September 27, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Rome: Not with a bang but a whimper

By |2020-03-21T13:42:08+01:00March 14th, 2020|Essays|
The Spanish Steps on March 11, 2020: For those who dare (and can still travel), a chance to see a city that belongs to them alone.

hat, you ask, is it like to live in a diminished Rome in which a disruptively contagious virus has been rashly conferred the medieval character of what it is surely not, a plague. “Medical fascism” rings oddly apt, or perhaps medical martial law.

All that’s missing are tanks at rest in the midst of streets that in recent days have come to resemble those portrayed in post-apocalyptic movies. But the tanks do exist, for now on standby along with military units just outside the city. Waiting on what isn’t clear.

As the European nation first hit by the virus, authorities had two options. Move to limit human contact or, far more controversially, allow life to go on, parrying mass infection into a means of building human immune defenses over time over time. It chose the first path, and other countries have since followed suit. No timetable exists for an end to the threat.

These days cars are few and the silence forest-like, interrupted only by the occasional rumbling of stylish trams, since public transport continues to ferry around those required to work through the dread. Automobile drivers are often stopped by Carabinieri officers and asked to provide the reason for their excursion, with some repairmen turned away if the work at hand is not considered urgent by police (plumbers say they are exempt while electricians insist they are the ones with the right of way). Parks are closed, leaving joggers with August-like city streets. Eternally crowded sites such as the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain are deserted, with those who do come by also advised to move along.

Supermarkets have guards stationed in front to ensure that no more than 20 people are inside at any given time. All now wear masks and gloves, and shoppers openly demand that those who get too close to them step away. “Mind your distance,” they say. The Italian habit of greeting friends cheek-to-cheek is on hold, as if by decree. Few children play in groups, even in parks.

Pharmacies are predictably out of gas masks and those who wear such gear speak, like aliens, in an indecipherable muffle. Businesses are shuttered, banks as well, so are bars, restaurants, barbers, hardware stores, tobacco shops — places that form the backbone of most Rome neighborhood communities. Countless spring weddings have been postponed.

Schools and universities have been empty for weeks, and sports events canceled indefinitely. The entrance to the Rome zoo is locked and the animals fed by a skeleton staff.

The St. Peter’s wasteland…

Human assemblies of any kind, including small crowds of people who might wish to protest this temporary but risky suspension of civil liberties, would be immediately dispersed by police. Not that Romans have considered such protests, since most are terrified of disease and do what they’re told on cue, mindful of aged relatives whose other illnesses and depleted immune systems would put them at greater risk. In all, it’s a peculiar kind of authoritarianism motivated by a wish to save grandparents. Italy in fact hosts a vast population of elderly citizens, many of them over 90 and ailing. At the same time its birth rate is and has been near zero for years. Its territory is an ideal hunting ground for an opportunistic virus that might do only temporary damage to the younger and healthier. The Italian prime minister said as much, describing the elderly as facing “an existential crisis,” which he meant less in philosophical but literal terms.

Rome, and Italy, is commanded by the virus, as if the country’s leaders had soaked in one ominous headline too many and snapped, deciding that the only way to stop the virus was to stop the flow of life itself. The whole matter elicits a lyric cadence from the poet T.S. Eliot, “This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.”

With luck, the forced whimpering will pay off, the ghost-town will expel its unwanted visitation, and its living handed back for city and nation. But there’s no denying that these Draconian measures will leave an imprint and animate social, political, and medial debate for decades to come. As will Donald Trump’s decision to ban travel to to Europe’s core Schengen states, including Italy (he did not include the now “Brexited” Britain) from ostensibly imperiled American travelers who’d then, he insists, bring more of the malign spores to an America that should somehow rest above the likes of China, South Korea, and Italy.

In Italy, there are two discernible camps regarding the handling of the virus so far. One, which is the commanding view, numbers government and medical officials convinced that Italy must follow the Chinese model and all but freeze the country (China closed a large province) until virus numbers begin to recede. Otherwise, health systems in Italy and elsewhere risk collapse, undoing any kind of systematic care and producing drug shortages. This in turn could lead, at least theoretically, to millions of deaths. In this sense the suppression of as much public contact as possible is a critical part of any anti-virus strategy. It is a credible approach but also an extreme one, since the coronavirus strain does not of itself possess a killer instinct (unlike, say, Ebola, a viral hemorrhagic fever that is frequently and often swiftly lethal). Once again, the potential  for calamity drives both actions and reactions.

Italians are by nature a personable if poorly glued together people (north and south are two states) who everywhere tend to enjoy close and regular contact with family, friends, and acquaintances, at times entirely capable of embracing a car mechanic as a friend. Anglo-Saxon they are not. They also live mostly in apartment complexes where interaction is both constant and inevitable. This is not a nation of detached homes, but of many people crowded into a small peninsula. Fast-spreading illness, the present logic goes, can only be reined in by keeping clans and individuals from mingling with other clans and individuals, particularly in intimate community settings.

This effort to “mingle-proof” the country has led to the cancellation of thousands of incoming flights, shredded train travel, in the process all but eradicating pre-Easter tourism, which, seen in annual terms, is the country’s sole surefire means of generating large-scale domestic spending. What would be tourism glitch for Germany, or even Las Vegas, risks inviting financial ruin in poor-paying Italy.

Easter festivities at and around St. Peter’s, celebrations that went ahead on a reduced scale even during World War II, face suspension, with Pope Francis considering the prospect of telling the faithful to stay away from St. Peter’s Basilica and pray at a nearby church (many remain open). Since Italy hosts the capital of Christendom, one that for centuries endured both bad popes, malarial plagues, and exalts Christ-like suffering ahead of carnal risk, this would be an astonishing move. In medieval times, many pilgrims to St. Peter’s died in the slums around the basilica, victims of their own devotion.

Italian and European tour bus companies that normally ferry visitors through Rome and Italy have already fired hordes of drivers of many nationalities and face setbacks that might lead to closure.

At a more intimate level, many families holed up at home, bored, bewildered, and deeply nervous, have begun quarreling over the virus, with youth at times accusing their (healthy) elders of failing to understand the potential risk they might pose to the community by taking a walk around the block (on mostly empty residential streets). They might become infected and bring the virus home. Marriages are also at risk, since partners are now compelled to spend days at a time with their companions, a knot that usually loosened after marriage or when one or both adults are working.

These Draconian anti-virus measures will leave an imprint and animate social, political, and medial debate for decades to come.

These circumstances put all on edge in a way not seen since Rome was “open” but doubly occupied by Mussolini’s Fascists and Hitler’s Nazis, each capable of life-changing decision making at any time.

The genie that is fear has been shaken from its bottle and has so far contaminated at a greater rate than the virus itself.

The other camp, less vocal but present, considers the government’s response as an over-reaction fueled by media frenzy and the worry that not doing enough, or not demonstrating a war-like response could leave the existing leadership on the wrong side of historical revisionism (consider how the word “appeasement” was used against those who doubted the merits of invading Iraq).

Germany’s Angela Merkel was for a time on this cooler side,refusing to follow the lead of Italy, France, and others in closing schools. Germany has so far registered a low number of cases. Her resistance, while it lasted, was in part informed by Adolf Hitler’s successful manipulation of 1930s economic panic to further Nazi aims.That said, the European Union’s leadership role in the crisis has been nil, thus confirming the pathetic truth that the EU has no executive leadership, not at least in times of crisis, with nations left to handle the emergency on a state-by-state basis as if no collective body even existed. The EU’s future after the crisis passes is more than ever open to question.

Medical observers point out that the virus, its pandemic status aside, is in essence an aggressive flu that preys on the old and the infirm. At the same time, some who test positive never develop viral symptoms. The number of contaminated on a global scale skews European realities, since most of the sick and most of those who have died are in China. Relative to Europe’s overall population, and Italy’s, the outbreak is limited. It is its potential, not its loud-mouthed reality, that frightens authorities.

They note that news reports have made little mention of positive tests that have failed to result in illness, or China;s  contention that of 80,000 people infected early on, 58,00 were discharged after receiving successful oral antibiotic treatment for respiratory infections.Even the World Health Organization, which has repeatedly outlined the risks posed by the virus, has noted that mild cases usually last approximately two weeks while more serious cases can last up to two months. It has steadfastly refused to refer to the virus as lethal, instead repeating that the elderly and the already ill are most at risk. This failure to include this more rational, less incendiary side has led many to believe the coronavirus is almighty, much like HIV in its early phase.

Yet there is no cure for dread once unleashed, and no standing in the way of actions allegedly taken in the “public interest,” even if the public has no say in the decisions themselves.

At what point, ask critically minded observers, does deterrence become its own worst enemy, frightening the many and forcing businesses to shut down in a country burdened by extreme national debt and unemployment? At what juncture does decision-making that shatters the mental health of a nation and provoke a secondary outbreak, one of perpetual anxiety and low-boil hysteria, begin to equal, if not surpass, the peril posed by a virus that in most cases is not lethal?

This list goes on.

There is no knowing yet when Rome residents will get their city back.

When, for example, does the following of executive decrees become an unquestioned public mission with dissenters (those who refuse to wear masks in public, say) labeled as medically irresponsible, their acts legally punishable in the spirit of health treason?

Some of these questions are variations on those posed in the post-Patriot Act United States beginning after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, two years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Those attacks were followed by wholesale deference to executive authority that began to fray when no Weapons of Mass Destruction were discovered in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. It soon became clear that the American leadership, with the complicity of a credulous media, had manipulated or exaggerated information to create a credible pretext for that war.

In Italy, the more conspiratorially minded (a plentiful bunch) already nurture suspicions the virus might be a high-level “plant” introduced by arcane players known here as loro, or “them,” intent on destabilizing the global commercial order to kindle dramatic friction and perhaps even provoke war — which these theorists consider a historically cathartic mechanism the planet cannot, or should not, do without.

Such thinking dramatically portrays the virus as an instrument in the hands of latter-day Borgias intent on using disease fears to push collective distress levels to the breaking point and beyond. If only these living room pundits had any idea who might profit from such a tormented strategy, but they do not.

The most salient debate, however, revolves around the psychological consequences of major and minor hysteria, and how the repetitive harping on unsettling information can disrupt long-term mental health. Taking away social diversions such as culture and sports, conferences and spontaneous gatherings, while cooping up the already edgy, is a recipe for a state of permanent panic that can produce more psychological casualties than any virus. Since self-preservation is a basic human imperative, dwelling on menace (as after 9/11) can drive people mad. Harping on peril pushes humans into a mortal corner religion’s elixirs once soothed, or tried to. But Western spirituality is in decline, giving external crisis nowhere to nest but in the recesses of worry and self-doubt. In that sense, the lock-in strategy has a morally and mentally self-destructive side, which few address with sufficient vigor.

The 70-year reign of world war-less existence makes it all the harder to accept some problems have no immediate solutions, and that some people will die. The denial of this prospect, once seen as part of the ebb and flow of life itself, is at the core of modern-age panic. Fatalism, a key philosophical policeman over millennia, has been erased from common sense thinking. A cure must exist. Something must be done. People should not have to become sick and die, and never children. And so it is that enlightened leaders now seek refuge in extreme reactions — once the dwelling place of the word “reactionary,” which was applied to those who resisted progress.

Taking a Trevi Fountain selfie, with literally just one self.

The matter of panic abuts that of censorship, created in part to avert panic. It has for decades been a dirty word, and social media has tainted it further still.

It is nonetheless worth noting that that dirty word played a critical role during wartime, when the maintenance of public morale was essential. Imagine video-cams during the 1944 Normandy landings at Omaha Beach, where thousands were mowed down in shallow water before even taking a waterlogged step. Both military and public morale might well have withered if confronted with such graphic reality. Instead, detailed (and censored) reports emerged only after a beachhead was established, and the high cost of the success released in doses.

The year before, in the Pacific, more than 3,500 U.S, troops were slaughtered while trying to land on the island of Tarawa, most of them killed by the dozens over a 7o-hour stretch. The operation was hailed by American newspapers and radio as a major breakthrough and the death toll once again held back to “limit the contagion of grief,” according to the U.S. Navy (history contains countless more examples).

Such manipulations would be pilloried today, but at the time they served their horror-limiting purpose. No such mechanism exists today, though humans are just as vulnerable to reversals and prone to panic if their controlled routines appear to be coming undone.

This allows the free-speech protected advertising of constant menace to create an epidemic-sized pathology the American novelist Ted Mooney once labeled “information sickness,” in essence an undeclared World War III fueled by personal, social, and financial reversal and played out unrecognized without a shot being fired.

Conspiracy theories and “information sickness” aside, many of the doubts put forward by skeptics are valid, though they are nearly impossible to debate in a climate as defensive as the one that permeates Italy today (and will soon take hold through the United States).

As mentioned, a contagion is part medical emergency and part psychosis. The strict following lock-in decrees can come to resemble kowtowing before the orders of a dictator who pledges, if saluted, to restore broken tranquility, a reassurance to which even doubters can pledge allegiance, if only briefly.

Rome’s isolation comes with its share of intriguing slivers.

The head of Doctors Without Borders recently sent a colleague of mine, the former head of Italian state television, a text message expressing his solidarity toward both my friend and Italy, as if both had been singled out for humiliation.

My colleague, a thinking man, was flabbergasted, disrobed by the sense of panic in the message. He and others are concerned that France might follow Italy’s drastic lead, then Germany, cancelling out what little is left of European Union solidarity. The EU in fact has slipped into a virus-induced coma, which Trump exploited to issue his travel ban.

For now, few Italians equate their government with its repressive Chinese counterpart, whose freedom to act decisively reflected a regime that possesses unilateral power. But if the crisis continues, and the shut-downs persist, such comparisons will become difficult to avoid. Forcing citizens out of their most basic rhythms and all but killing tourism for a season comes with a potential for backlash, particularly as commercial funds begin to dry out. Italy has said it will pump billions of euros into its own economy to offset losses, but few know just where that money will come from, or when exactly it will arrive. The highly seismic country has a painful history of never-delivered post-earthquake funding, with some major damage caused by quakes in Sicily (1968) and Naples (1980) still unrepaired.

This legacy, and others like it, leave Italy vulnerable to waves of bitterness once the crisis subsides.

But today is today and not yet tomorrow, and for now bitterness is nowhere to be found on Rome’s streets, mostly because they are empty. It is in some ways the calm before a pending storm that will mention the virus only incidentally.

Today’s Rome is a city of empty tourist venues, tolerable if not quite lovely in March, but not likely to remain so tolerable if the emptiness, as expected, runs through the tourist high season, which, along with staple exports, generates some 40 percent of Italy’s GDP.

If the virus persists, and the stillness with it, not for one month but four or even six?

No nation in Europe (and few on the planet) rely so heavily on the comfort of visitors, whose focus has never been (also sealed-off) Milan, but Rome.

Is it time, as Donald Trump insists, to build walls and vacuum pack whole nations?

What happens to those of the tourism industry workers on the Amalfi Coast whose annual income comes between May and September? Once again, there is no convincing reply, but Neapolitans, watching Rome deal with dire straits, are already grumbling that the price they will pay is high, too high. So far, the virus has hardly grazed Italy’s southern limbs.

But the northern food industry, already reeling for more than a month, is showing signs of strain. Supermarket staples such as pasta and Parmesan, Mozzarella and fresh bread, are in short supply unless you shop early. An afternoon shopping trip may leave buyers without access to their staples.

Italy’s culturally fundamental system of (coffee) bars is at an unprecedented standstill.

In the past, periods of martial law and curfews have normally been associated with coups or ideological upheavals, most situated in “chaotic” South American or African countries, the latter allegedly referred to by Trump as “shitholes.” These were the incubators of “foul” immigrants and lurid disease, part of European resistance to waves of African and Middle Eastern migrants.

That Europe’s tables have been turned upon itself places considerable strain on notions of superiority, since it was the continent’s links to China, Italy’s in particular, that gave the virus a western beachhead. Is it time, as Trump insists, to build walls and vacuum pack whole nations, restricting travel and exalting homeland tourism, or is global commerce too much a staple of 21st-century affluence to capitulate to a rogue virus?

Probably the latter, though the internet hosts dozens of speakers convinced today’s events are part of a natural cull, the extension of an overheated planet attempting to redefine how humans manage it.

There’s also the matter of panic’s “address,” namely a sense that people are living longer, even when ill, overcrowding a West that simply can’t take it anymore.

In the past, hysteria of this kind was exorcised through world war, with the chosen defeating the pretender at high cost in what amounted to rebalancing. After which came a period of collective remorse and regret at the folly just enacted, with pledges not to repeat it. No great conflict is any longer possible, Nazis, Communists, and Islamists vanquished, allowing for virus trepidation to fill war’s shoes, a surrogate of sorts to do what only war could do before: bring a big city to standstill. We cannot fight, but look — we can still be made to feel paralyzed, limited, held in check, called upon to stay home until the enemy is stopped.

Latent hostility is a guest in such times.

Case in point: in a Rome supermarket line outside of the store itself, a man without a mask gets too close to a man with one, leading to mutual accusations and police intervention. The scene has much in common with U.S. motorists brawling over positioning while waiting in long fuel lines during oil-embargo 1970s. Under duress, cosmetic civility frays.

The psychological components of an outbreak and the role-playing power games it induces among the fearful will be fertile territory for future historians and students of both mass psychology and cultural anthropology, assuming either are still in vogue after the “plague” expires.

There is, finally, the matter of security, a word at the connected, gurgling core of all 21st-century Western life, though the word is more shrill, threatening, and fraught with malaise than at any previous time in human history. Ask Romans what they want and they say security from the virus, as once others said security from terrorist attacks. All they seek is a return to the “before,” they insist. The virus can kill, they add. “If it takes staying off the streets for a few weeks, that is what we will do.” That of course assumes a few weeks will be enough. If not, the mood will change.

But in this life-curtailing wait for the “before” to return — a wait conditioned by a wildly disproportionate response to what is ultimately a very aggressive flu — few consider, or choose to consider, that they may be unwitting accomplices in the making of a more phobia-friendly if not locked-in future.

— This essay was completed on March 13, 2020.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.