Notebook

Italians believe the coronavirus outbreak shows their superiority

7 March 2020

9:00 AM

7 March 2020

9:00 AM

During times of contagion, you begin to understand why fascist salutes were once so popular. The foot-tap is replacing the handshake in parts of China. Here in Italy, which has far more cases of coronavirus than any countries except China, Iran and South Korea, a left-wing government is telling Italians not to shake hands. It reminds me of 1922, when Mussolini came to power after the first world war had killed 20 million and the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 at least as many again. The Duce replaced the handshake with the Roman salute. The handshake, according to fascist ideology, had to go because it was unhygienic and bourgeois. The connection Mussolini made between the power of the hand to infect the human body and the power of the bourgeoisie to infect the body politic is fascinating. The saluto romano distanced his supporters from the fascist class enemy — above all non-productive members of the middle-class whom they regarded as parasites — or viruses, to bring things up to date.

I live in the Emilia-Romagna, the Italian region with the largest number of people infected after the epicentre in Lombardy. I have six children, all of whom — bar the youngest, Giuseppe, who is four — go to school. Thanks to the coronavirus they are cock-a-hoop because this is the second week that the schools have been closed. So my children are at home 24/7. In the past ten days, since they have not been at school, most of them have had flu (colds with a high temperature) and I, aged 60, have had a nasty cold, though no temperature. My Italian wife has had both, and blames me, of course. Am I worried that we are beccato (pecked) by the Chinese virus? No. The young survive it come what may, as I am sure will my much younger wife, their mother. As for me, who cares?


A dozen small towns in Lombardy are in lockdown. In Venice, the Carnival has been shut — despite those amazing masks. Here in Ravenna, many public places are closed: cinemas, museums, theatres and discotheques. Italians are also now required to maintain a distance of one metre from each other in public places such as supermarkets, bars, restaurants and churches, where the sign of peace is also banned at Mass. It will be a big problem for such a tactile people as the Italians to respect the one-metre rule — but as so often here, there is no clarity as to what the punishment will be for infringing the rule and who will police it. Do I care about any of this? Not really. I already steer clear of most people if I can.

Nowadays there are several Chinese restaurants in Ravenna, last capital of the western Roman Empire, and the quality of food is truly dreadful compared, say, to Chinatown in London. The nearest Chinese to my house is opposite fields which were once the sea — the water has receded five miles since the Romans, and the site of the headquarters of the entire Roman fleet are now an archaeological site. The owners of the restaurant have posted a notice which explains, in bad Italian, that thanks to ‘the scaremongering derived from the coronavirus’, they have decided to close their restaurant until further notice. But is it just scaremongering? Nobody really knows.

The virus will likely increase support for the radical-right Lega led by Matteo Salvini and the post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia led by Giorgia Meloni. Both define themselves on the international stage as ‘national conservatives’. If there were a general election now, polls say that the coalition of the right, which also includes Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, which is tiny these days, would defeat the ruling coalition (formed only last September) of the alt-left 5 Star Movement and post-communist Democratic party by an even bigger margin than it would have done before the coronavirus crisis. The seriously woke left-wing government took the necessary measures to combat the virus ‘negligently late’ — wrote Michele Brambilla, editor of mass daily Quotidiano Nazionale — ‘after wasted weeks branding as razzista or fascio-leghista anyone who urged the elementary measures required by science, i.e. quarantine for anyone arriving in Italy from China’.

I cannot help noticing that the standard left-wing Italian explanation as to why there are so many more cases of coronavirus in Italy is identical to the standard Italian explanation as to why so many Italian politicians are corrupt. It is not true that Italy has more corrupt politicians than other countries, they say, it is just that Italy is more efficient at catching them. And the same is true in the case of the virus. The Italians are just more efficient, they are saying, at identifying those infected because Italy has screened far more people than other countries. According to one count, Italy has tested almost twice as many people as Britain. But surely it is deaths that matter, isn’t it? In Italy, 79 people infected with the virus have died compared to none in Britain so far. Go figure.

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