Italians find ‘a moment of joy’ amid coronavirus anxiety

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ROME - It started with the national anthem. Then came the piano chords, trumpet blasts, violin serenades and even the clanging of pots and pans — all of it spilling from people’s homes, out of windows and from balconies, and rippling across rooftops.

Finally, on Saturday afternoon, a nationwide round of applause broke out for the doctors on the medical front lines fighting the spread of Europe’s worst coronavirus outbreak.

“It was from our hearts, to say thanks and show that we can get past this,” said Emma Santachiara, 73, who came out onto the terrace of her apartment in the Monteverde section of Rome to clap with her granddaughters.

Italians remain essentially under house arrest as the nation, the European front in the global fight against the coronavirus, has ordered extraordinary restrictions on their movement to prevent contagions.

As of Saturday, the virus had infected more than 21,000 Italians and left more than 1,400 dead, according to national officials — the worst toll reported anywhere outside of China. Italy has closed all of its schools, bars and restaurants and restricted movement for anything other than work, health or the procurement of essentials.

But the cacophony erupting over the streets, from people stuck in their homes, reflects the spirit, resilience and humor of a nation facing its worst national emergency since World War II.

Like any national crisis, the virus has exposed the flaws of those countries it has struck the hardest, whether it be the reflex for secrecy in China, the downplaying of the crisis in Iran or the initial confusion and fragmentation in the Italian response.

But to the extent that this is a virus that tries people’s souls, it has also demonstrated the strengths of those national characters.

In China, patriotic truck drivers risked infection to bring desperately needed food to the people of Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. In Iran, videos show doctors in full scrubs and masks dancing to keep spirits up.

And in Italy, the gestures of gratitude and music ring out above the country’s vacated streets, while social media feeds fill with encouraging, sentimental and humorous web videos.

On Friday evening, at the exact hour that health officials normally update the daily numbers of the country’s increasing infected and dead, Italians from the southern islands to the Alps sang the national anthem and played instruments.

Santachiara, in Rome, was among them.

“It’s not like we’re maestros,” she said, but “it’s a moment of joy in this moment of anxiety.”

On the web, one man showed off his new invention, a vest of horizontal cardboard spokes that maintained a 1-meter distance from anyone around him.

“Cool,” said the man, looking like the center of a propeller. “I’m going to work.”

Other irreverent posts showed a parrot smashing its beak into a mirror above a “fourth day of quarantine” caption and a father extolling how happy he was to be home as his bickering children drowned out his voice. In another, a teenager spritzed on some perfume for a walk to the kitchen.

But while Italians sought to lift the national mood, there was no doubt it was still a heavy one.

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Images of nurses collapsed from exhaustion or their faces bruised from tightly sealed masks have also spread across the web in recent days. One image circulating widely Saturday showed a nurse cradling the Italian peninsula in her arms.

Parents posted pictures of unicorns and rainbows drawn by young children with the hashtag “It will all be OK.”

The duress also seemed to stir patriotism in a country that has a deep suspicion of nationalism.

The Italian media reported a spike in sales of the Italian flag. The national anthem, usually limited to the start of soccer matches, reverberated off palazzo walls at 6 p.m. Friday.

Like many anthems, it is a martial call to arms and sacrifice — in this case, against the Austrian empire — and for unity after being for centuries “downtrodden and derided, / Because we are not one people.

“Let us join in cohort,

“We are ready to die!

“We are ready to die!

“Italy has called!”

“We’re Italians, and being vocal is part of our culture,” said Giorgio Albertini, 51, an archaeology professor who clapped from his apartment balcony in the university district of Milan, calling it a way “to feel a community and to participate of the collective grief.”

On Friday, he sang “Oh Mia Bella Madunina,” a traditional Milanese song about city pride, while his 9-year-old son accompanied him at the violin.

At noon in Verona on Saturday, the peal of church bells gave way to the clapping of hands as Cristina Del Fabbro, 53, stood on her balcony applauding with her daughter Elisa, 21.

“We want to thank doctors and nurses,” she said. “They can’t stay safe at home as we do. They are tired and worried, but they stay there for those who get sick and need them.”

A neighbor who had tied an Italian flag to her fifth-floor balcony shouted, “We have the best health care system in the world.”

Doctors on the front lines in the besieged region of Lombardy, the core of the outbreak in Italy, heard, and appreciated, the standing ovations.

“For us, the support of the people is obviously very important,” said Fabiano Di Marco, head of pulmonology at the Papa Giovanni XXIII hospital in Bergamo, where he has taken to sleeping in his office.

“But even more so,” he added, “is the show of solidarity inside the hospital by doctors who stopped doing other things to dedicate themselves to the care of these patients.”

Davide De Luca, 33, a reporter working at home in the Chinatown section of Milan for the online newspaper Il Post, stuck his head out the window Friday and added to the concert with refrains from “Nessun Dorma.” He considered the sudden symphony “a small brick in nation-building.”

“We showed that in this hard time, we can stick together,” he said. “We were a community, not just a bunch of individuals.”

Isabella Falautano, a manager in a bank who blasted the national anthem Friday from a speaker pointed out of the window of her apartment in the Testaccio section of Rome, said, “Even if we can’t shake hands, even if we’re 20 meters apart, you can still show solidarity.”

Professionals got in on the act as well.

In Florence, opera tenor Maurizio Marchini serenaded the city.

Danilo Rossi, who plays first viola at Milan’s La Scala opera house, played music from his balcony, which was adorned with a banner that read, “Let’s not give up, we will make it.”

Giuliano Sangiorgi, frontman of the band Negramaro, played a concert for his neighbors from his balcony.

In Naples, balconies of an apartment complex, dripping with laundry, became stages for residents singing traditional songs in unison. Elsewhere in Naples, a DJ set up turntables on his balcony and played the Frankie Valli song “Can’t Take My Eyes off You” as neighbors sang and played guitar along from their windows.

Back in Rome, Santachiara spent Saturday teaching her 3-year-old granddaughter, Chiara, the words to an Italian classic, “Azzurro,” which Italians will sing tonight.

The girl’s father is a doctor who has been putting in extra hours and covering shifts to make sure that people don’t go without primary care. He has been sleeping in his office, where he brought in a toaster to heat up food.

“They are doing extraordinary work,” Santachiara said.

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