• Letter From Rome: Dear Americans, Please Stay Inside

    An Appeal from Igiaba Scego

    Dear Americans,

    I’m very worried for you. My phone flashes as the number of coronavirus cases around the world goes up, and many of those are in the United States. Part of me feels as though I’m speaking to you from the future because what’s about to happen to you (starting now and stretching into the coming weeks) has already happened to us here in Italy.

    We were skeptical, too, at first. Many shrugged their shoulders and dismissed the virus as a “Chinese sickness” (revealing a fierce strain of racism against Italy’s Asian communities) or a “foreign disease.” I saw people going easily about their lives, drinking their aperitifs and stepping calmly onto impossibly packed trams. I was one of them. Fear hadn’t yet enveloped our country. Daily routines went on like undisturbed rivers and we all kept filling our calendars with meetings, birthday parties, Easter vacations.

    Everyone was far too busy and not paying enough attention to the virus that was on its way. Of course we had seen the pictures from Wuhan, the epicenter of what was once an epidemic, and some were alarmed by the fact that China had, in a mere six days, become a field hospital. Despite this, Italians thought the virus was too far away to do any real damage. Everyone had forgotten how interconnected we all are.

    We knew only a lockdown could save us and others.

    Nothing is so far away anymore. In a country like Italy, which is so obsessed with borders, no one thought the virus would rip right through ours. When it finally did, people weren’t sure how to behave. This is especially true of the politicians. The issue on most people’s minds was economic: could a city, a country, truly come to a standstill? The social costs seemed impossible to bear. Timidly, like the city of Milan, someone hoping to help the economy tried organizing aperitivos using the hashtag #Milanononsiferma [Milan doesn’t stop]. From the first tweets, it was clear to all that the plan was suicidal.

    Milan is in Lombardy, the region where the virus has hit the hardest. In a relatively short time, it became evident that stopping our activities was the only possible, concrete thing to do. We had to do something like what we were seeing in China: enforce a total lockdown so as not to further strain intensive care units and try to flatten the contagion curve as much as possible.

    It’s worth remembering just how contagious the coronavirus is. In Italy we had to learn how to properly wash our hands, maintain a meter’s distance from our neighbor, disinfect our homes, our bodies. We anxiously listened as virologists told us the best things we could do to protect others and ourselves. When the lockdown went into effect, first in the north and then throughout the country, we were almost relieved. We knew only a lockdown could save us and others.

    Changing the rhythm of our lives and staying inside didn’t come easy. Every Italian has to deal with their own household, no matter the size, their children (or the fact that their kids are far away in another country), and concern for their elderly relatives. It was a seismic shift for all generations. The eldest immediately understood that they might die alone (because when you’re hospitalized with coronavirus, you are isolated in the ward). The middle-aged were trapped between multiple concerns of work and family. For younger crowds used to meeting up, confined life was hellish. It wasn’t easy for the children either. Every person was affected, but we each had to find a way to keep going.

    In the world where humans are not, the fountains of Rome fill with ducks and fish return to the Venetian lagoon.

    Besides the anxiety, the virus has made everyone’s life difficult: parents who suddenly became inspectors, sitting in front of their laptops and watching their kids do their homework, on the one hand, and taking care of their own work on the other; women living with their abusers with little aid from the outside; the homeless who’ve never had a home to speak of. Though Italy has one of the best healthcare systems in the world, the life of the confined raises ethical questions for everyone.

    As all of us here are realizingand soon you will as wellin the world where humans are not, the fountains of Rome fill with ducks and fish return to the Venetian lagoon. I notice, opening my window, that the air is better. Europe, which has shuttered its borders to so many, now knows what that feels like. This virus has shaken us as it has also shown how our society compares to those next to us, and to nature itself.

    Many are saying that once this is over we must change the way we live our lives, make them more sustainable for the planet’s sake. Staying at home is not easy, but one must stay balanced. Personally, books are helping me. I’m reading voraciously and watching old TV shows. It is not easy, I’ll say again, but we will do it. And you will too. You must take action now. It affects your life and your neighbors’.

    Igiaba Scego

    –Translated by Aaron Robertson

    Igiaba Scego
    Igiaba Scego
    Igiaba Scego, born in Rome in 1974 to a family of Somali origins, is a writer and journalist. She is the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, and her memoir La mia casa è dove sono won Italy’s prestigious Mondello Prize. She is a frequent contributor to the magazine Internazionale and the supplement to La Repubblica, Il Venerdì di Repubblica. Her most recent novel to be translated into English, Beyond Babylon (Two Lines Press, 2019), was shortlisted for the 2020 PEN America Translation Prize.

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