The Italian Communicators of COVID-19

Italian soccer player asks fans to stay home during pandemic lockdowns

By Joy Portella


It’s difficult for me to write about Italy and COVID-19, mostly because it makes me so sad. As of this writing, more than 6,000 Italians have died—more deaths than in China, where the virus started—and there are nearly 64,000 cases of coronavirus in Italy.  


So many Italian quirks have conspired against them in this pandemic: the older age demographic, the stubborn smokers, the barely controlled chaos, the cheek kissing and strolling arm-in-armand the distrust of political leaders and, to a certain extent, science. A strong state health system and the much-lauded Mediterranean diet have given Italians some of the longest life expectancies in the world, but they’re no match COVID-19.  

If anything has served Italians well in this epidemic, it’s their considerable talent as communicators. That’s what I’d like to cover in this blog.  


Normally one might look to voices of authority, particularly political authorityin a crisis like this. Yes, Italian Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte has been strong and steady—albeit a bit late—in laying out severe restrictions on how Italians need to shelter in place. Other leaders have been confused and confusing, initially encouraging Italians to stay strong in their social habits. Still others have been, well, comical. And for a moment of levity in this very unfunny pandemic, watch this video montage of exasperated Italian mayors telling people to get off the streets and stay home.   


But this blog isn’t about the leaders. It’s about the other folks—medical workers, health experts, even normal people—who are boldly and courageously giving voice to a pandemic. 


The doctorThe voices of doctors from Italy’s northern regions should be a warning to all of us. They are on the front lines, exhausted, and desperate. For me, the most striking picture of how this virus has impacted northern Italy comes from the podcast The Daily. Last week, The Daily interviewed Dr. Fabiano DiMarco, who heads up the respiratory unit at Hospital Papa Giovanni XXIII in Bergamo, just outside of Milan. I implore you to take 20 minutes and listen to his recounting of the hospital being inundated with patients, the elderly dying alone, and his shock at caring for fellow caregivers. It is beyond poignant.      


The soccer starItaly is one of the most soccer-crazy countries in the world and the words and actions of soccer stars matter to ItaliansSo it was a big deal on the evening of March 9, when Francesco Caputo took a stand. The famous striker plays Serie A soccer for Sassuolo, a town right outside of Modena in Italy’s corona-ridden north. After his first of two goals, he turned to the camera and held up a hand-written sign that read: “Everything will be fine. Stay home.” A few hours later, Prime Minister Conte announced a country-wide lockdown and the Serie A season came to a screeching halt.  


The expertLong before coronavirus, Dr. Roberto Burioni had made a name for himself as the fierce opponent of the Italian anti-vaccine movement. The Milan-based physician and professor of microbiology and virology has become somewhat of a celebrity, going head-to-head with anti-vaxxers on social media and some of Italy’s most sensationalized “news” shows and attracting more than 200,000 followers on Twitter. In the past month, Dr. Burioni has become just as outspoken on COVID-19, loudly and persistently advocating for more testing, more tracking, and rigorous isolation of people who have the virus or suspect they have been exposed   


The tenorThe internet has been filled with moving videos of Italians singing from their balconies—patriotic songs, folk songs, opera choruses—you name it. But the most striking performance thus far was tenor Maurizio Marchini serenading all of Florence from his window with Puccini’s aria “Nessun Dorma” (or “no one shall sleep”) from the opera Turandot. Opera was born in Italy almost 500 years ago and, while other cultures have embraced it, no one delivers it like the Italians. It’s not surprising they’re turned to this high-drama art form during a time of national tragedy.  


The people: Filmmaker Olmo Parenti released a brilliant short called 10 Days. The premise is simple: Italians living in a rapidly evolving national nightmare send messages to their clueless selves from 10 days earlier, when they were living freely, not heeding increasing calls for caution in social interaction, and generally, thinking coronavirus was not a big deal. But really the film isn’t for Italians. It’s for all of us who are living 10+ days behind them in terms of the epidemic’s impact. As one film participant explains to her 10-day past self: “What’s happening is much worse than you thought it was. You’ll realize that even just being able to breathe in your own house is something you should be grateful for.”  


The American: Dr. Anthony Fauci may be American but he’s the grandson of immigrants from Naples and Sicily, and right now, he’s the only national voice of reason in the United States’ COVID-19 response. Jesuit-educated with an unmistakable Brooklyn accent (two things I love), Dr. Fauci has served as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases through six presidential administrations and he is decidedly non-partisan 


You see Dr. Fauci at nearly every national press briefing about the virus, politely but firmly correcting President Trump on his many misstatements, most recently swashing chatter about the utility of a side effect-ridden anti-malarial to combat COVID-19. When the Good Doctor takes a day off, the Twitter-verse goes wild with desperate #WhereIsFauci hashtags. Dr. Fauci does not coddle Americans. Quite the opposite: He’s calm in recounting the status of the pandemic and directive in telling us how we should respond. Even the New York Times’ oft-cynical Maureen Dowd recently called him a “national treasure.” 


The fitting irony in Dr. Fauci saving the president’s hide and our national sanity is that—100 years ago—southern Italy was the “sh$%hole country” of its day. The influx of folks who were thought to be swarthy, criminal Papists (along with eastern European Jews) led to a highly restrictive, discriminatory immigration quota law in 1924—the legislative equivalent of “the wall” that our president aspires to build todayI’m glad Dr. Fauci’s grandparents got here before that legal wall was erected because, right now, he is the only adult in the room.  


In the coming days and weeks, I look forward to hearing more from the folks at the frontlines of Italy’s COVID-19 outbreak. More than anything, I hope they have better news to share. Forza!  

About The Author

Joy Portella

Joy Portella

Founder and President

Joy leads the Minerva Strategies team, providing senior-level direction to every client. Her skills have been honed through more than two decades of experience helping organizations more effectively communicate with media, donors, policymakers and other key audiences.

Prior to establishing Minerva, Joy spent five years as director of communications at the international humanitarian organization Mercy Corps. She guided Mercy Corps’ messaging, media relations, and crisis communications, and traveled extensively to document work in global hotspots including the Horn of Africa, the Gaza Strip, and North Korea. Previously, Joy worked for a decade at leading communication firms – Burson-Marsteller, Ruder Finn and SS+K – in New York and Washington DC.