For months, Italy has had the most coronavirus-related deaths of any country in the world, and Cremona, a province in Italy’s north, has been particularly hard hit. Beppe Severgnini, a veteran Italian journalist and author, lives in the provincial capital, Crema, where he says he has become accustomed to the sound of ambulance sirens, almost as if he lived in New York.
Severgnini has traveled extensively in the US and lived there as a correspondent for the Italian daily Corriere della Sera. He spoke with CNN’s Ben Wedeman in Rome via Skype about what he’s seeing in both Crema and the United States, a country he says he loves dearly but now finds perplexing in the time of coronavirus.
Q. In your book, “La Bella Figura: An Insider’s Guide to the Italian Mind,” you wrote that “Authority has been making Italians uneasy for centuries,” yet now, with coronavirus, they are largely respecting authority, respecting the rules. Why is that?
A. You can be ill at ease with authority, and respect them. That has been the case for centuries. Think of when we had the Spanish here, the Germans, during the last century. In Italian history, you respect the authorities because you never know, you have to be safe. But on the other hand you are ill at ease. The new thing is that we actually follow the rules. The problem with running Italy is that every single Italian wants to decide whether any rules, regulations, norms, whatever, is actually right for him or for her. Once they’ve decided, “Yes, after all, it makes sense, fair enough,” they follow the rules.
This time the threat is kind of obvious. I’m talking to you from [the town of] Crema. Cremona is the single hardest-hit province in Italy. You hear the sound of ambulances every day, as we have for the last six weeks. Like New Yorkers now probably. You don’t really need much to be convinced. And that’s why, OK, I think it makes sense to stay at home.
Q. Is concern for the older generation, for i nonni (the grandparents), behind this new-found respect for authority?
A. Now it’s certain the older generation, people just a few years older than me – we’re talking later 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s – were hit for two reasons, probably. First because authorities, especially here in Lombardy, made a mistake not to protect care homes enough. Once it was in there, the virus was like slaughter. And because old people, like the nonni, actually live together with families and help with the children and the grandchildren in a way that only Spain, as far as I know, is similar. Now, with the schools, one of the problems when people are going back to work but the schools are not open, the grandparents cannot take care of the children, as they always have.
My wife’s 92-year-old aunt is a smoker, not a heavy smoker. She got coronavirus. She’s in hospital. She’s much better now. She’s fighting with the nurses because she wants to take off the oxygen mask to have a smoke. She’s better, she’s getting out of hospital in a few days.
In Crema, where I am, it’s so sad. Every time I open the obituary pages of the local newspaper, I find so many people that I know have died. A whole generation is being wiped out.
Q. The Civil Protection Agency is reporting that the situation with coronavirus is improving. Where you are, in Crema, do you see it improving?
A. Yes. I walked from home to my office, I’m allowed to do that, and today there are five times as many people around, going shopping, going to the newsagent. A month ago you could feel the total emptiness and the fear. It’s not that people are being careless. That’s not the case. People can sense it’s getting better, and the numbers say so. We have Cuban doctors and the [Italian] army in Crema, and they built a hospital and I went to see them several times. Everyone is telling me the intensive care [unit] there has been empty for some time and they are using these for rehabilitation.
The only really important numbers, unfortunately, are the people who died. I think when we test everyone we are going to have a huge surprise. I think a huge number of people had it and didn’t realize it, especially younger people.
Q. You spent a lot of time in the US, as a visitor, as a resident. Do you find the US today, in the time of coronavirus, different from when you were there?
A. I hate to bring politics into this but I think President Trump changed the mood and atmosphere and the perception [of the US] dramatically. When something like this happens it become obvious and clear to everyone that you need a wise and calm and steady hand when the sea is stormy. The sea is stormy and the captain is dancing on the deck, shouting at the wind.
I have friends in Seattle, in Washington state. There they have their own plan, their own health provisions, and they’re doing very well. They couldn’t care less what they say in Washington.
Sometimes its so hard to believe what’s happening. You have the President ordering the lockdown and you have the same President encouraging protests against the lockdown he has ordered. It’s like a Mel Brooks movie! It’s not the America I know.
Q. On May 4, Italy will start to reopen. Are you optimistic this can happen without too many problems?
A. I think we’ll open up. People will be careful. No one, no one thinks it’s over, it’s done. That would be a huge mistake. It will be very gradual. Some sectors, some industries will reopen. But schools and movies and theaters and concerts and mass, where people gather, that will not be seen until the autumn probably, if we’re lucky. In Italian we say it’s “navigare a vista” – navigating by vision – it’s uncharted waters. I hope the Italian opposition, i.e. Matteo Salvini and the League [la Lega – [the far-right party] will not try to take advantage of this to create chaos and discord. In Portugal that didn’t happen. The chief of the opposition there said here we are the same country, how can we help?
This interview has been edited for clarity.