Lombardy Postcard, The Autumn Of Our Second-Wave Angst

Lago d’Iseo, Lombardy
Lago d’Iseo, Lombardy
Alessio Perrone

MILAN — I recently spent a weekend at the Lago d'Iseo, a picturesque area of Lombardy at the foot of the Alps east of Milan, the city where I live. The air was hot and still, resting damp and heavy like a warm towel placed over your face. Dark clouds loomed all day across the lake, but the sun scorched everything. My girlfriend and I hiked, sipped local sparkling wine, soaked in the light. Wary of the heat, but without swimsuits, we dipped in the lake with our shorts and socks.

In other words, we did normal things — which still amazes me three months after Italy emerged from a 70-day lockdown. This region was once the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic: The provinces of Bergamo and Brescia, which include this scenic lake, were perhaps the worst hit areas in the sudden wave of deaths that took Europe by storm last spring.

As a reporter, I took all of it in then: The nurses collapsed on desks, no longer able to fight their fatigue; church bells that stopped tolling for the dead because there were too many; a funeral operator who had a nervous breakdown because he could no longer cope. Some of these nearby villages were ravaged, with one local priest telling me that so many people had died that he couldn't even picture what the town would be like after the pandemic.

Let's talk again in the fall, maybe.

But after the lockdown ended and summer arrived, we had pushed all of this away during our time under the sun. Soccer restarted, clubs reopened, the beach and mountain holidays remained sacred for millions of Italians. Whenever someone brought up the coronavirus, it would be pushed along with a sigh: "Here's to hoping there isn't a second wave in the fall." If anyone asked to plan something, though, we couldn't ever quite commit: "Let's talk again in the fall, maybe."

Looming clouds over Lago d'Iseo — Photo: Alessio Perrone

Then came the fall. Temperatures have nosedived in Milan and it has rained a lot. Old worries have consistency again. I'm not sure what constitutes a "second wave", but the virus is spreading quickly, with thousands of Italians coming back from their holidays infected. Reports of famous people catching COVID punctuated the first days of bad weather — flashy businessman Flavio Briatore, dozens of soccer players, and now Silvio Berlusconi.

Italy hasn't seen the stark increase of other European countries and is currently registering fewer than 1,500 new cases per day — and for some, it's enough for life to continue as normal. But the reopening of schools, stadiums and offices happens among tension and an understated fear. Trauma lingers among local COVID survivors, and many former patients have developed mental health disorders after defeating the virus. A recent La Stampa article cited a study that showed nearly half have developed insomnia and anxiety; a third were found to suffer from depression; PTSD and obsessive-compulsive disorders are also on the rise.

The reopening of schools, stadiums and offices happens among tension and an understated fear.

Here in Milan, we go about it tentatively, wondering if every step forward will be followed by taking two back. After the past months of evading the virus with outdoor activities, we know that we will soon be forced inside. La Scala — perhaps the city's most recognizable address — reopens Friday for the first time since the lockdown, and the first performance scheduled in the famed opera theater, Giuseppe Verdi's Messa da Requiem, seems an appropriate choice to commemorate Lombardy's dead. But as autumn arrives, it's hard not to also hear its ominous tones in the air of the coming season.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

A Dove From Hiroshima: Is Fumio Kishida Tough Enough To Lead Japan?

Japan's new prime minister is facing the twin challenges of COVID-19 and regional tensions, and some wonder whether he can even last as long as his predecessor, who was forced out after barely one year.

Japan's new PM Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on Sept. 29

Daisuke Kondo


TOKYO — When Fumio Kishida, Japan's new prime minister. introduced himself earlier this month, he announced that the three major projects of his premiership will be the control of the ongoing pandemic; a new type of capitalism; and national security.

Kishida also pledged to deal with China "as its neighbor, biggest trade partner and an important nation which Japan should continue to dialogue with."

Nothing too surprising. Still, it was a rapid turn of events that brought him to the top job, taking over for highly unpopular predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, who had suddenly announced his resignation from office.

After a fierce race, Kishida defeated Taro Kono to become the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and pave the way for the prime minister's job.

Born into politics

A key reason for Kishida's victory is the improving health situation, following Japan's fifth wave of the COVID pandemic that coincided with this summer's Olympic Games in Tokyo.

The best way to describe Kishida is to compare him to a sponge: not the most interesting item in a kitchen, yet it can absorb problems and clean up muck. His slogan ("Leaders exist to make other people shine") reflects well his political philosophy.

He is an excellent actor.

Kishida was born into a political family: His grandfather and father were both parliament members. Between the ages of six to nine, he studied in New York because of his father's work at the time. He attended the most prestigious private secondary school — the Kaisei Academy, of which about half of its graduates go to the University of Tokyo.

However, after failing three times the entrance exam to , Kishida finally settled for Waseda University. Coming from a family where virtually all the men went to UTokyo, this was Kishida's first great failure in life.

An invitation for Obama

After he graduated from college, Kishida worked for five years in a bank before serving as secretary for his father, Fumitake Kishida. In 1992, his father suddenly died at the age of 65. The following year, Kishida inherited his father's legacy to be elected as a member of the House of Representatives for the Hiroshima constituency. Since then, he has been elected successfully nine straight times, and served as Shinzo Abe's foreign minister for four years, beginning in December 2012. A former subordinate of his from that time commented on Kishida:

"If we are to sum him up in one sentence, he is an excellent actor. Whenever he was meeting his peers from other countries, we would remind him what should be emphasized, or when a firm, unyielding 'No' was necessary, and so on ... At the meetings, he would then put on his best show, just like an actor."

According to some insiders, during this period as foreign minister, his toughest stance was on nuclear weapons. This is due to the fact that his family hails from Hiroshima.

In 2016, following his suggestion, the G7 Ise-Shima Summit was held in Hiroshima, which meant that President Barack Obama visited the city — the first visit by a U.S. president to Hiroshima, where 118,661 lives were annihilated by the U.S. atomic bomb.

Photo of Shinzo Abe, Barack Obama and Fumio Kishida with their backs to the camera, in Hiroshima in 2016

Shinzo Abe, Barack Obama and Fumio Kishida in Hiroshima in 2016

Japanese cynics

In September, 2020 when Shinzo Abe stepped down as prime minister, Kishida put out his candidacy for the first time for LDP's presidency. He didn't even get close. This was his second great failure.

But reading his biography, Kishida Vision, I must say that besides the two aforementioned hiccups, Kishida's life has been smooth sailing over the past 64 years

When one has had a happy and easy life, one tends to think that human nature is fundamentally good. Yet, the world doesn't work like that. And Japanese tend to believe that "human nature is vice," and have always felt a bit uneasy with the dovish Kishida diplomacy when he was foreign minister.

Leftist traditions from Hiroshima

Hiroshima has always been a city with a leftist political tradition. Kishida's character, coupled with the fact that he belongs to the moderate Kochikai faction within the LDP, inevitably means that he won't be a right-wing prime minister.

How long will a Fumio Kishida government last?

Kishida would never have the courage to be engaged in any military action alongside Japan's ally, the United States, nor will he set off to rewrite the country's constitution.

So after barely a year of Yoshihide Suga in office, how long will a Fumio Kishida government last? If Japan can maintain its relatively stable health situation for some time, it could be a while. But if COVID comes roaring back, and the winter brings a sixth wave of the pandemic as virtually all Japanese experts in infectious diseases have predicted, then Kishida may just end up like Suga. No sponge can clean up that mess.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!