Australian writer sits out virus in Rome

Australian writer Desmond O'Grady is hunkered down in Rome sitting out the coronavirus.
Australian writer Desmond O'Grady is hunkered down in Rome sitting out the coronavirus.

Australian Desmond O'Grady is an author, playwright and journalist who for more than 50 years has lived in Italy where the coronavirus has killed nearly 11,000 people, the highest death toll of any country.

At the age of 90 he describes Italian life under the threat of the coronavirus as he sits it out with family and pets in his Rome apartment:

How many metres can you walk and still be near your home? Italian anti-coronavirus regulations prohibit people strolling without remaining near their home but don't specify that distance.

My son Kieran was surprised when carabinieri (paramilitary police ) interrupted him as he was taking a photo on Rome's Janiculum hill around 7pm during his daily stroll.

He was only about a kilometre from his apartment and they apologised when they found that he was a professor of mathematics at the city's Sapienza university. Nevertheless they proceeded with the penal procedure which could lead to a fine.

My daily walk, in what is roughly the Rome equivalent of Melbourne's South Yarra, used to be alongside the Tiber river to Rome's main soccer stadium but, as that is over two kilometres distant, it is now reduced.

It is a short circuit which takes me past my tennis club which, like other sporting centres is now closed.

My walk takes me to the shopping centre where the pharmacy, newspaper kiosk, grocery and greengrocers are still open but not the stalls of my Bangladeshi fishmonger and the Bangladeshi greengrocer and all others in the open market.

The shopping centre is the turning point in a boring routine and I return to confinement with two adults and two dogs.

Isolation is briefly overcome daily at 6pm when some throughout Italy sing on their balconies or, on March 25, read agreed passages of Dante's 14th century poem The Divine Comedy.

The only performer in our zone lives opposite and uses a loud speaker to blast us with pop songs or opera arias always followed by the national anthem.

His latest offering was Whatever will be, will be.

Sadly, perhaps more apt would be Muoio Disperato (I Die in Despair) from Tosca.

It would be apt because relatives are not allowed any contact with the dying and there were almost a thousand who died on Friday, although there seems to be a decreasing trend.

The deaths occur mainly in Lombardy, the richest, most populous region ( 11 million inhabitants) reputedly with Italy's best health system.

Lazio, whose capital is Rome, has six million inhabitants but has only a tenth of those who are coronavirus positive in Lombardy.

One of my grandsons, Riccardo, is studying at the Conservatorium in Milan, the Lombard capital. As there are reports of too many young people on its streets, I rang but he reassured me that he only leaves the student residence to buy food.

Another grandson, Victor, is a dermatologist in Modena, a red-alert pandemic zone. He worked closely with a doctor who is positive but so far Victor has not been infected.

To date 51 doctors have died from the infection they try to cure.

They have been in the frontline despite a shortage of masks, disinfectants and reagents as have the 7100 nurses and other staff infected in hospitals and hospices.

Many former doctors have replaced those who have died.

Italy was unprepared for the pandemic and slow to catch up. Verbosity was another contagion - the government anti-coronavirus decrees, often garbled and imprecise, run to 123,000 words.

Nevertheless, despite mistakes and uncertainty, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conti is the most popular politician: Italians are prepared to make allowances for shortcomings as long as they believe the government will win against the virus.

They better be quick about it.

The government promised 600 euros ($A1085) a month for the hundreds of thousands of unemployed after the closure of factories and offices. But the money has not reached some of them which led to attempts to loot Sicilian supermarkets.

A health collapse could be followed by a social collapse.

Mid-summer is when many residents leave Rome and there are only tourists. Now there are no tourists, nor heat, humidity or noise.

Tourists have long thrown coins over their shoulders into the Trevi fountain to ensure they will return to Rome. But now, not even three coins in the fountain.

Yesterday the mayoress Virginia Raggi asked Romans to make up for the lost fountain income which has been used to help Rome's poorest.

It is a sunny spring, dusk comes later and trees and shrubs are budding.

In such idyllic conditions it is easy to forget one's vulnerability. It is also difficult to imagine the grief of those whose relatives have died or the problems of the hundreds of thousands abruptly unemployed, including the Bangladeshi fishmonger and greengrocer.

Just as it is impossible to know whether Italy's final aria will be 'I die in despair' or 'I will win' from Turandot.

Australian Associated Press