My family is in lockdown in our isolated house in the countryside a mile from the sea outside Ravenna. It is amazing how easily the state can deprive citizens of liberty. Like everyone in Italy we have now been under virtual house arrest for a week and cannot leave home without a valid reason. The novelty of such a dramatic situation quickly gave way to ennui. Valid reasons for leaving home are: going to work, buying food or medicine, or seeing the doctor. Everyone must carry a completed form (downloaded from the Interior Ministry website) in which they declare the reason they are not at home. If stopped by one of Italy’s numerous types of police they must hand them this form. Mobile phone records are used to check whether people are telling the truth.
As of Tuesday, in addition to having a valid reason you must also declare that you do not have the virus. How on earth are we supposed to know? WhatsApp chat rooms are alive with people trying to work out what is and is not allowed. How many people can leave home to do the shopping for food, for example, and how often? Little is clear. A town near Bologna — 50 miles away — has just been cordoned off completely because it has such a high number of infected and dying people. Carla, my Italian wife, is suffering more than me as she is an ardent Catholic, and churches are closed and Mass has been cancelled until after Easter at the earliest. She communicates with our priest, Don Mauro, via text message.
The highlight of my day is driving to the supermarket in my seven-seater Land Rover Defender, armed with a completed form to show the police if I am stopped. I also have an impressive sign which says ‘PRESSE’ perched on the dashboard — that is, after all, what I am, is it not? The ambulances here have stopped using sirens, such is the lack of traffic. Before long, Italy will overtake China as the world capital of coronavirus deaths (two thirds of them so far in Lombardy). Boris Johnson said this week that he has used the Italian health service and regards it as ‘excellent’. I wholeheartedly agree. Last November I had an emergency bypass operation and remain in touch with the surgeon who saved my life. I emailed him yesterday. Ravenna so far has relatively few cases, he replied, but he and colleagues are ready to do battle in the next few days against the inevitable big wave that they hope will not be a tsunami. He also told me that Boris should stick to politics and stop talking dangerous rubbish about herd immunity.
A doctor in Bergamo, a city north-east of Milan, has estimated that 60 per cent of residents now have the virus. Death notices in its local paper, L’Eco di Bergamo, filled ten pages one day last week: the city’s mortuaries are now full and the dead are being stored in their coffins in the aisles of the church, awaiting conveyer belt burial or cremation, as funeral ceremonies are banned nationwide.
Just a month ago, there were only three recorded coronavirus cases in Italy. As of Tuesday, there were 31,506, of whom 2, 503 had died. That works out at nearly 8 per cent. It could mean that if two million Italians were to get this virus — roughly the number who catch flu each year — then 160, 000 would die.
The story of Italy, right now, is the story of death and darkness, but there are shafts of light which bring hope. Giovanni Maria, aged eight — our second youngest — has just come in from the garden brandishing his mud-caked tortoise, which has just woken up from hibernation. Giovanni had feared the worst, and who can blame him? ‘Look Papa!’ he says, ‘he’s alive!’ He gives his tortoise a kiss and hugs it tight. The tortoise is called Provvidenza. Evviva L’Italia!