Each morning I go through the same ritual. I grab my Game of Thrones mug and sit down on the couch – where I will spend the next nine or ten hours. I turn on my laptop and set up my webcam, which I adjust so it shows the four maps of the world hanging on the wall behind me, a perfect background to videoconference with clients. This is how I am living through the pandemic, taking each day one videoconference at a time.
I live in Forlì, not far from Bologna, in northern Italy, and we have been in total lockdown since March 9. I work as a strategy consultant and my main task is to support organizations, helping them solve their problems and become more efficient. It normally requires close contact and face-to-face meetings, but now all this has changed. Last month, I downloaded at least nine different ‘interactive platforms’. Half of my day is spent keeping my clients’ morale up, reassuring them about a future that seems far from certain. The recurring concerns are whether their company will survive and if they will be able to pay their employees, or if their hotels are going to re-open in the summer, or if their clients will remain loyal to their brand.
And then there are personal concerns. Leaving aside health worries related to the virus, I think about friends who had planned a summer wedding and are now unsure whether their dream day will happen, or acquaintances who were unable to attend the funeral of a loved one, or even those hoping to attend the next big conference.
While I can sense a certain optimism among the cosmopolitan bubble of young business travellers I know, it is from my childhood friends in provincial Italy that I get a clearer picture of the dynamics of this lockdown, and their mood is alternating between euphoria and anger.
On the one hand people are singing from their balconies, making donations and sending messages of solidarity to hospitals and charities while spending endless evenings waiting for our prime minister Giuseppe Conte’s Facebook Live sessions and watching viral videos of local mayors committed to enforcing the lockdown by any means.
On the other, I sense a perpetual hunt for the enemy, whether in the guise of a visiting Asian entrepreneur, or a student returning home from the infected areas, or an occasional jogger who will not stay at home. The hunt expands until it reaches the European Union, depicted as an evil villain castled in a detached, soulless and bureaucratic Brussels.
To me, it brings to mind Thucydides’ account of the plague which ravaged Athens in 430BC, spiced up by the spread of fake news and contradictory messages from politicians. For instance, when the Albanian government decided to send us 30 doctors and nurses, everyone hailed international solidarity, forgetting that only the week before the headlines were filled by the ‘scandal’ of an Italian loan to Tunisia, a double standard that shows COVID-19 is fuelling a resurgence of national selfishness.
What emerges is a picture of an overstressed Italy, engaged in an endless quest for identity at both an individual and national level. We are rediscovering our culinary skills, an enthusiasm for yoga and DIY, and a self-appointed expertise in epidemiology. One surprising thing is that after six weeks without football, we are not as traumatized as one might expect.
Maybe it is too soon to draw conclusions about the economic, behavioural and social impacts of this situation. What is certain is that our understanding of working spaces, technological tools and even supranational organizations will never be the same again.