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Letter from Rome, January 31, 2020: The Coronavirus Outbreak

The coronavirus outbreak and the insane reaction to it has brought out the worst in people everywhere, including here in Rome.

Train station in Rome. (Mauricio Artieda | Unsplash.com)

Rome is the city in which I’ve lived for twenty-three years: almost the whole of my adult life. I love this city, and its people.

Some of what I’ve seen this week, though, makes me think that portions of the city and its citizenry have lost their minds. The St Cecilia Conservatory — think of it as Rome’s answer to Juilliard — suspended Asian students until further notice, and required students of Asian extraction to produce clean bills of health. Newspaper reports earlier this week carried a letter from the head of the conservatory, which reads:

Dear colleagues, because of the well-known events related to the Chinese epidemic, the Oriental students (Chinese, Korean, Japanese, etc.), as well as others who come from the countries concerned, are suspended from lessons. Wednesday, February 5 at 1400 hrs, the conservatory doctor will visit them all. Only those who pass the medical examination can be readmitted to lessons. In the meantime, the absence will be considered as due to illness. Please advise them all, convoke them for February 5 at 1400, and remind them to bring their [medical history] booklet. Cordial salutations.

Signed, Roberto Giuliani

We’re talking about the coronavirus outbreak, of course, and the insane reaction to it that has brought out the worst in people everywhere, including here.

Italy’s leading dailies have been covering the story. La Repubblica quoted Giuliani as saying he’d been in touch with the Chinese embassy to Italy before sending his note. “I interfaced with the Chinese embassy’s responsible party for schools,” Repubblica quotes Giuliani as saying. That does not prove Giuliani isn’t a racist, but it does prove bureaucrats universally speak in implausible argot.

“I have teachers and students to protect,” the paper further quotes him — which is at least prosaic.

On that point, it’s worth mentioning that pupils of Asian heritage constitute about 10% of the student body, many of whom are second generation. Il Corriere della sera reports that few of the students targeted in the discriminatory act had traveled to Asia recently. One teacher reportedly did, though — an Italian, to hear the Corriere tell it — who returned from China with a high fever that did not keep the dedicated professor from teaching classes.

That wasn’t the only lunacy this week in reaction to the coronavirus. At least one business in the city center reportedly put out a sign saying it would not welcome Chinese customers. “Due to international security measures,” read the sign outside the bar in Via del lavatore — down the street and around the corner from the presidential palace and a stone’s throw from the Trevi fountain — “all people coming from China are not allowed to have access in this place.”

The proprietors were at pains to say they were sorry to have to take such a measure. “We do apologise for any inconvenient [sic],” they offered.

In the cover story for the Catholic Herald this week, I wrote about how I am “well acquainted with Italians’ breadth of mind, extraordinary generosity and heroic hospitality.” I also noted, “A kind of insensitivity that closely resembles casual racism is nevertheless deeply ingrained in the Italian forma mentis.”

For example, I long ago lost count of the times I have heard my neighbors complain of “extra-communitarians” — a term that strictly means non-EU citizens but gets used as a term of abuse that refers to “the great unwashed” — and their incursions. They forget I am one.

I didn’t mean you,” they’ll sometimes say when I remind them. My response is a fielder’s choice between, “I know you didn’t,” and, “Yes, you did.”

In any case, there is nothing casual about the conservatory affair or the coffee bar sign.

Then again, the scene around Largo dei Colli Albani at lunch time today was rather different, and more encouraging. Largo dei Colli Albani is a minor hub for surface transit, and a stop on the A-line of Rome’s subway system. For folks like me coming into town from way out on the Appia Nuova, it’s the transportation nexus to the rest of the city. I ate at a place on the square that’s a typical Roman bar in front and a halal chicken joint in the back.

Business looked to be about like that on any other day, with a clientele of workaday folk from several different continents. The curry stew wasn’t any great shakes, but I knew it wouldn’t be and wasn’t disappointed.

On the plaza, a group of three elderly fellows — possibly indigents — were well in their cups and boisterously cheerful. A couple of young lovers had a kiss and a cuddle as they leaned on the rail by the curb outside one of the storefronts that line one side of the place. Teenagers came and went from the McDonalds. Vendors peddled their wares and businessmen walked and talked and shoppers shopped and I did not count the languages I heard.

After lunch, I went to the bank to get some walking around money, then realized I still had an hour to kill before I could do the business I’d really come to do, which was to get a document notarized. That’s another story for another time. I whiled away the hour by riding a bus that runs on a loop that starts and ends on the square, and while I was riding I started to draft this letter.


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About Christopher R. Altieri 127 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is Rome Bureau Chief for The Catholic Herald. He spent more than a dozen years on the news desk at Vatican Radio. He holds the PhD from the Pontifical Gregorian University, and is the author of The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood.

3 Comments

  1. That word ‘corona’ with interesting meanings , including the ‘corona ‘around the sun
    ( as well as the structure in the brain ) and in connection to the sun miracle of Fatima and the flu epidemic of the related times , would it be that , those who are not right at the center , like the Father figures in The Church , who seem to be the ones getting most of the blame and focus , but those in the outer margins like the laity are the ones who need to take up the call for penance and reparations , esp. in the area of the ‘flesh ‘.

  2. I understand that the virus was created by a Chinese university and that it is not more dangerous than any other winter flu virus, which is something that happened a few years ago with what was called the swine virus. In any case, flu shots are at least useless and probably dangerous.
    As for the Italians being racist, having lived in 8 countries including the U.S., it seems to me that Unitedstaters are too anxious about the matter and find racism everywhere. They tend to project their own real or imagined problems on others. If no offense is mean, then why take offense? Of course, with hundreds of thousands of not only “extra comunitari”, but all sorts of people streaming into the country, it is not surprising that they be wary.

    • “I called him the n-word but I didn’t mean anything bad by it. Why take offense where none is meant?”
      Why do we presume intent is the sole indicator of an action’s rightness or morality?

      Flu shots are not dangerous; we shouldn’t scare people away from them. Anecdotal and apocryphal “I got the flu afterwards” stories will snowball as older people – who are more likely to believe medical scare stories – will avoid treatment and prevention. Ironically, these are the people most at risk for the adverse affects of this coronavirus, which in most people is a simple flu but for weaker (and older) immune systems, can bring about pneumonia or -like symptoms.

      The school’s actions in this instance are beyond silly and more than a little insulting given its Korean/Japanese students. Knowing Italy, next they will be walking around with bird-shaped masks and walling in ‘suspect’ families to prevent the spread. Your comparison to the swine flu is apt, as that came and went with little impact other than the fear and panic it caused.

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