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A Survivor's Take As Italy Slides Into The Second Wave Of COVID

La Stampa Editor-in-Chief Massimo Giannini spent a week in ICU with severe effects of COVID-19. Still in quarantine, he's back following the news — and less than impressed.

Inside a hospital in Italy
Inside a hospital in Italy
Massimo Giannini

ROME — I'm going home. After exactly three weeks of darkness, I'm exiting the tunnel. It's been 21 days of sickness — six of them in the ICU — and though I am still testing positive to COVID-19, I haven't had any symptoms in the last three days.

There is a dramatic need for beds, so I've been allowed to leave the hospital and self-quarantine at home. Many — too many — patients are showing up with serious symptoms and need to be hospitalized. On my floor, there were 18 patients when I was admitted. Now, there are 84. More than half of all patients are under 54 years old.

Many have been sedated and intubated, falling into a night of indefinite time and place. Their unconscious bodies are turned to face down for 16 hours a day, and resuscitators turn them up for the other eight hours. They say the procedure helps "relax the lungs' and prevent the disease from destroying what remains of your respiratory system. If you improve, they'll extubate you and you just hope you still have a little breath in your throat to scream "I did it!" If you die, you leave without knowing it, and without anyone on your side.

I was spared from all of this. I leave my bed to those who are worse off than me and wait for the first negative swab to regain my freedom. I don't know when it will arrive, and I don't care. Among the many I've seen succumb in this adventure, I am among the saved, and that's enough for me, even if my mother is still in that room. And I am grateful — to fate, chance, God, nature, but above all to the doctors, nurses and health workers I have met and known.

To understand who they are — their competence, dedication, care — you should see them "on the frontline," choked by scrubs, gloves, masks, visors and goggles. We got used to seeing the great virologists and epidemiologists on TV, but it is this wonderful army of women and men fighting for our health that we never talk enough about.

You don't just find health workers around the corner.

"We will hire 83,000 health workers," politicians promised in Italy's pointless summer of nightlife. Unfortunately, they've so far hired fewer than a third of that.

"But you don't just find health workers around the corner," they explain — you need at least five years to train a resuscitator and three for a nurse. And so they've moved up graduation day for thousands of students and sent them into the field. But they are still too few, the result being that there are only half the number of workers needed in the wards, and those who are there may be working for between 1,400-1,600 euros a month, without protesting or complaining.

"It's our job," they say. Still, thank you for what you do and for who you are.

And when I came home, I started to delve into politics again, and things don't add up. The Italian government continues to claim merits for what it did to fight the first wave, yet it absolves itself for the country's shortcoming for the second wave: the shortage of ICU beds, of ventilators, the dysfunctional health-care network in much of the country, the overcrowded public transport.

Our health minister thought it was a good idea to publish a book, in the face of the drama that shakes us. Maybe leave the book-writing to us hacks: We expect him to work, work, and work more at this time. Then there's the prime minister. I have the utmost respect for Prime Minister Conte, but as more and more people fall sick, perhaps the cascade of tiny measures are no longer any use.

The economy minister, for his part, repeats that we must strike a balance between economy and health — when there can be no room for confusion on what should be a priority. And the civil service minister has overseen the launch of Immuni, Italy's contact tracing app — which we must admit has been a failure. Yet again, as citizens, we have to give up shares of our freedom if we want to defend our civilization.

The government's accounts of what has happened don't add up. While the house burns, they bang on about "verification," calling "Estates generals' and other politicalese. Neither do the opposition's accounts: While tension seethes in squares across the country, they can't seem to find new words to combine their positions, the truth, and responsibility.

The accounts of local authorities don't add up either, as they swing between the hesitations of Lombardy, once again the epicenter of Italy's coronavirus crisis, and the thunderous top-down deliberations of Campania, which fanned the flames of unrest in Naples.

The tension we've seen in Naples is more than simply a matter of public order. They are a lit fuse ready to explode in our democracy, a challenge for our values and institutions, which require us to be rigorous but also fair. Regional authorities have harshly condemned the violent turn of the protests, but a devastated and difficult territory cannot be governed with terror: Public opinion must be sensitized, mobilized, sure, also but reassured.

We can learn from Angela Merkel and the historic "wir schaffen das' (we can do this) she said five years ago. It was a different era — Germany had just chosen to welcome one million asylum seekers from Syria. But it is the kind of words we expect from those who should guide us past this pandemic. It depends on us, it depends on you, but yes: We really can do this.

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The parliamentary opposition groups refuse to see that they do not constitute a political majority, since they would be incapable of governing together and that they have in common, for too many of them, on both sides of the political spectrum, left and right, only the hatred of money, the mistrust of success, and the contempt for excellence.

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