I must admit, I’m quite surprised that Italy has become the banner-nation for the Coronavirus (for better or for worse) over the past few weeks. Since early March, Italians have been viewed on this side of the pond as an example of how to stay positive during a crisis (are the Chinese any less motivated to persist in the face of adversity? Where are the Chinese flags hanging off balconies, the rainbows saying “All will go well” in Mandarin or Cantonese going viral on Instagram?). Yet, they, like the Chinese before them, have also become victims of a number of racist attacks and common-place, misguided utterances by both their European neighbours and North Americans who, previous to COVID-19, so admired their lifestyle. I am not a scientist. I don’t want to muse on the medical reasons why an infection this damaging has found the Italian people so ideal for its propagation. I will leave that to the experts. But I did want to realign a few myths I’ve heard going around about the Italian people, their habits, and their culture.
“Italy’s healthcare system is sub-par. It’s failing its people.”
Mostly myth. Consider: Italy is only 1/5 the size of Quebec. Yet its population is twice Canada’s. That’s 60 million people in a surface area a fraction of the size of my home province. There is only so much room to build hospitals, and only so many places to put them in a landscape that includes seaside (and its related industries), mountains, and commercially-productive farmland. Let’s take Florence, for example. It houses 18 hospitals or case di cura, 8 of them public, for its 383,000 inhabitants. Montreal has less than double that amount (32 hospitals) for its 1.8 million inhabitants — almost five times Florence’s population. And at 431.5 squared kilometres, Montreal is roughly four times the area of Florence (102.4 squared kilometres). Italians take healthcare very seriously. A number of the most qualified medical experts have come out of Italy in the past fifty years especially. Plus, Italy’s healthcare system has recently been ranked among the best in the world (don’t take my word for it). I had my thyroid removed in Italy, making use of both public and private facilities made available to me. I gave birth to my son in Italy using only the public network of providers (which offers free services to all expectant mothers). Though the system is not by any means perfect, it is fair and accessible to all. Anyone with a residency permit or visa and a tessera sanitaria can access Italy’s healthcare options, no questions asked. Family doctors and pediatricians in the public sector have offices all across the city, not just in specialised hospitals, making them easy to access for all. My pediatrician’s office was exactly 300 metres from where I lived. I could walk there, wearing my newborn son, in five minutes, and not have to worry about long lines or crowded waiting rooms, even in the case of emergencies. What Italy is facing now is a proliferation of ill people who both live in urban areas and are being shuttled into them from rural areas, where hospital facilities may be limited or overburdened. It is dealing with its older population – larger than in most industrialized countries – more susceptible to the disease and falling victim to it. Considering the level of the crisis they have had to deal with, what we should all be saying of healthcare there is, “Chapeau, Italie.”
“Italians never wash their hands.”
Myth (Come on. Really?). I didn’t know this was a common stereotype of Italians until a student pointed it out to me, and boy, was I shocked to learn of it! If anything, I have always associated Italians with a preoccupation with over-cleanliness: hosts wiping down every surface meticulously in preparation for guests, mothers urging their children not to sweat, or to wipe their faces assiduously as they eat, teachers herding students to the washroom before lunchtime to wash their hands. I was once told to mind my gelato lest it drip onto my dress and “dirty it” (to which my response was: if I dirty my dress, I’ll wash it). In the five years I lived in Italy, never once did I witness any lack of basic or proper hygiene. If anything, I often felt disheveled in comparison to my Italian peers, always perfectly coiffed and fresh from the hair stylist/aesthetician/nail salon. Italians are clean. They’ll tell you themselves: they are the only country in the world that uniformly uses the bidet!
“This is spreading in Italy because Italians like physical contact.“
Mostly fact. Though, again, I do not want to expostulate on the science behind the diffusion of Coronavirus in Italy, it is true that Italians like physical contact. They like to be close to each other. Italians greet with kisses and, in the case of close friends, hugs. They touch each other on the shoulders, arms, face, back. It’s part of a body language that is hard-wired into their DNA. Their fondness for physical contact goes hand in hand (a rough time even for concepts to be hand-holding) with their fondness for physical proximity, itself conditioned by the physical spaces they inhabit. The average public piazza is a fraction of the size of the Quartier des spectacles, for example, but much more active. Limited space means city-dwellers have had to be physically close to each other for centuries. They have made a habit and a preference out of it.
“Italians lack discipline. They just won’t stay home.“
Slippery. One student told me she wasn’t surprised by the outbreak in Italy, because Italians “are not a resistant people. They simply don’t follow orders. They can’t self-isolate when instructed to.” At first, I chose not to answer her. When I saw her a week later, I explained that it wasn’t that simple. Firstly, many Italians, especially of my generation, fully understand the gravity of the situation at hand and have been actively encouraging their peers, parents, and grandparents to stay home and self-isolate. Those who have been reticent to self-isolate usually fall within the (large) subset of the population who are slow to alarm (this, too, is a cultural thing). It’s not a question of discipline or disregard for “the rules.” It’s so much more complicated than that. Being out and about is, for Italians, as much part of the national fabric as their world-renowned cuisine, the Renaissance art that surrounds them, the opera that continues to be performed in public opera houses and open-air events in the summer months. They are not used to winters that last five months, as Canadians are. They don’t have big backyards with barbecues and swimming pools and swingsets. They go to parks or public facilities for those. Most urban dwellings are single-floor flats in condominiums (even those with three or four bedrooms) divided into two distinct zones: the zona giorno (day zone), comprised of the kitchen and living room, and the zona notte (night zone), comprised of the bedrooms. Italians spend little time at home compared to North Americans. The relationship between outdoor and indoor spaces is much more dynamic than it is here. The average Italian will leave home in the morning to go to school or work, come back home for lunch, leave again for the afternoon shift, then perhaps prolong their stay outside with an aperitivo or having dinner with friends. If they do go home right away, they are very likely to go out again after supper, even just for a walk or to get some ice cream. They return home to sleep. Houses are viewed as living things whose very defintion is determined by their relationship with the outdoors. Ask any Italian. They’ll tell you that you need to open your windows regularly, even in the winter months, to let the air circulate, to let the walls breathe, or they’ll absorb dampness and rot. There is a constant bringing the outdoors inside. A constant interplay between outside and inside less common in North America. It’s easier to make plans with friends, even at the last minute, so people do so, taking full advantage of the short distances between themselves and their loved ones and the country’s mild climate. Asking Italians to stay home is a big ask. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t, or that it’s impossible for them to do so. And that’s certainly not to condone the many and continued obstructions to the current government lock-down. But we should realise that it’s not that simple, and that what we view as the basic tenets of daily existence (work – home – dinner – Netflix – bed) doesn’t resonante with all cultures.
“Italians are menefreghisti.“
Slippery. Menefreghismo, loosely translated, is “not caring [about anything],” least of all others. Some have viewed Italians’ insistence at defying recent public policy as proof positive of their lack of civil concern, of their disinterest in the public well-being. Let me tell you. I’ve got lots to say here, but I will try to limit myself to a few key points. Italians’ impegno civico (civil engagement) is something I teach, both in the context of contemporary Italy and as it regards to the tradition more generally. It has existed since long before a unified Italy has, and is traceable at least to the medieval texts I work with. Italians are a fiercely publically-engaged people. Their partigiani (civic uprising and resistance against fascism during the Second World War), even when disorganized and unsuccessful, had a big hand in ending Nazi occupation in Italy. Italians have gone through two world wars in a way North Americans truly cannot understand. They have had their liberties revoked, then returned by the sweat of their own brow. They lived through a dictatorship that censored their actions, words, and very thoughts. Of course they shudder when these freedoms, the ones for which they repeatedly have had to fight, are taken away from them without their consent or full understanding. In recent decades, various Italian governments have responded to perceived threats on liberty by allowing the Italian people more individual freedoms: the freedom to delegate a bureaucratic endeavor to another person, the freedom to work independently. But alongside these freedoms are personal responsibilities, that “entitle” Italians to do as they please. A “delega”, signed by the “sottoscritto” (undersigned) is often enough to get you out of a certain situation. But it also means you have to assume all of the responsibility for your decision, should things go wrong. There is no hand-holding in Italy. Siete grandi, grossi e vaccinati. Se volete rischiare, a voi la responsabilità di ciò che può succedere. In essence, this attitude, which intends to have citizens become more self-reliant for their happiness and success, ultimately cultivates a sort of deep mistrust in the government and a self-interest that seems at odd with the greater good. “I’m looking out for #1, because no one else will.” There has been a severe lack of faith in the Italian government for decades (at least), which no prime minister has seemed able to crack since the seventies and early eighties. Even amidst COVID-19, only Italians with “autocertificazioni” (self-certified guarantees of wellness and personal risk) are being allowed to circulate outside. But if everyone (or almost) has the ability to self-certify, what good is a public policy? How can you get Italians to be more “community-minded” when they are being encouraged only to take responsibility for their own contamination? There is a much bigger problem here. It goes well beyond menefreghismo. Plus, to say Italians are not community-minded flies directly in the face of the praise they have been receiving in recent days for the solidarity they have shown, even from their windows: the early morning flashmob performance on balconies and terraces, the people singing a popular folk-song in chorus in Siena, the online fundraisers being organized daily. Italians care about each other deeply. But they have also been conditioned to care about and take responsibility for themselves first.
FAQ: So how are Italians reacting to this crisis?
In a number of ways, as would be the case in any country. There are those who have been following public policy diligently, who have stocked up reasonably on provisions for the next month or so (without exaggerating on the toilet paper), and who have committed to being sedentary for the next little while. Just as there are those who continue to go about their routine largely undisrupted, those who insist on traveling even despite the current ban, those who have altered very little about their habits. There are those who have prepared for a zombie apocalypse, hoarding supplies it will take them a lifetime to use. There are those who think the Church has all the answers, and have resumed going to mass, holding hands and singing in unison, taking communion from the same cup. Mostly, people are either proactive or angry or a mixture of both. Angry at having to stay home. Angry that the situation has gotten out of hand. Angry that the whole country is being made “to suffer” for the transgressions of the incautious few. Angry that even in zones largely untouched so far, draconian measures have been put in place to protect the Italian people. Angry that this type of protection is very different from the kind they would have provided themselves. Angry that the world has seemingly turned its back on and closed its borders to them. Angry that many will lose their jobs, that their finances will take a big hit, that they will need to adjust their spending in years to come. Angry that people are dying. Angry that “unworthy” people are living.
But also grateful for the assistance and support the country has received so far. Hopeful that this, too, shall pass. Reflective on what it means to be a good citizen every day, not just in times of crisis. Eager to note l’ironia della sorte: for years, many Italians have crusaded against immigrants and advocated for port and border closures. Now Italians are the ones who are being kept out, sent back home, contained. Anti-vaxxers are getting a taste of what the world would look like without vaccines, many are saying. These ironies are not lost on young Italians, who, even in quarantine, work daily to promote a widespread culture of acceptance, information and support.
So in other words, tutto il mondo è paese. Italians are reacting as any people would.
FAQ: What’s in store for Italy?
I am not a prophet, political scientist, or financial analyst. But I think it’s safe to say that once this all blows over, Italy is in line for a lot of big changes. It will take a while for the GDP to recover and for people to feel comfortable spending again. I think the government is likely to dispense larger family bonuses or bigger incentives to procreate following the considerable decimation of its population. I think the tourism industry will be hit hard and will need to respond with a different offer. But I know that the Italian people will resist, as they always have, and will come through to the other side of the rainbow saying, “È andato tutto bene.”