Living in Rome in the Time of Coronavirus

Published in: The Shillong Times

By Phrang Roy

As I sit here writing this piece, the western sun is slowly dipping into my study reminding me that the sunset would soon bring with it the wonder, magic and romance of an evening in this  magnificent city of Rome. At  sunset, residents and tourists alike typically  go for an evening passeggiata (stroll) to admire the timeless Roman fountains, rub shoulders with young people buying their favourite gelato (ice creams), or simply to watch young lovers walking hand in hand.

My wife Anita  and I enjoy these outings as part of our daily life  in Rome. We often meet friends for an aperitivo – a before-dinner glass of wine with some fresh appetisers. This is a place where the young and old come for  an evening break and to greet each other with hugs and kisses. Every morning, our ritual is to go to our neighbourhood bakery for a cappuccino or caffémacchiato with a cornetto (croissant). We generally sit for an hour or so chatting with friends. Life in Rome is undoubtedly  sweet –la dolce vita, as the Italians  say.

And then, just like that, the coronavirus invaded Northern Italy and brought one of Europe’s, and perhaps one of the world’s, best and most generous health systems to its knees. In an effort to slow down the spread of the virus, the Italian government locked down the country. Suddenly, hugs and kisses became taboo.Bars were closed, ending the morning cappuccino and evening aperitvo. Hundreds of the elderly died daily, without the dignity of a proper burial. Vulnerable  grandparents were kept away from their grandchildren, whom they would normally drop-off or pick up from school.

The lockdown was implemented on March 10, 2020, and only pharmacies and grocery shops were allowed to function.Strict social distancing was enforced. Thankfully, all food stores are adequately stocked; there is no panic buying, and neighbourhood food markets are making home deliveries possible with a simple  phone call.

The number of deaths  in Italy has surpassed 10,000. Many European governments ignored the ferocity of Italy’s corona virus storm; they chose to believe that this was the result of an undisciplined country, rather than the reality that the virus was highly contagious. 

Yet, amidst this  gloom Italians across the country put up signs everywhere: ANDRÀ TUTTO BENE, ‘Everything Will Be Alright.’ Italians are often stereotyped as  emotional, unruly, and chaotic, but many  have meticulously followed the lockdown procedures and are sticking to social distancing—for extra precaution most are wearing face masks and latex gloves. For a people who are proud of their lifestyle and family-oriented culture,forgoing hugs and kisses, as well as social activities, are acts of solidarity with the elderly .They have also kept up  each other’s spirits with heart-warming innovations such as a virtual aperitivo through WhatsApp and clapping, choral singing, and impromptu musical shows on balconies have gone viral across the world.

The Italians are particular about their primary well-being and personal hygiene. They go out every morning for coffee at their favourite bar dressed immaculately. Even  grandmothers will not miss their weekly visit to their hairstylist. Elderly Italians still ride their scooters, drive their small cars, cheer their favourite football teams, and some still search for romantic trysts. Several studies have shown that it is this way of life (coupled with their famous Mediterranean diet)that has led Italy to have the highest percentage of people living beyond the age of 80 in the western hemisphere. Italy is a society where the old and young intermingle. Unfortunately, this habit has led to the more than 10,000 deaths of the nations’ elderly to the coronavirus within a period of less than 2 months. 

Italians have always philosophized and reflected on some of their historical tragedies. For example, children study Italian classics such Alessandro Manzoni’s, ‘The Betrothed,’ which provides the description and lessons of the 1630 plague that ravaged Milan.Learning that disasters occur but are overcome,instils a belief that Andrà Tutto Bene.

This does not, however, make the current coronavirus pandemic less grim. A mother of Anita’s former colleague circulated this heartfelt message:

 I’m writing because I feel the urgency to protect my family, friends and communities from the devastating effect of COVID-19. As I write my husband is dying in a residence located a ninety-minute drive away from our home. The physical distance doesn’t really matter. He could be just a 3-minute walk away but neither I nor our children would be allowed to be with him. Coronavirus will deprive him of one of the most precious and wished for life rituals: the possibility of dying surrounded by your family and loved ones. I fear he will have a lonely death and I cry out in a desperate attempt to try and reach him. 

Coronavirus is cruelly stealing from me, second by second, minute by minute, the chance to be by his side, to hold his hand, to gently caress his face while soothing him with tender words of love as I say goodbye. Coronavirus means we cannot escort him, holding each other’s hand, on the last stretch of his final journey. What we did not expect was that the Coronavirus would so cruelly dictate the terms of his passing. There will be no funeral. No chance to meet as a family and hold each other, united in our grief and love for him. He will slip away unnoticed in an anonymous black car and we will begin grieving our loss in our own homes and in different countries” (Helen Hannick, Umbria, Italy).

This unprecedented crisis of our generation will be testing the very foundations of all health care systems, economies,  politics,  social and religious actions, and indeed our way of life. It is certainly time for global and local actions. It is also time for reflection.

Researchers in universities around the world and the United Nations are providing us with evidence that the destruction of the biodiversity around us is creating conditions for new viruses and diseases like the coronavirus to emerge. Disease ecologist Thomas Gillespie (of Emory University, Atlanta, USA) said: “I am not at all surprised about the coronavirus outbreak. The majority of pathogens are still to be discovered; we are at the very tip of the iceberg”. (The Guardian, UK 18th March 2020).

David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic, in a recent article in The New York Times wrote: ‘We disrupt eco-systems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it”.

We in North East India are wantonly destroying our biodiversity hotspots by road building in biodiversity rich areas, coal mining, plantation agriculture, bush meat hunting, logging and deforestation for charcoal burning. We are certainly “unleashing new terrors today”. These are the hidden and frightening costs of our economic development approach.A recent article in Shillong Times on agrobiodiversity written by NESFAS staff, Bhogtoram Mawroh and Bankerda Chyne, showed that Umsawar village has an extremely high number of food plants (280) of which 86 belong to other fruit plants. Yet this local centre of agrobiodiversity is scheduled to be submerged under the Myntdu Hydel Project, against the wishes of the local indigenous community, the keepers of this agrobiodiversity. Will the apocalyptic warning of the coronavirus now challenge the policies of our public authorities, or move social and Church groups to speak up against our discredited development approach?Will it now mainstream our neglected local food systems with all their wild edibles as NESFAS and its partners have been promoting?

NESFAS and its partners through the 2015 SHILLONG DECLARATION of the International Mei-Ramew, which was supported by 169 indigenous communities from 62 countries, urged “local governments to include the teaching of agrobiodiversity across food systems…”Perhaps it is time for action on this. To protect our children, and their children, from another pandemic let us:

 (a) take a hard look at all development initiatives such as infrastructure, dams, mining, plantation agriculture and deforestation, while keeping in mind the future we want.

(b) seriously consider agroecology solutions for assuring improved nutrition-sensitive production for all (Shillong Declaration 2015).

It is heartening to note that the Government of Meghalaya has promptly come up with monetary grants for the vulnerable sections of our society. Let us not forget the toiling self-employed youths and also the migrant workers. This is the time for community empowerment. As the Best-selling Author, Yuval Noah Harari wrote in a recent article published in London’s Financial Times on March 20, 2020: “A self-motivated and well-informed population is usually far more powerful and effective than a policed, ignorant population”. This is the time to promote solidarity and to build trust in each other and in our institutions for the well-being of all.  People need to trust science, public authorities and the credibility of the media for the progress of all.

(The author is Chairman, NESFAS who spends part of his time in Rome where he has held several international positions such as the Assistant President of IFAD and a former Member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food (IPES-Food)

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