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  • Writer's picturegraeme

COVID REFLECTIONS: A hundred days of Lockdown

In March, the acclaimed Italian novelist Francesca Melandri wrote a letter to fellow Europeans “from your future”, describing experiences of lockdown. Now, as restrictions are eased, she has another message, and I loved how she put into such beautiful words the experiences we are all having. Each paragraph is a mini-masterpiece and glimpse into our world right now. Enjoy:

"I am writing to you from Italy, which means I am writing from the accelerated present of the pandemic. What started as a parallel dance among successive epidemics’ charts has become a chaos of separate choreographies. Depending on the country, the dance moves have been authoritarian, orderly and effective, fallible but humane, incompetent, in denial, abusive or even genocidal. The Covid-19 dancehall, however, is the same for everyone. Its walls are covered in mirrors. They are showing us who we really are and there’s no way we can avert our gaze.

The lifting of lockdown restrictions brings excitement, relief, anxiety, mistrust and trepidation. Some people will worry that it’s too soon, with the curve still far from being flat. They will stay put if they can, and wait and see. Others have decided that it’s over and will refuse to be stifled both in action and mood. It’s a landscape of ruins – grieving families, rising poverty, mental health crisis, the virus still roaming at large – but invisible for those who haven’t been directly affected. This will change soon.

There will be no lifting of lockdown for those at risk due to previous health conditions. They understand better than anyone else that the pandemic is far from over. Will they see the end of it alive?

Some healthcare workers will at last be reunited with toddlers who were beginning to forget their face. Others will have to remain quarantined so as to keep saving the lives of strangers. Both regard as a personal insult the word “hero” on the lips of elected officials whose policies curtailed their wages and made their shifts unnecessarily gruelling.

Teachers will be happy that nobody ever called them heroes, even though they’re the ones who’ve kept the public education systems running online; they too would appreciate better wages.

Long-fought gains in gender equality, which required the struggles of generations, have been obliterated in a day, as soon as working women were left without daycare centres.

Out of respect to the pain of others, many will hesitate to admit how much they enjoyed lockdown: its slowness, freedom from social pretence and the permission to be unproductive, to relinquish control.

Families and couples who avoided petty quarrels like sailors weathering a storm, who took good care of each other, may treasure forever all that unscheduled time together, like a precious gift. For others, instead, lockdown together was hell, but now, with even less money, where can they go?

Young people will rush out of isolation to finally have a good time, forgetting to wear their face masks. Older generations will say: “They are irresponsible, they only care about themselves, they are going to kill us all!” Young people will reply: “Let us remind you how you’ve handled climate change.”

The collective scale of events highlights the irrelevance of individuals. This will be embraced without qualms by the naturally empathic and by those women trained since childhood to put the needs of others before their own. It will shamefully confirm instead the secret low self-esteem of narcissists, and turn them into even more histrionic nuisances.

All of the above also applies to world leaders. Some of whom, especially the inept ones, will sometimes curse their fate. Why didn’t this impossible mess fall into their predecessor’s lap?

The Covid-19 dancehall mirrors are hurling at our face the enormity of the world’s suffering – the decimated Amazon rainforest tribes, the jobless Indian labourer who walked for hundreds of miles towards his ancestral village, the homeless man who slept in the entrance of an office building until metal spikes were placed on the floor – and the understanding that we are all connected.

For many of us, this will make the world’s monstrous inequality increasingly unbearable, the environmental catastrophe something to be addressed at all costs, just like the cesspit of racialised history.

But not for all of us. “We struggle to pay our bills, we might be jobless soon and our wife just filed for divorce. Now, on top of all that, we are meant to feel guilty and repent?” The resentment at being defined as “privileged” will lead some of us to hate those whose existence reminds us that, yes, even if only relatively to them, we were dealt a better hand. And we’ll vote for anyone who promises to allow us to feel separate, superior and not responsible in any way for their pain.

Maybe one day we will look back at the quarantine confinement, regardless of how it was for us – traumatic, soothing or just plain odd – not at all like the exceptional experience we thought it was as we were living it. But more like the rehearsal before the dress rehearsal, well before the real drama.

© Francesca Melandri

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