Reportage. Milan appears under siege. As the wave of fear washes over Italy, Milanese rushed the stores to buy whatever they could, as if a war or famine was coming.

No food for thought: the surreal semi-quarantine of Milan

At 7:40 p.m. on Sunday, the Esselunga store at Porta Garibaldi in Milan looked like the Central Station during rush hour. The 30 working checkout lanes were struggling to handle the rows upon rows of overloaded shopping carts. The shelves for meat, pasta, flour, eggs, vegetables, frozen food, not to mention disinfectants and hand sanitizer, were all empty. The toilet paper section was also in a deplorable state, a telling sign of people’s shopping priorities.

As the wave of fear of the coronavirus crested—after Italy rose to the third place among the nations with the highest number of infections in just a few days—the Milanese rushed the stores to buy whatever they could, as if a war or famine was coming. The next day, the city’s inhabitants acted like they were under siege, leaving railway stations and public transport deserted. The metropolis, emblematic of Italian efficiency, was faced with its own condition of frailty and vulnerability, and, most of all, with its inclination towards self-imposed reclusion, to the point that these days Milan doesn’t look like Milan anymore, but like a city closed in on itself and deserted—not a ghost town, but one that has hunkered down.

Movie theaters are now closed (after their revenues dropped by 44% in a week), as well as concert halls, museums, churches, gyms, stadiums, libraries, schools, universities and kindergartens. Many offices are closed as well.

The fashion week ended on a sour note, as the Giorgio Armani and Laura Biagiotti fashion shows were left without an audience. The bars and meeting spots are closed from 6pm onwards—as if the risk of contagion was higher when people are having snacks in the afternoon rather than during the morning when people have their cappuccinos and croissants—while the Milanese are avoiding them en masse anyway. The restaurants, on the other hand, are able to remain open, because—as they say—the bigger distance between the tables offers greater protection; however, many people are preparing to cut down their social life to a minimum.

There’s something surreal about this semi-quarantined danger zone, where you can go out but you can’t see a movie or visit an exhibition, one where it’s apparently considered more risky to attend a conference than go into an overcrowded supermarket, where schools are closed but shops are not, as if the right to purchase is the one red line which must not be crossed in order to avoid completely demoralizing the economy, to give a semblance of normality and keep essential services going. It’s life lived at the bare minimum. It’s a necessity at this point, but revealing nonetheless.

In not even 24 hours, it became clear that the nourishment for the mind is what makes a metropolis a truly attractive place. You can fill the streets with bars, restaurants, shops, but if you don’t have places where you can nourish your imagination, you will immediately feel that you’re lacking the very fuel for life.

Without cinemas, theatres, museums and schools, existence is reduced to the mere sustenance of the body. At that point, even meeting up becomes an impoverished experience, because you can only eat, buy food or talk about food. That’s when you lose one of the most fascinating aspects of living in the city, which is being able to decide at the last moment what to do, where to go, what to see, who to meet—that feeling of infinite possibilities.

Unique opportunities are lost. On Monday evening, at the Teatro alla Scala, there was supposed to be an eagerly awaited concert by Maurizio Pollini, with the tickets sold out long ago. It was cancelled, like every other event open to the public until March 1. Of course, one might find consolation in listening to a record at home, but we all know it’s not the same thing, since the ritual of live listening is what gives you the most primary emotion. On the other hand, on Monday afternoon the orchestra of the Philharmonic hopped on a high speed train to Rome, where it held a concert in the evening, and the orchestra rehearsals are not suspended as of now—but no one knows what will happen later on.

It’s like everyone is flying blind, day by day—schedules are changed, events are postponed, such as the premiere of Giorgio Diritti’s biopic about Luciano Ligabue, Volevo nascondermi, which, having cancelled its first showings in Milan and northern Italy, postponed its release in the rest of the country as well, like a chain of collapsing dominos that shows just how interconnected we are, how much we are all a community and a collective, how much we truly need each other.

There are many negative effects on the economy, affecting both trade volumes for companies (the Milan Stock Exchange lost 5.4% Monday) and also the workers’ wages, who unfortunately are not equal when it comes to their rights. As I was having a coffee at a bar, I heard a patron say to the barista: “Yesterday I was at a McDonald’s, and they called everyone to say they should stay at home today, because they would be closed.” The barista asked, “But are they still paying them?” The patron said, “I don’t think so, because they’re hired by the day.” “Closing down would make sense for us too,” the barista added, “because we work mainly with after-lunch snacks, and if we have to close down at 6 p.m., we’ll be in the red.”

Another barista confessed that she’d rather see everything closed. “Because, how do I know if a customer is infected or not?” she explained. “What if I get sick and infect someone in turn? They say that mostly old people are dying, but I care about my old folks, even if they’re far along in age.”

The great Milan is facing up to an invisible enemy, and we’ve seen how everything began from a hospital, and that the ones most exposed are the doctors and nurses—something that should make us think seriously about employee protection protocols.

Sooner or later, the state of emergency will pass, but in the meantime, it would be good to take heed of what Dr. Vittorio Agnoletto said on Radio Popolare about the reasons why this contagion became so widespread in Italy: “On the one hand, it wasn’t possible to identify ‘patient zero,’ and thus it wasn’t possible to intervene in the transmission chain. The other aspect is that half of the first fifteen cases involved hospitalized patients and medical staff in the Lower Lodigiano area. The sore point in Italy is not so much the general organization, but the instructions given to health workers involved in first aid. The Italian healthcare system has been cut down to a minimum as far as first-line interventions are concerned: the territorial services and prevention mechanisms are suffering from a shortage of personnel. That’s where the fault can be identified.” Now we know how much these deficiencies can cost us.

Once I’ve finished my piece, I step out to get myself a coffee. Oh no—everything’s closed.

I want my Milan back.

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