We watched the Italian tragedy unfold. Medical professionals worked heroically; many became ill and a few died. Elderly patients passed without their families. Government leaders concluded we must abbatti la curva, flatten the curve, to assure that Italy’s modern health care system is not routed. The national lockdown—la Quarantena—followed.
Then the virus invaded New York. A state of emergency was declared. The city scrambled to add ICU beds and ventilators, to focus its considerable resources on care for victims. Many were infected; some died without family present. Other states implemented restrictions; authorities issued national guidelines. Many health care workers have been infected; all are honored and celebrated.
Although the Italian and American stories are similar, they diverge. On the national stage, American politicians use the crisis for partisan advantage. Citizens protest, motivated by economic concerns and defense of individual rights. Here in Italy, there are concerns and a few complaints, but we are unified—certainly in my town.
Politics and personalities do not explain differences. Italy is no more united politically than America; both nations’ leaders include polarizing figures. America is larger, but 60 million Italians offer diverse voices. Differences between New York City, Los Angeles, and New Orleans are no greater than those between Milan, Rome, and Naples. If highway speeds and tax compliance are any measure, Italians are less deferential toward government than Americans. If anything, Italians are the more passionate and expressive.
I see something else. A friend in the local Rotary shared this lament for dying elderly patients, penned by a northern pulmonologist in the thick of it. I translate:
They leave us. Wise, silent, as their life of work and sacrifices was humble and silent. A generation leaves, the one that saw the war, its smells and deprivations. . . . They leave us, their hands hardened by callouses, faces marked by deep wrinkles, memories of days under the scorching sun or in the bitter cold, hands that moved rubble, mixed cement, folded iron, while wearing a t-shirt and a hat of newspaper. They leave us, those of the Lambretta, the Fiat 500 or 600, the first refrigerators, the black and white television, those of the economic boom that with sweat rebuilt our nation, freely giving us the blessings we enjoy. They leave us, along with their now-forgotten qualities of experience, understanding, patience, resilience, and respect. They leave us, wrapped in a sheet like Christ in the shroud, without a caress, without anyone taking their hand, without a last kiss. Grandparents leave, the historical memory of our country, the heritage of all humanity. The whole of Italy must say THANK YOU, and accompany you on this last journey with 60 million caresses.
We mourn, the good doctor declares, in respectful solidarity—for our grandparents and parents, for those who rebuilt our nation and passed on our heritage: the Italian patrimony shared by all humanity. We mourn—whether we treat patients or remain at home—because we love. This, the Italian claims, is who we are. Count me in.
That doctor is not alone. Widely-circulated videos feature images of the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, Ferraris, Italian cinema, style, and soccer. In a popular image, an angelic nurse cradles the Italian peninsula. Again we watch Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful. A Capuchin brother greets me with “Pace e Bene,” recalling Francis of Assisi. It is with love, joy, beauty, faith, history, and patrimony in mind that Italians say: andrà tutto bene, all will be well, in fondo, after all. This is what nationalism means now in Italy.
Of course it is not universal, and I confess to being a Romantic. Perhaps la Quarantena has gone on too long without relief. I hope that Italy, the first European nation to be in crisis, will show us how to emerge. In the meantime, love surrounds us, among friends and in families, and in countless kindnesses.
The virus reveals weaknesses. We read that CARES nears $3 trillion—150 percent of Italy’s GDP—yet we see long lines at food banks. The American economy, until the virus, had expanded for ten years and seemed stronger than ever. There were more open jobs than unemployed Americans. Yet the federal budget deficit last year was $1 trillion; mortgage, auto, student, and credit card debt are at historic highs; personal savings are limited. The scramble for medical necessities demonstrates that companies have tightened supply chains, often centered in China, for extraordinary efficiency but with inadequate alternatives.
At all levels, we Americans seem to focus on immediate gratification rather than a future which, by nature, will include times of prosperity and loss. In good times we push for more and in bad times we demand that our gains be preserved.
We don’t need to be Joseph-like dream interpreters to know there will be years of plenty and others of famine. When we come out of this, I hope we consider how to save in good times to cover times of trouble, how to add to our individual and collective resilience, and how to encourage and enable it among our neighbors. Motivated by love, we nourish and guide our children, invest in their education and preparation for life. Might we do the same for our companies, institutions, and fellow citizens?
My work is centered in the developing world—the Majority World. Our partners are reeling. It is not the virus per se that has shocked them, but the sudden economic contraction, followed by local lockdowns based on the European-American model. But why is the Western model applied where health care systems are already overwhelmed, where the majority must work today so their families can eat tomorrow? What does it mean to sequester 1.3 billion Indians?
It has long been said that when America catches a cold, Africa contracts pneumonia. Western lockdowns crush not only the West, but the global economy. Now the all-out effort to prevent a Western cold is causing viral pneumonia in the Majority World. The consequences, I fear, will be far more serious than anything the virus itself will cause.
Discussion has turned from managing health care capacity to defeating the virus. We lock down out of fear, hoping a vaccine or cure will be invented. Those who argue against lockdowns cite economic costs, or the health consequences of deprivation and stress due to closing sectors of the economy. All of this is important, but we risk losing track of the most noble reason for concern: our loves.
Many say we are at war with this infection. If so, let’s protect that which we love: place the vulnerable in those empty hotels, hold fast to that which is beautiful and edifying, preserve our shared faith and heritage, watch out for the poor, and consider our global impact. For love of neighbor, we don face masks if not the whole armor. We recognize that the enemy is not just the virus, but fear and despair, and that our struggle is not solely against enemies of the flesh. As in any battle, we celebrate heroes and must be prepared to lose a few soldiers, but we will get past this—andrà tutto bene. It is for love that we pay the price.
Larry A. Smith is president of ScholarLeaders International. He and his wife live in Italy.