I made a mistake, in the pages of a British magazine last month, by announcing the dawning of an era in which Giuseppe Conte, then the Italian prime minister, would become an essential national figure. This was a mistake in one obvious and chastening way – Conte failed to form another government, he no longer holds office of any kind – but wrong in another sense: one which may mean that, if anything, I undersold Conte’s stock.
On the second count, one could argue with conviction, Conte has been a significant national figure, and a figure of history, for many months.
I may as well explain. You might remember the beginning of the pandemic a year ago. It seemed rather important at the time.
Italy was once of the epicentres of infection. Its citizens started falling to the contagion very fast and the disease established its hold with rapidity. As think-pieces were being written in the United States debating whether Italy’s multigenerational homes may hamper its ability to hold back the virus, the country was beginning to be stricken with mass mortality.
Before widespread testing, before the disease was widely understood, villages and small towns in Italy were beginning to bury their residents in alarming numbers. Local papers published extended obituary sections; churches filled up with a year’s worth of burials in a week; and the military was enlisted to transport bodies from overfilled hospitals to overfull mortuaries.
As this was happened, Conte did two things for which history may not remember or thank him. First, beginning a year ago this week with the declaration of a ‘red zone’ in the north of the country, Conte’s government initiated the first set of policies which became shortened to ‘lockdown’ – the first instance of this set of policies in a democratic country in the course of the pandemic.
And second, in justifying these actions and attempting to set the nation’s face against the grim toll it was powerless but to bear, Italy’s prime minister addressed the nation.
‘The whole of Italy will become a protected zone’, he said.
‘There is no more time. I will take responsibility for these measures. Our future is in our hands’, Conte told a press conference in early March.
When Italians were first confined to their homes two emotions predominated: the first, soon to be seen across the world, was irritation tinged with disbelief; the second was a fear possibly unlike any feeling experienced elsewhere in the course of the epidemic. There is unique fright in being the first among transparent nations to confront a mortal threat.
Conte’s personal bravery and his willingness to be first – something other national leaders could have been, and may soon be revealed to have dodged – are both historic virtues. Not only that, they set the pattern for the pandemic in a most uncertain time. This alone guarantees Conte as historical figure.
Italy’s prime minister took responsibility for actions which were unpopular and untested. Even at that parlous moment, being considered to have overreacted must have seemed a great threat to his prospects. It would have meant political death if shown to have been unwarranted.
Other leaders fell notably victim to a false dichotomy.
In Britain, behavioural scientists, and the dead hand of the 2011 pandemic plan, both appeared to indicate that containing or seriously delaying the disease was impossible. Each suggested, not directly, never overtly, that the government may find itself painted into such a corner that the easiest method of escape was to allow the weak to die off, leaving the path to freedom unobstructed. This could perhaps have been allowed to happen accidentally. It may have been possible to let hundreds of thousands die for lack of a visible alternative. An act perhaps of god, that the politicians were powerless to stop. Their deaths accompanied by perverse bureaucratic and political gratitude.
If Conte had not done what he did in Italy – shown that there was another way – it is at least possible no one would have had the courage to do so in the decaying Old World. That without his example, Europe’s spinelessness could have proven more contagious than temporary courage.
We cannot say either way, of course. But although chronology does not indicate causation, it does at least affirm the order of events. It was first Italy’s turn to be tested, and its prime minister met that test with a pathbreaking bravery his own position and prior life may not otherwise have indicated.
In time, in Italy as in other countries, more details will come out about the pandemic’s early days. These new facts will deprecate the government’s response and impugn by implication all in public office at that time. No one will be without some blame. All could have seen things earlier and would have benefited in the eye of history from a little more prescience than each exhibited.
No doubt there will be glaring holes found in Italy’s response to the disease: warnings unheeded, which were structural and momentary; decisions in procurement later analysts will honestly, upon reflection, term ‘baffling’; episodes of graft and indecency which bedevil democracies and shame everyone touched by their association. These things will be spoken of in Italy when the enquiry concludes, and all positive thought of those in power at that time may be forcibly driven from mind.
It is quite likely that Conte will be judged harshly by future opinion, as much for what he did not do as for what he did.
But for this moment, at least, before enquiries are ordered and archives opened, between the pandemic period’s ignorant, vituperative coverage and the arrival – in the future – of the snide tones which herald revisionists, those of us whose grandparents received vaccines this year rather than burials might consider a thought or two of thanks to the man, now out of office, whose actions may have saved their lives by the strength of his example and the decisiveness, in his country’s darkest moments, of his action.
This essay was originally published in Correspondence, an occasional journal.