Over the past few days we’ve been oscillating constantly between panic and a kind of devil-may-care attitude, between feeling like we’re in a bourgeois novel and a pulp science fiction: everyone’s trying to get on with their usual humdrum lives – the arguments, romances, work emails, deciding what to cook for lunch – while the television blares 24/7 announcements about emergency laws, death rates and mass migration. It’s hard not to live it all as a metaphor. We’re in a kind of semi-self-quarantine. I’m trying to ration myself to 5 minutes of TV/hour. No one quite understands the rules – the rules keep changing every couple of days anyway as the contagion spreads, and always seem to be more drastic than *feels* necessary: but how could the gradual repression of all sociality ever *feel* necessary. You go down to the shops and eye people up. You make vague attempts to stay one metre away from people and look suspiciously at passers-by who sneeze into their hands.
The emergency decrees came one after the other, with unpredictable knock-on effects. The schools and universities were all closed, so my school-teacher housemate is frantically putting course material online. The closure also meant, however, that all the young people went out in the evenings more than ever and the nightlife boomed: people went out dancing and drinking. Quarantine by day, party by night. My other housemate posted a photo of the jam-packed bars which went viral. Then the state put out a series of decrees closing bars and clubs, and half-closing restaurants.
But the state responses are full of contradictions. Cultural events and cinemas are closed, but shopping centres and bookies remain open. Everything in the tourist sector is on ice but the big call centres stay open. The latest decree says all movements are discourages or banned – except for work and ‘necessity’ whatever that means. Restaurants have to put their tables apart and follow very strict rules to remain open so instead everyone – from both supply and demand side – is utilizing take-aways and related apps, which means the city is full of poorly-paid, un-insured cyclists moving food around, precisely the hyper-mobile, precarious labour force that symbolizes this crisis. An instagram account popped up: “Sweet quarantine – we’ll bring you whatever you need while using preventative measures: food, alcohol, cigarettes, books, medicine…”
Another side-effect – which apparently also happened in China – was that as soon as the quarantine of the Northern provinces was announced – or actually leaked a few hours before – there was a mass-migration down South, so the measures taken to prevent contagion might have actually been partly counter-active. Just tonight these ‘orange zones’ have been extended to the whole country, and we’re waiting to see if this means we can’t travel between cities or even within our own cities…. And despite the President doing a live address about everyone needing to be responsible and to stick to the spirit of the law rather than the letter the announcement was immediately followed up by people rushing to 24hour stores to stock up….
Last week I could write about funny lunches and Chinese stores closing. Now I have friends in quarantine (who’ve returned from up North, and have to self-quarantine at home for 2 weeks, or face criminal charges) and we’re trying to figure out what the hell the poorest and most oppressed people in our city are going to do. I suppose the self-quarantine has a light-hearted side to it – “I’ve got some books, a little weed, a bottle of gin.” But then I’ve also got several friends in prison here, and many who have been in prison. One of the government decrees has been to cancel all prison visits till the end of May, even though the other measures only go to the beginning of April. Perhaps this is a case of experimenting on the imprisoned or simply extra-cautious measures taken because of the crowded conditions inside. Obviously the crowding means everyone is scared of an outbreak in the prisons and want out. But then it got heavy, really heavy. A series of protests and riots across the country culminated last night in six inmates being killed in Modena. We still have no idea what happened: the demands being made by ‘Antigone’ (a democratic-reformist prison monitoring group) is for telephone calls and the broadening out of alternative measures, e.g. house arrest. The Modena prison is probably being closed today. This morning some detainees tried to escape from one of the Palermo prisons. I didn’t call the guys in the detention centre today, I didn’t want to know what’s going on, to have to confront it. And then we’ve got to understand what’s going on in the biggest homeless shelter in the city, which has hundreds of people with terrible hygiene conditions crammed into warehouses, mattresses side by side.
I’ve been thinking all day about how to leave this on a positive note of some kind, and all I’ve got is that this feels like a sharp, overwhelming shock that we need to absorb to then be prepared for the road ahead. The freedoms that are being signed away one decree at a time might be necessary sacrifices, but they’re going to be difficult to win back. Like someone just grabbed the globe, stopped it, and started spinning it on a different axis.