Rome’s Haunted Easter Weekend Reminds Us The Pandemic Isn’t Over Yet

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ROME—The sound of the Sister Maria Calvini’s worn-out shoes echoing off the cobblestones as she scurries across an empty St. Peter’s Square would normally mean it is the middle of summer when the city is shut down because everyone is on vacation.

But it was Easter Sunday, and Sister Calvini was walking across a square that would normally pack a crowd of 150,000. Instead, for a second year in a row, the eternal city was again hauntingly quiet, locked down on what has historically been the busiest weekend of the year. “I can’t believe we are still here, still like this,” Sister Calvini said. “It is hard to keep the faith that things will ever get better, but we must. What else do we have?”

What makes the second locked down Easter so much worse than the first is that a year ago, everyone collectively believed things would get better.

They haven’t.

Italy has been buffeted by a third deadly wave of the pandemic, and a third stifling lockdown. The outlook is grim, with seemingly no end in sight thanks to a botched vaccine rollout that has left less than 25 percent of those over 80 vaccinated some three months into the campaign.

Daily cases are still topping 20,000 or more and daily deaths seem stuck at around 500. “It’s like an earthquake happening every single day,” 75-year-old Giacomo Verdi, who was out walking his visibly exhausted terrier on Easter Sunday morning, said. “The infections are bad, people are sick, but these daily death tolls are what really hurt the most. Everyone I know has lost someone.”

In fact, 111,000 people have died from COVID-19 in Italy since the pandemic began, that’s a per capita death toll higher than the United States or even Brazil, according to Johns Hopkins University statistics. But it isn’t just the people dying of COVID that made this second solitary Easter so poignant; it is that the very spirit of this country is withering away. The easy going attitude of the Romans is missing now. Mandatory masks only show half the story—the furrowed brows tell the true tale.

Italy has been under varying degrees of a strict lockdown for months now and will stay semi-confined until at least after May 1, according to a new decree by Prime Minister Mario Draghi who at first people thought might optimistically focus on reopening the economy, only to find that his restrictions seem even harsher than those of his predecessor, Giuseppe Conte.

People are fed up and businesses are dying.

Italy’s tourism sector has suffered the worst hit, with one out of two souvenir shops expected to never open again according to the latest data from the Tourism Ministry—that’s assuming this nightmare ends and tourists come back. Museums filled with some of the world’s most historic art and artifacts remain shuttered, such treasures simply locked away when a dose of culture seems more important than ever.

You cannot visit the Roman colosseum or the open expanse of the Roman Forum, and no one knows when anyone might be able to. Police shoo away anyone who lingers in front of the Trevi Fountain or dares sit on a bench in Piazza Navona. Forget about the Spanish Steps; there hasn‘t been the sort of free-for-all spirit there for more than a year. The city isn’t even dressing them with the traditional fuchsia azaleas for a second year in a row. Why bother? No one is allowed to enjoy them.

Restaurants are also suffering because dine-in service has been prohibited for months. Spring used to mean that restaurants suddenly started serving meals outside and the aperitivo bars literally poured out onto the cobblestone streets. Restaurants across the country have not been allowed to offer evening dine-in service since last summer, and only sporadically are allowed to open for lunch. And since take-out has never been an acceptable norm for Italian restaurants, few Italian restaurants have found their way offering take-out fare even though it is allowed.

It is meant to be eaten hot at the table, not from a box. Meat dishes are fine, but pasta? You have to be kidding.

Bucatino restaurant owner, Rome

The owner of the Bucatino restaurant in the foodie district of Testaccio told The Daily Beast that almost no one orders take-out pasta and he doesn’t even recommend it. “It is meant to be eaten hot at the table, not from a box,” he says. “Meat dishes are fine, but pasta? You have to be kidding.”

Still, the Roman spring is undeniable and with it, the spirit of the Romans may just rise again. The Jasmine and Wisteria flowers have magically appeared from dead branches, filling the springtime air with a sickening sweet scent as parks and balconies sprout to life. During the first lockdown in March 2020, people cocooned and kept to themselves. This time, many are finding innovative ways to keep up social contacts as a means of survival.

Gyms are closed but outdoor sport is allowed, meaning the city bike trail is increasingly filled with people who have discovered the pleasure—or escape—of working out. Many have also realized that it is remarkably easy to have a prohibited aperitivo with a clandestine Spritz in a water bottle on a faux walk, desperate as that sounds, though it will never replace a table in a cobblestone piazza.

Perhaps the worst of this second locked down Easter is that a year ago, Italy was the canary in the coal mine, leading the way as the pandemic gripped the West with reports out of this country offering a glimpse of what was soon to grip the entire world. This time, Italy—and much of Europe—remains behind, having lost pace with the U.S. and U.K. on vaccines, and somehow swallowed up by variants. The seasons may have changed once again, but this time Italy is lost in the coal mine, hoping to find a way out of the darkness.