Italian Principal Offer Words of Wisdom in Light of the Global Coronavirus Pandemic
The rise of the coronavirus plague has no doubt instilled sense of heightened concern across the globe. China, Japan, Italy, South Korea, and Iran have the world’s leading number of coronavirus cases, resulting in new travel restrictions in an effort to reduce the pace of the spread. As the rest of the glove prepares to face life’s invisible nemesis, the development of fear and exercise of judgement has been a interesting test of humanity’s character.
In response to the virus, the Italian government has decided to close all schools until mid-March. Educational institutions, public festivals, sports matches, and museums may be closed for the time being, but are these closings enough to justify the discontinuation of normal, everyday life?
Milanese high school principal Domenico Squillace wrote a powerful letter to his students addressing life’s best secrets we shouldn’t lose sight of in spite of the rising concerns for an enemy we cannot see. Where there is death and suffering, there is also life, and those who are able, young, and healthy have no reason to put daily life to a standstill.
Read the full letter below.
To the students of these times,
‘The pestilence, as the Tribunal of Health had feared, did enter the Milanese with the German troops. It is also known that it was not limited to that territory, but that it spread over and desolated a great part of Italy…’
The words just written above are those that open Chapter 31 of The Betrothed (I promessi sposi), a chapter that is, just as the next, entirely dedicated to the plague epidemic that hit Milan in 1630. It is an illuminating and extraordinary modern text that I recommend one reads carefully, especially in these confusing times. Everything we are experiencing now has already happened on those pages; the certainty of the danger of foreigners, the violent clash between the authorities, the spasmodic search for the so-called zero patient, the contempt for experts, the hunt for greasers, the uncontrolled voices, the most absurd remedies, the raid on basic necessities, the health emergencies. And in those pages you will come across, among other things, names that you certainly know by frequenting the streets around our high school which, let’s not forget, stands at the center of what was the lazaretto in Milan: via Ludovico Settala, via Alessandro Tadino, and via Felice Casati to list a few famous street names. You will also realize that the words and ideas from Manzoni’s novel seem to have appeared from the very pages of our newspapers today.
Dear children, this is nothing new under the sun, and yet, the closing of our school requires me to send a message to you. Ours is one of those institutions that with its rhythms and rituals marks the passage of time and the orderly unfolding of civilian life, and the forced closure of a school is something that the authorities resort to in rare and truly exceptional cases. It is not for me to evaluate the appropriateness of this measure as I am not an expert nor do I pretend to be. I respect and trust the authorities and I scrupulously observe the indications.
What I want to tell you, however, is to keep a cool head, and to not let yourself be dragged by the collective delusion, to continue — with due precautions — to lead a normal life.
Take advantage of these days to go for walks, to read a good book, there is no reason — if you are well — to stay indoors. There is no reason to storm supermarkets and pharmacies, the masks left to those who are sick, they are only for them. The speed with which a disease can move from one end of the world to another is a sign of the times: there are no walls that can stop it, and centuries ago they moved equally, only a little slower.
One of the greatest risks in such events, Manzoni teaches us (and perhaps even more so Boccaccio), is the poisoning of social life and human relationships, along with the barbarism of civilian life. The atavistic instinct when you feel threatened by an invisible enemy is to see him everywhere, and with this comes the danger of looking at each of our fellow citizens as threats, as potential aggressors. Compared to the epidemics of the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, we have modern medicine on our side, and believe me, its progress and its certainties are not small. Let us use the rational thought that allowed us create said medicine so that we may preserve the most precious asset we possess, our social fabric, our humanity. If we can’t do this, then the plague will have really won.
I will see you all at school,