letter from italy

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Luan Remigio*

Report by a Brazilian student in Lecce, in southern Italy, on local daily life during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the last few days I have rehearsed the beginning of this letter several times, I already had it clear what I wanted to say. In fact, since I arrived in Lecce, in the south of Italy, I've been thinking about writing something that could help those who, by any chance, had to do, like me, an internship or study here. However, what led me, once again, to want to write were recent events, especially those resulting from the global pandemic caused by Covid-19.

First of all, I would like to say that the experience narrated here is far from being a report by someone from the Brazilian middle class, quite the contrary: I come from a humble family in the interior of Pará, which saw studying as the only way to overcome adversities, a teaching that I try to pass on to my students. It is not an apology for meritocracy, as I do not believe in this fallacy. I learned this from life, and daily I see it being refuted. Unfortunately, the urgency of this report is due to the fact that the virus has arrived in Brazil, in Pará, and, we must not forget, the disastrous statements of the current president and the way in which he leads the country in the face of the virus is only imaginable in dystopian works by Science fiction.

When the first cases began to be recorded in Italy at the end of January, I had a question: is the disease really that serious? There were already loads of cases of deaths and contagions in China, but the way the authorities looked at the situation raised the hypothesis of “hysteria”, of excessive concern; it seemed an easily resolvable question, such was the petulance. At airports, from what I could see on the news, I saw some people in security clothes with a kind of thermometer, in the form of a pistol, checking the temperature of those who arrived. I am not expert in matters related to health (I am from philosophy and I do not save lives, as the Minister of Education said), but I know that the virus has an incubation period and it may take time for symptoms to manifest.

A brief clarification is in order here. Like Brazil, Italy is not a homogeneous country (I imagine it is not exclusive to both). In Brazil, the south and southeast concentrate financial and cultural activities, more jobs and, of course, the financial capital of the country, better infrastructure, better hospitals and the north would be, roughly speaking, the opposite. In Italy, things are different, the south is considered less developed and people are more receptive, more “warm”, it's like the Brazil I'm used to.

A few days later, mid-February, things started to get complicated, especially in northern Italy. The first measure to suspend teaching activities at universities and schools had a first impact, although restricted to some northern regions, such as Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy, which are still the most affected areas; then all activities on university premises; the northern regions were considered a “red zone” and the possibility, information leaked and later confirmed, of closing the regions and the need for convincing reasons (duly filled out form, with sanctions – fine and even imprisonment – ​​for those who provide false information) to get around in the national territory triggered a rush to train stations, buses and airports.

The trains were crowded. When sanctions became tougher, people questioned themselves about salary, jobs, they thought it was just another “little flu” (sic); “soon we will create antibodies”; “we have to avoid people who are in the risk group” (vertical isolation). The initial lack of seriousness on the part of the government in dealing with the virus echoed in citizens, making it difficult to fight the pandemic until today. Classes and commercial activities continued normally in Lecce. It would not take long for the virus to reach the South.

Thus, under normal conditions, the exodus of people towards the north of Italy in search of better jobs and wages (another coincidence with Brazil), but who maintain their “roots” in the south, are frequently revisited; the “descent” of young people from the north and central regions towards universities in the south; in addition to “Erasmus”, the European university exchange program. In the streets of Lecce, it was common to see students with their backpacks and suitcases moving around the city, arriving from neighboring cities, from other regions, towards their residences, most of the time, shared. But, once I thought: “this government measure will not be of any use; why not suspend classes here too?”. More or less two weeks after the start of the school term, the suspension of all face-to-face teaching activities was decreed, replaced by classes via the internet; Initially, the university's facilities, such as libraries, study rooms and other administrative services, would function normally, as soon as this was changed.

At the same time, the death toll increased considerably and the population began to take the measures more seriously. The government determined a series of procedures with the aim of restricting the movement of people on the streets. “Homework” was also recommended for those who can carry out this type of work. In the beginning, bars (a bar for Italians is something different, we find coffee and some quick snacks like pizza, pastries, snacks, cigarettes, water) and restaurants could still function, as long as the distance was respected. meter safety.

As this rule did not have an effect, radicalization was carried out and only establishments considered of prime necessity could open: supermarkets, gas stations, edicolas pharmacies (place where it is possible to buy a variety of things, mainly newspapers, magazines, books) and tobacconists ( as its name suggests, a place that also sells cigarettes, tobacco, “silk”; it also serves as a “lottery”, where we can pay bills, place bets, buy postage stamps).

Several measures were adopted to try to soften the effects of the economic impact on the country: aid to companies and self-employed people, for example. The State providing security for the population. Even though it is difficult and suffering criticism, the Italian government is trying (I don't have enough knowledge to address the issues of Italian internal politics).

Supermarkets continue to be stocked, although some items are more difficult to find: cleaning materials such as bleach run out quickly; due to the change in habits, people are consuming more “yeast”, as they are eating and cooking more at home, since they cannot go out for the famous “aperitivo” (kind of Happy hour). Only one family member is asked to go shopping at the supermarket.

I don't remember if in Milan or Rome, some establishments stipulated a minimum limit of 10 euros for shopping, as some were using the justification of shopping to leave the house. Just like joggers or cyclists: friends set a time and place to meet dressed in character and carrying their bikes. This has led to the closure of parks and beaches. Those who have pets can take them for a walk, as long as they stay within the vicinity of their residence and do not try to relive the adventures of Will Smith in “I am legend”, as an Italian ruler said.

During TV programming, we see bulletins about the situation of the virus (numbers of cases, cured and dead), appeals in the programs for the population with the campaign: “I stay at home” [I stay at home]. Reinforced warning on social networks, especially on Instagram, where Italian personalities make daily live broadcasts encouraging the campaign and the importance of staying at home: musicians, sportsmen, writers, broadcasters, actresses, actors, etc. In pharmacies, you haven't found masks or even gel alcohol for some time – in the pharmacy around the corner from my house you can read: “We don't have masks or gel alcohol. Two customers at a time”.

In the middle of all these events is Myrth and I: she in the north, in Parma, I in the south, in Lecce. Our routines were drastically modified with the quarantine and our research suffers in some way from this, especially Myrth's, which needs the laboratory.

The decision to come and study for a season in Italy was not an easy one, we gave up some things so that we could be here together. The distance was something that we minimized at first, we thought first of all about the professional: she had to stay in Parma, for institutional reasons; I could have tried other universities and other supervisors, but the opportunity to develop part of my research under the guidance of Professor Marco Brusotti had a decisive influence on my choice (thanks to my master's supervisor, Ernani Chaves, and doctorate, Henry Burnett) .

In fact, as long as “normality” persisted in our lives, everything was fine; the distance was manageable, we managed to see each other regularly; In the work environment, we began to blend in. “Being part of the place” is not easy, even more so when the language is different. In every language course I took, I heard that when you learn a new language, you also learn a new culture. “Culture” is such a vast concept that I only realized it when I was inserted in a different one.

Words carry with them meanings that also determine the way of feeling; little by little I am learning a new culture, new words and, perhaps, new feelings. But, it is a well-known word that embraces what I feel today: nostalgia. Missing the woman I love, my home, my family in Brazil, my friends. My routine basically boils down to trying to develop my research, reading things different from philosophy, maintaining a reasonable diet, containing anxiety, exercising, following the news.

The great adventure and great danger is going shopping. It was on one of these trips that I realized the seriousness of the situation. When walking towards the supermarket closest to my house, there were very few people on the street and, when crossing someone, both repelled each other and sought the end of the sidewalk. In this supermarket, there were still no checks at the entrance, but there was a large number of people wearing masks. As I hadn't found one, I went with my “scaldacollo” (something used to warm the neck) just in case and I would climb it if I needed to.

While I was selecting some items and the people inside the supermarket were respecting the safety distance, I had to enter an aisle where there was a middle-aged man; I headed towards the end of the corridor passing the man who was in the center of the length of the corridor. It took a little while for a lady, who looked to be in her 60s, entered the same hallway and, standing between the two of us, coughed. At this moment, we both exchange looks of puzzlement and fear; the lady seemed calm, we didn't. It was then that the man covered his face with his scarf, I lifted the “scaldacollo” and we left the corridor while the lady stammered a few words, which I didn't try to understand, but seemed to want to justify her cough.

The next day, I went out again, determined to make purchases that lasted more than 5 days. Heading to a more distant market in the company of Antônio, one of the three guys I share an apartment with, I found the scene seen on TV: people waiting for their turn to enter the supermarket with a password, which prevented Professor Brusotti from entering and whom I greeted from afar, as a precaution.

Day after day I felt the gravity of the situation even more. Until the fulminating coup on March 21, with 793 dead in Bergamo. The image of army trucks ready to transport bodies without space in their hometown is one of the sensations that escape words.

In Lecce I met Alessandro, a doctoral student in philosophy who lives near Bergamo. We felt comfortable with each other because we were “new” in town and made frequent visits to “gelateries” and “pasticcerias” together, until he left for his city. We exchanged a few messages, but then he disappeared. He had said that he was busy and would call me later to explain how things were going, as he was preparing a presentation for March 2nd. This was before Covid-19.

That day I decided to send a message and the response was very sad, which confirmed the veracity of the news: it was not possible for the families to mourn the bodies, there was no room for the bodies, which were kept in a kind of shed waiting for the trucks. Alessandro contracted the virus while helping his uncle, who unfortunately did not resist. As now, in front of the computer, I lacked the words to express what I felt. Alessandro is a nice guy, I hope his plans to go to Brazil one day come true.

This extensive account still has no conclusion in time. But what I have seen and experienced in recent days makes me very concerned: the disregard of the highest authority of my country's executive. His statements are, to say the least, disastrous. The government could have studied ways to face the pandemic according to the experiences of other countries and not minimize the seriousness of the situation or repeat mistakes made by others, when they were unaware of the virus – there is still no substance capable of treating it in a safe and satisfactory way; sequelae are unknown.

This is the point. You don't need to be an expert to come to that conclusion. The economic consequences are still difficult to calculate, but the “market” (this abstract entity) is not concerned with lives, even more so with “unproductive” ones. The possibility of the USA injecting 2 trillion into the economy made the American stock market reach a record high, even in the midst of the pandemic. The market wants guarantees, no matter the cost – 5 or 7 thousand lives, what's the difference?

Italy was negligent with the virus at the beginning, like much of Europe, and is paying the price now, raising the debate about adopting measures that sound, at least to the western ear, totalitarian: to keep an eye on everyone as China and Korea did (do) of the South by means of cameras and GPS (George Orwell, 1984; Allan Moore, v for Vendetta). There is talk of the “good” use of surveillance technology, I don't believe it On the same day, the president of Brazil speaks of possible “attacks on democracy”, launched by the “extreme media” (an expression that I still don't understand) and leftist parties.

It's hard to tell the Brazilian to stay at home. But for those who can, do it!

*Luan José Silva Remigio He is a professor at Seduc-PA, a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Unifesp and an exchange student at the Universidad del Salento, Lecce, Italy.

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