duce and his mistress as bloodied corpses hanging upside down and a country that had to rebuild itself in the tense postwar period.

The stuff of black and white film.  The grandparents’ memories.  Faded pictures and solemn memorials in cities and villages.  The hardship was there, the generation which was forged by it was forever shaped by it.  And that has since passed.

In the US, for most people still alive, the great crises of our times have been economic.  With the exception of Pearl Harbor and the Aleutians, the US mainland hosted no enemy boots on its soil.  Indeed, not since 1865 has warfare threatening the day to day lives of Americans been visited on these shores.  Korea and Vietnam were fought abroad, the former tragically called “The Forgotten War” while President Johnson promised “guns and butter” for the latter.

The greatest recent exception to this, of course, was 9/11.  As New Jerseyans, we saw and felt that day right alongside New Yorkers.  We felt the impact and continue to feel its impact in countless ways.  Some of us continue to struggle with the health effects of that fateful day.  Overseas, our wars continue to be fought—a full generation later—from 9/11.  Yet, distance plays into the thinking.  Not only the distance of time, where military personnel born after 9/11 took place are now serving on its battlefields, but also place.  “While we’re at war, America’s at the mall,” the phrase went as bombs fell on Saddam’s Baghdad and Marines stormed Fallujah.  President Bush encouraged us to do exactly that: keep it business as usual.  To do otherwise would let the enemy win.

Now, in 2020, Governor Murphy said, “We are at war.”  A different type of war but one which has been taking lives nevertheless.  America cannot be at the mall.  The malls are closed.  People are struggling now with lay offs and job uncertainty.  All of this played out in Italy and now it is playing out here.

To fight the war, everyone make use of their wits and arsenal.  Our weapons are vigilance, hygiene, and above all, self-discipline.  Nobody must go to the mall.  That would let the enemy win.

It is not easy to get a society which is accustomed to next day Prime deliveries, on-demand streaming everything, and the largest culinary selection available in all of human civilization, to suddenly shift gears.  To put everything on hold and wait it out is, as my cousin said, quite unbelievable.

On a political note, it is also unbelievable to think that we are not in a position of being able to help one of our closest allies as we struggle with the same problem.  Now, Italy has doctors and medical supplies arriving from China—where the virus originated—from Cuba and from Russia.  None of these three countries are particularly well disposed towards the United States.  Yet, any help has to be welcome.  Doctors are supposed to defend life, regardless of whose.  The healer is always one of the most respected members of any society at any time in any place.  At the same time, the New Jersey Department of Homeland Security Director at a recent conference with Governor Phil Murphy said that Chinese and Iranian elements have been attempting to spread misinformation online in the state with regards to COVID-19.

Ours is a complicated and sad world where our leaders continue to undermine and sabotage one another, while both facing the same common enemy.  I had said to a colleague that it is the moral equivalent of a situation where the Earth was invaded by aliens—in this case, we face microscopic attackers—and countries were picking fights with one another at the same time.  In the film “Independence Day” the writers could not have conceived of foreign powers trying to undermine Will Smith’s Captain Steven Hiller and Jeff Goldblum’s David Levinson.

“We are all in this together,” Governor Murphy has said.  And it is true, regardless of our origins, age, creed, or color.  Despite our national leaders, we are all equally vulnerable and equally responsible for doing our part.

By all accounts, we are about two weeks behind Italy and can look to them to see what may be in store for us.  And while we may say that we have to learn from the past, that history repeats itself, few of us might have imagined having to put things into historical context in the span of half a month.  In this instance, where goes Italy, so may go the west.

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