It’s hard to remember the moment when we first began to worry. My partner was recovering from surgery as the first case surfaced in Codogno, so we were in the midst of our own medical drama as Italy’s began to unfold. It wasn’t a pandemic yet, just one case. The next day, it was thirty-six. We live in Turin, in the country’s north. Lombardy, the next province over, felt far away. We still thought they would contain it. We were dutiful in our use of the hand sanitiser dispensers as we paced the ward, but she’s on immune-suppressing medication, so we’re always careful.
Is it just the year I’m having, or do crises seem to overlap with greater frequency? A few months ago I was writing about Australia’s bushfires while standing knee-deep in the floodwaters in Venice. I recently joked with ABC RN that I was becoming the Book Show’s catastrophe correspondent. Maybe the world is like this now, a series of rolling emergencies without enough time between to measure meaning. Maybe that’s just what it feels like to live through a pandemic. It reminds me what it felt like to be broke.
Now the virus is arriving everywhere else, and the experience of its arrival—unlikely, incredible, then inexorable—repeats itself in local variations. Watching from Italy is like watching from one or two or three weeks into the future, unable to prevent the repetition of those first weeks’ mistakes. We’re all Cassandras here, fast learners. For you, the disaster has probably come preceded by the news of it, news by which you are, by now, already exhausted.
It’s hard to fit the events of the past month into a narrative. I have pages of fragments, images from the last few weeks, and I keep staring at them, struggling to put them in order. Even chronological order is difficult. Trauma creates dyschronia. It breaks our sense of the story, breaks memory, breaks the feeling of ordered progression from one event to the next. Dates are not just dates, but numbers: death tolls, infection rates, percentages, curves. I already tend to do maths when I’m anxious, so this mildly obsessive effort to keep count is a big part of my experience.
At the same time, the lockdown has flattened time; like Camus’ plague, this one is monotonous. The days shut in that we hoped might contain ‘free time’—open hours, ready to be filled with writing and reading and useful activity—are already overloaded with the labours of adaptation and emotion and care. They are full of love, music, and the voices of friends and family beamed in on video chats; and they are forgettable, empty-busy, tiring repetitions. It’s like Groundhog Day, except that Bill Murray gets to go outside.
I miss my daily walks in the park by the river with all my heart, but being in lockdown is the easy part. It’s an act of care, of remote care for other people. It is an act of solidarity with health care workers, with the elderly and vulnerable, with each other. It is a simple thing that we can all do to help slow the rate of transmission and prevent deaths, so we’re doing it. At first, in the flash mob days, it even felt mildly heroic.
Music appears at 6pm, around aperitivo time. It’s the same time the Protezione Civile makes its daily death toll announcements. Each evening, I stand on the terrace and listen out for signs of life while I refresh the screen. The sky changes. The mood changes too. There were days of sunshine, then a cold snap, the air a vacant white. There have been hopeful days, and days of horror. There was nationwide applause one day, dancing another. Someone played reggae, someone else an aria. Sometimes a young man opposite shyly practices his acoustic guitar. Once or twice I’ve carried out the bluetooth speakers and played a song about survival. Another time, I heard a group of women singing, their voices turning the corner, their bodies out of sight.
By day we hear sirens, the rumbling of the garbage collections, the rolling up and down of the corner supermarket’s shutters. A human voice, now and then. Coughing. Church bells. Seagulls, pigeons, crows. Blackbirds like to sing in the wakeful hours before dawn, and then go quiet until evening. The sirens never seem to go quiet for long.
A few times, a Protezione Civile vehicle with a loudspeaker has driven by to remind us to stay in our homes. The speakers aren’t great and the voice is decayed by the time it reaches us, so I can’t understand more than one word in ten. Everything arrives like this, with some degree of fragmentation. I feel distant from the world, and bound up in it anew.
One night after dinner I heard a voice repeating a familiar pattern. When I stood out on the terrace, I recognised the rosary. I knew the rhythm more than the words. It’s something I grew up hearing. Someone was broadcasting it over speakers, maybe as far away as the hills. Later I learned that the prayer was televised nationally, watched by more than four million Italians. I sometimes joke that the Pope is the only person in Italy who is enjoying this. He gets to go outside too.
Another time, the sirens came to a stop in the street below my flat. I can’t see over the edge of the terrace, so I held up my phone and photographed the world below, making a periscope out of my arm. I missed the moment when they took someone away, so I don’t know if they were still alive, or which building they came from. The woman opposite was watching too. She had one hand clutched to her chest, as if she had to hold her body together at the heart.
I wonder if I will remember all this as a story, or if it will just remain as a collection of tragic and comic and banal and extraordinary fragments. I want to believe that I am learning something important, that this experience will change the world, change us all forever. That everyone will come out of it with a clear understanding that public health is too important to cut, that people need a universal basic income, that childcare should always have been free, that inequality is murder, that the systems that are supposed to support us need to be urgently fixed.
I don’t know if we’ll have time to sift through these lessons before the next emergency washes over us, let alone apply them. For now, daily acts of measurement seem to matter, or at least to help. Taking notes, keeping records, keeping count, seeking meaning. The promise of order that an archive makes, as the images come to rest on one page, and the numbers on another.