Facing the Uncertain

I have always followed a successful rule in my life: if you don’t know how to solve a problem, copy those who are better than you – and when possible, make some further improvements afterwards. The point is that for what concerns the reopening of schools in September, it seems that every country is tackling this burning issue without having any real clue. We’ll have to find our own way, I am afraid.

In the name of school autonomy, introduced in the Italian system about 20 years ago, the Ministry of Education has proudly given birth to a series of smoky guidelines, inspired , they say, by the principles of flexibility and simplification, which could be summed up as follows: “it is up to you”. In compliance with health indications, there should be daily or weekly shifts and class reorganization with a division into several parts;  lessons might be provided for groups of students of different classes (and even of different years) and reunification of similar subjects for common explanations.

According to the indications of the Scientifical Technical Committee, no more than 15 students will be allowed for each class ( 25 is the average), a distance of one meter must be ensured between the students and between them and the teachers. It might seem a difficult goal to achieve to anyone, but don’t you worry,  the Ministry has cleverly developed a “computer dashboard” with the data of the students of all the rooms available (classrooms, laboratories and gyms). Apparently they had no cadastral maps, how strange. The instrument in question should allow rapid intervention in the most compromised situations in collaboration with local authorities to offer alternative solutions. Moreover, according to the School Building Registry, there are 3,000 abandoned buildings to be recovered for educational activities. The lessons could also be held at locations such as museums, archives, theaters, etc. .

It would sound splendid, but I know how things work here unfortunately and there is one word that makes me doubt more than any other: rapid. Nothing is rapid as far as bureaucracy is concerned in Italy and in summer time in particular, even in emergency times. An example? In my school we have been waiting for the making of ten rooms for three years and it has been said that very likely they will materialize next January, so how could I expect that 3.000 abandoned buildings will be recovered for educational activities in two months only? Let alone how lessons could be held in museums, theatres etc. respecting the protocol distance or the consequent insurance matters.

This said, we are to divide classes, find new places, imagine on line learning integration, but what about teachers? How many teachers are required to make this plan come true? Twice as much? Can a country with 2.500 thousand euros of public debt afford such  a scheme? In my opinion there will be only 4 options for the future:

FANCIFUL: new buildings miraculously will be erected by August 31th just close to schools, so it will be conceivable to split groups and definitely solve the problem of overcrowded classes. Thousands of teachers will be hired putting an end to the problem of precarious employment in education. If possible, some increase in salary would be much appreciated.

AUSPICABLE: Covid vaccine is found and we will go back to normal.

POSSIBLE: the splitting of groups will necessarily have the consequence of making double shifts and finding new buildings, but if we mean to avoid night shifts, an integration with on-line learning will have to be planned.

CERTAIN: after the first Covid case, the school will be closed and we’ll go back to on line learning.

Mala tempora currunt sed peiora parantur. (bad times are upon us but the worst has yet to come”)

 

 

 

En Plein Air

How long had we been looking forward to May 4th, the day of the lockdown ease in Italy? Two months. A long time indeed. What shall I remember most of this period? The singing on the balcony every evening at 6.00pm right after watching the daily bulletin of Covid-19 victims or the frightening number on my scale as the result the absurd amount of food I have swallowed in these months, mostly carbs – and I can distictly see them all deposited right here 😱- ? Now that I am thinking about it, I have to say that my time has been spent in the company of screens mostly, whether it was that for smart working/on line lessons or the tv screen. I have watched the 200 and more episodes of “How I  met your mother” (brilliant), four seasons of “How to get away with murder” (super), “Unorthodox”(great), 3 seasons of Versailles (legendary, oops this is the Barney in me speaking) and there must be something I am missing for sure. For the first time in my life I have showed no interest at all for clothes or shoes, as I have been wearing mostly the same stuff, actually, I look rather shabby, I dare say.

My husband Mr Run has suffered these lazy days much more than me. He is an active sort of man, who is used to running 70 km per week at least and driving 100 to go to work and back every day. His very last purchase the day right before the lockdown had been another shining pair of running shoes, the same pair he decided to wear the morning of May 4th. It was 6.30 a.m. . “I am off to run to the pinewood” he whispered to me, as I was was still slumbering. “Let’s hope he comes back with a good provision of endorphines” I thought, and I went back to sleep.

The latest ordinance had set runners free, but what about non-runners like me? Well, all the other people were left with a dilemma to solve before attempting to quit home:  what does “congiunti” mean? We were allowed to go to the supermarket, like before, but now the exciting news was that we could also pay a visit to our “congiunti” . What a peculiar choice of word, we all thought!  “Congiunti”! The English word “relatives” could be the equivalent translation, but it not exactly so, as if they had actually meant “relatives”, they would have chosen a more clear word for the Italian speaking world as “parenti”. We instictively understood that they had employed the word “congiunti” as a limititation to the number of “parenti”/relatives one may have, as if they meant close relatives only. But how close? After having looked up into many dictionaries and followed learned debates, I haven’t actually understood what makes you downgrade from the status of “congiunto” to that of a simple “parente”, but all I needed to know was that in case somebody had stopped me, “congiunto” should have been the most advisable term to use.

Once “en plein air”, the world around me is not exactly as friendly as I expected. You feel the presence of the unseen enemy and like me anybody else. First of all I notice that we are all wearing far too heavy clothes for the season. It is full spring and quite warm, “we have missed the best part of it” I think with a certain disappointment. Behind their masks I barely recognize the people I know. Everybody casts suspicious glances, all distanced, all distressed, watching their backs if someone gets too close and ready to “bark” in case they really do. With the majority of shops closed, even if we were allowed, strolling around is not that tempting. There is no sign of joy around me and I feel a kind of uncomfortable. I realize that my pace is getting faster than usual among the shelves of the supermarket. It is as if I felt the urge of doing quickly my errands and…..going home.  It may sound strange, but this is what I truly wished that coveted 4th of May: going back home, where I feel at ease, where I feel protected.

Once safely on my couch, where I can confess to have spent half of this couple of months, I couldn’t help but wonder how this quarantine had turned me into something T.S. Eliot would call: a “dull root”. Our longed freedom has actually a bitter taste. It is more frightening rather than exciting and despite the call to life represented by this beautiful May ( April in the poem), most of us prefer to remain rooted at home. “Ain’t you going to run this morning, love ?” No” Mr Run grunts,” not today ” and turns his back. He doesn’t want to admit it, but he has become a “dull root” too.

Act V

Greek theatre ignored the division into acts. Greek representations consisted of several distinct parts, called protasis (introduction), epitasis (main action), catastasis (climax), and catastrophe (final resolution), but actually no interlude separated the individual parts. When the main actors left the scene, they were replaced by the choir, who sang or spoke their lines in unison, a collective, universal voice which commented on the dramatic action. Acts are, actually, never mentioned by ancient authors, not even Aristotle, in his Poetics, refers to such a division.

It was Roman drama critic Horace, three hundred years after Aristotle, who advocated a 5-act structure in his Ars Poetica: “A play should not be shorter or longer than five acts” and by the beginning of the first century it had become conventional in Rome. All Seneca’s plays, for example, were structured in five separate acts with musical interludes between them. The German critic, Guystav Freytach (1816-1895), attempted to rationalise the five act structure. In his model the first act is the exposition, where characters, character’s backstories, setting are introduced and it usually ends with the play’s significant piece of action.The second act takes that action and complicates it: that’s the rising action. In the third act there is a climax, the turning point, where the fortunes of the character or characters are reversed – either good to bad or bad to worse. In the fourth act the results of the reversal are played out and the hostility of the counter-party affects the hero in many ways. This is the falling action. In the fifth act the hero meets his logical destruction and that is the catastrophe. These ups and downs seem to follow the sequence of breathing: inhale/exhale. In a way we may say that drama is modelled on human nature.

Shakespeare’s plays do not exactly fit any pattern described above. They do not conform to the Aristotelian one and even if they may somehow resemble Freytach’s scheme, they do not completely fit into it. Shakespeare did not even divide the plays into acts and scenes, as it was done for the first time by the playwright Nicholas Rowe (1674-1718), in his six volume edition of Shakespeare’s plays he edited in 1709. Shakespeare put on stage the dynamic of the world he knew with the sensibility of the genius he was, regardless of defined rules and patterns. His stories were based on the alternation of order and chaos. At the beginning of any Shakespearian play there is an order which is usually broken by the evil action of a villain, fate or  a war, till eventually another order is achieved. In this alternation we keep moving forward, as the order attained at the end of the final act after the catastrophe is completely different from the previous one. This consideration should “give us pause“.

Hence, what we learn is that once, for any reason, a situation of stability is undermined, it is foolish to dream to restore it as it was. At the end of Act five, we can only expect to tackle the first act of another play. Every time we wonder about when we can ” go back to normal” after this pandemic, I fear we have to be ready to figure an entirely new “normality” . A normality made of masks, social distance, unemployment, disputes among countries and who knows what else to the next catastrophe.This is life and this proves that after all, the bard was right,”all world is a stage“.

Quantarelli’s Formula

I have always been of the opinion that even in the worst sistuations, just like this Covid-19 pandemic, there is something positive, a hope. The experience of disasters, somehow, often promotes social changes and, why not, the coming together of communities in order to help one another. Quantarelli explained this through a simple formula: the worse the situation is, the better people become.

Enrico Quarantelli was not a utopian, but an American sociologist, specialized in the study of reactions to disasters. He started with a tornado in Arkansas in 1952 and went on with dozens of cases.

It was after the great earthquake in Alaska in 1964 that, having noticed the same recurrent behaviors, he drew the first conclusions: catastrophic events bring the best out of humanity. It is not true that we react hysterically. Solidarity prevails over conflict. Society becomes more democratic. Class inequalities and distinctions vanish, at least temporarily.

We suffer and work together. Governments and bureaucracies that impose rigid rules and never improvise often remain helpless. That is the moment when spontaneous organizations of citizens arise, a sort of civic response immune to evil, thus becoming closer to the sense of things and of ourselves.

In normal times we suffer alone, the experience of vulnerability marginalizes us and makes us feel discriminated against and resentful towards those who are spared. Disasters unite, remove what is superficial, leaving the essence.

To those who asked him why we tend to think the opposite of what his research showed, Quarantelli replied: “It is difficult to accept that goodness is normal, it is too reassuring a truth”.

 

P.S. Three posts ago (February 26 th) the cases in Italy were 378 and 12 deaths. Two posts ago (March 8th)  they had raised to 5883 and  the deaths to 223. One post ago (March 13th) we reached 15.113 cases and 1.054 deaths. Today’s bulletin is: 23.073 cases and 2.158 deaths.“Things are going so fast that this article will be old by the time I post it, that is: now.” We must all stay at home.

Stay At Home!

Who ever said that simplicity in communication works? It does not. Because simplifying a concept too often corresponds to a mere banalizitation, which may be misleading for many.There are occasions when words are never enough to grasp the complete meaning of a message, and, being words free, should never be spared. A couple of days ago an entire nation experienced one of those occasions.

It was Monday at about 9:00 p.m. when our premier Conte spoke to the country on tv to refer about the new strict measures which were to be undertaken to stop the outbreak of Covid-19 in Italy. I was a bit of annoyed and with me other 10 million Italians, as we were all ready to watch the new episode of Commissario Montalbano, after all, what could be said that we didn’t know already! Well, he came up with a brand new decree, the previous one was only 48 hours old, whose name was: Stay at home!

We heard – did we? – him speak: the number of cases, deaths, red zone, orange zone, wash you hand, don’t hug, don’t kiss, do this, don’t do that, till he concluded that the entire nation was to be put on lockdown, so, he ended :” just stay at home”. Did we fully understand the meaning of those words at first? I don’t think so. I did not. For many of us staying at home was a sort: “Wow, we won’t have to go to work till April 3rd!” Splendid!. And I bet that soon after that speech many chats like these followed: “Have you heard?” “Since we are on vacation, we may catch up for a drink tomorrow at last, let’s say at 12:00” “All right”! And then we went all back to watch Montalbano. Of course, I’m talking about those who did not live in the red zones like me.

For others those words were reason enough to hurry to the nearest supermarket to stock on food and drinks – no cases of people stocking on toilet paper here, we actually didn’t think about it or it was not our primary issue like in other non-EU countries – so the following day there were those who lightly thought that the present situation was an occasion to improve their social life and those, a minority, who had barricaded themselves wearing face masks and gloves. It didn’t take long to understand that the simple phrase “stay at home” was not clear enough and some explanatory notes were required.

So we have learnt that staying at home means literally staying at home and since it seems we still had a little trouble in accepting it – as usual – all shops, bars, restaurants have been closed till (at least) March 25th. So there is no chance of having any social life. We can leave home only to buy what is strictly necessary, queue are so long that you don’t certainly feel like waiting an hour to get a bottle of coke. Jogging, going for a walk are forbidden and if we need to drive somewhere, we have take with us a sort of self-declaration, in which we state the urgent reason why we are moving to show it to the police in case we are stopped. For any violation we may either be fined or prosecuted .

So everything is clear now. By staying at home our premier meant being under house arrest with the possibility of spending our yard time at the supermarket only. Of course in the next two weeks (at least) we could do many things, but I am sure that among the vast range of opportunities, one in particular will be explored more than others: eating and since we cannot move much, at the end of this tunnel our next goal will be just one: seeing a dietitian.

P.S. Two posts ago (February 26 th) the cases were 378 and 12 deaths. One post ago (March 8th)  they had raised to 5883 and deaths to 223. Today’s bulletin is: 15.113 cases and 1.054 deaths. “Things are going so fast that this article will be old by the time I post it, that is: now.” We must all stay at home.

Plague: The Time of Experience

It is not a simple flu. I was wrong, but in one thing I was right: leap years are ill fated. When I wrote the previous article about Covid-19 diffusion in Italy, that was the situation: 378 people had been infected, 12 had died and all of them suffered from serious pathologies. Nothing that serious, I believed; but things have worsened soon. At the time being this is the updated bulletin: 5883 infected, 1247 new cases since yesterday, 589 have recovered so far and 233 have died. In only 10 days. It is not a simple flu.

Let’s explain why. 1) A normal flu is seasonal, it mutates, therefore, it is always slightly different from the virus of the year before, that is why we are not completely immune, even if we have been infected. Being a variant of the flu virus of the year before, we are only partially immune. Each of us has a different immunity rate, which depends on age, health conditions etc. . We are not immune to Covid-19 and it is very contagious.2) We know how the seasonal flu virus works and we produce new vaccines every year, because, as we have just said, the flu virus mutates. We have no vaccine for Covid-19. 3) We have medicines to cure or relieve flu symptoms, while there is no cure for Covid-19. Not yet. 4) A normal flu may sometimes degenerate into a bacterial pneumonia, which, however, may be treated with antibiotics, for example. If Covid-19 reaches the lower parts of the respiratory system, it may cause a viral pneumonia, for which there is no treatment. In the case the virus develops to that stage (10% of the patients), hospitalization is required and the most serious cases need ICU. And this is the problem, because the average stay in ICU is usually 2/3 weeks. Too long.

Beds in hospitals are not infinite, they are at the limit of total saturation and we may get to the point when there will be none left, hence, we won’t be able to treat patients properly from the complications of the infection. So what can be done? Well, only following the health protocol, staying at home to avoid feeding the spread of the virus from person to person and hope that it will stop sooner or later. We must make the virus less contagious so that to decrease the number of infected people and give everybody the opportunity of being cured.

In the meantime our life has changed. The country is reacting mostly paralyzing any activity and this has and will have serious consequences on our economy. Schools have been closed till (at least ) March 15th. It is today’s news that those living in Lombardy and other 14 provinces won’t be allowed to leave their sites till April 3rd. It is as if we were caught in a limbo and we can do nothing but give up any social life and wait. Things are going so fast that I bet this article will be old by the time I post it, that is: now.