Three months later, Florence restarts. But not quite

By Ugo Bardi

The epidemic is almost over in Italy. After almost three painful months of lockdown and the loss of about 30,000 lives, the daily number of victims of the coronavirus is slowly dwindling to zero. In a couple of weeks at most, the epidemic will be completely gone. It is time to restart, but the damage has been terrible.

The lockdown is over and the Florentines are back, walking in the streets, wearing face masks, but free to go wherever they want, provided that they don’t form groups (“assembramenti“). A few tourists can be seen, slowly walking around, a little bewildered. Below, you see a picture of a few days ago with two lone tourists taking a picture of the “Porcellino” (Wild Boar) (the boar looks a little bewildered, too.).

Many shops have reopened, but not all of them — maybe 30% are still closed. For what I could see this morning downtown, all the open shops are empty of customers. The restaurants also look empty. The buses are nearly empty, too. Here is a picture taken this morning, with me and my wife the only passengers of a bus that used to be packed full before the epidemic. Note the signs saying “You cannot sit here!” They don’t seem to be necessary, given the situation.

To pass to you some idea of the somber atmosphere in Florence these days, here are two fragments of conversations I had or witnessed in the street. Maybe these people are too pessimistic, but I have a feeling that they have correctly evaluated the situation.


First, an exchange I overheard a few days ago while waiting in line at the entrance of a supermarket. I don’t know the names of the protagonists, two men in their 50s. The one who said he had a shop I recognized later standing at the entrance of a small clothing shop in Via Romana, in Florence. I am reporting from memory, but the gist of what they said is there

– Hello. How have you been doing? I haven’t seen you around, recently.

– Oh, nice to see you! Of course you didn’t see me! I was at home, like everybody else.

– Yeah, I was at home, too. But are you reopening the shop? I saw it is still closed.

–  Yes, it is still closed, but I am reopening on Monday.

– That’s good, right?

– Not so good, really.

– Why?

– What do you think I can sell? There are no more tourists.

– Well, you didn’t sell just to tourists. They don’t come here so often.

– No, but you see. Someone from Spain would come and buy something. Then someone from America would come and buy something. And so on. See? It made the difference.

– I see….

– So, I am opening yes. But I am just selling off the stock I have. Then I’ll close for good. In a month or two, I think.

– Really? Are you sure?

– How do you think I can pay the rent and the taxes? And for renewing the stock?

– Well, I think the government will help us.

– Yeah, sure.


Now, a conversation I had this morning with a man who had a kiosk selling used books downtown. Again, it is reported from memory, but I tried to reproduce the sense and the tone of what I was told.

See? This kiosk has been around for a long while. Really long, see, it was here during the war already. The woman who had started this business sold the license in 1946. Oh, yes, and I have been selling books here for a long time. Sure, I am 66 now. Last year I thought I could retire, but then I decided I could keep going for a little longer. But they have been ruining me. First, there used to be an antique market right behind the kiosk, you know that, and then the city decided to send them away — not elegant enough for the city of Florence. Sure. Before, people would visit the market and then stop here and buy books — I had some good books, even antique ones. I was known, people knew that I had those books. I still have a few. But the antique market is gone — they sent it somewhere out of town. Yes, it was not elegant enough for here, they said. They call it “decorum” of the city. Sure, and the people of the market are not selling anything anymore, where they are now. And I wasn’t selling anything, either. Well, a little I was still selling. Not much, but a little. But then this. I have been forced to close down for three months. And I told them that I couldn’t pay the license and the tax. And they say, fine, you don’t need to pay for three months. Then you have to restart paying, and that’s final. And if you don’t pay, they said, you bring back your license to us and we’ll give you a compensation of Eur 600, and that’s it. And good riddance. You understand? They are happy that I close. Perfectly happy. A kiosk is not elegant enough for the decorum of the city, they say. Maybe they think that when tourists see my kiosk they run away screaming. Tourists like fancy shops only. And I have to pay 54 Euro per day — yes, 54 euros in taxes and fees to the city. And I have to sell books for more than that if I have to eat. And to buy more books to sell, otherwise, what am I going to sell? Don’t you see? There is no way. Nobody walking around, nobody buying anything, no tourists, they have gone. I should have retired last year, but I couldn’t have imagined…. how could I have imagined this? And the city helping us? Ha! The mayor says he is furious, yeah, sure, he said that. I read it in the newspaper. He said he is furious because the central government didn’t give him any money for the epidemic. That’s what he said. And what should I say, myself? If the mayor is furious, how about me? I have been giving money to the mayor for 30 years and the mayor now is furious because he has no money to give to me. Aw…. even if he got some money from the government, I am sure he won’t give any money to me or to the people who have shops and who need money. Like me, that’s it. And so I’ll be closing down. I’ll be just selling the books I have and then good riddance. This square will be empty: no antique market no kiosks, nothing. I figure they’ll be happy. It is what they wanted all along, decorum, yes. An empty square, and that’s it.

(*) The owners of the Calzoleria Leonardo Tozzi in Via Romana were kind enough to give me permission to publish the photo you see at the beginning of this post. If you happen to be in Florence, and you need a shoe repair job, you can find them in Via Romana 135r, just a few steps from the clothing shop mentioned in the first conversation reported in this shop.


Ugo Bardi teaches physical chemistry at the University of Florence, in Italy and he is also a member of the Club of Rome. He is interested in resource depletion, system dynamics modeling, climate science and renewable energy. Contact: ugo.bardi(whirlything)


This article was first published in Countercurrents


Corona Virus: What’s happening?

By Ugo Bardi from Florence, Italy

The most recent data indicate a decrease in the number of coronavirus infections in Italy. That means we could get out of the epidemic in the coming months. But why do we expect this trend? It is explained in the field of Science called “epidemiology” that studies how epidemics spread.

The first epidemiology studies date back to 1927, when two British researchers, Kermack and McKendrick, developed the “SIR” model (susceptible, infected, removed), still used today. However, the basis of these studies was the previous work of the American Alfred Lotka and the Italian Vito Volterra. A few years earlier, they had developed the model that we now call “Lotka-Volterra,” but also “predator-prey,” or “foxes and rabbits” (although neither Lotka nor Volterra ever spoke of foxes or rabbits).

Let’s explain. Imagine a green islet in the middle of the sea, populated by only two species: foxes and rabbits (there is no such island, but let’s take it as a hypothetical example). The population of foxes (predators) tends to grow when rabbits (prey) are abundant. It grows so fast that, at some point, the surviving rabbits can no longer reproduce quickly enough to replace those eaten by the foxes. The rabbit population reaches a maximum and then falls. At this point, the foxes starve. With few foxes around, the remaining rabbits can reproduce peacefully and the cycle begins again.

The model is based on the idea that predators tend to take more resources than nature can replace: it is what we now call “overexploitation” It always ends badly, but the model describes the trajectory of the populations that first grow and then collapse as a bell-shaped curve. An example of a real case is that of St. Matthew Island in the Pacific. There were no reindeer on the island before the US Navy brought some, in 1944. In a couple of decades they became thousands, they devoured all the grass, and then almost all died of starvation. Then, a couple of particularly harsh winters exterminated the last individuals, sick and hungry. Reindeer was the predators and grass the prey: a classic case of resource overexploitation.

Not that the model can explain the complex interactions in a whole ecosystem, but it is useful to provide us with a framework for what’s happening. And we can use it to understand the current epidemic. It is the same thing: the virus is the predator and the prey is us. The population of the virus is growing rapidly as it always happens when resources are abundant. But soon the virus will begin to run out of prey, fortunately not because infected people die (some, unfortunately, do). They are no longer prey because they become immune. Indeed, the epidemic is following the bell-shaped trajectory predicted by the Lotka-Volterra model.

So, nothing unexpected. Viruses are creatures looking for resources just like we do. They’re doing nothing different than what we did in the past by exterminating species like mammoths or the dodo. And, today, with the huge expansion of the human population over the last 1000-2000 years, we have become a great hunting ground for so many micro-organisms, also because of our tendency to live in crowded cities where it is easier to get infected. Thus, the past history is full of epidemics: plague, smallpox, cholera, influenza and many others.

In a way, we are at war: viruses attack us and we defend ourselves with vaccines, antibiotics, hygiene, and our immune system. But, if it’s a war, we won’t necessarily win it. Maybe we’ll find a vaccine for the Sars-VOC-2 virus, but don’t expect miracles.

Actually, species do not make wars against each other: they adapt, that’s how the ecosystem works. Viruses and bacteria are seen almost only causes for diseases, but our body hosts a large number of them and of many different species. They are not parasites, many are “symbionts” – creatures that help us with so many things, think of our intestinal bacterial flora. So, in time, we’ll end up adapting. And the virus will adapt, too.

Ugo Bardi teaches physical chemistry at the University of Florence, in Italy and he is also a member of the Club of Rome. He is interested in resource depletion, system dynamics modeling, climate science and renewable energy. Contact: ugo.bardi(whirlything)

This essay was first published in

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author and not of Borderless Journal.