The Pandemic as Theatre

La Divina Commedia

Author’s soliloqui

But how would you write a play about the pandemic? We have seen everything by now, everyone is tired. How often have we heard to keep distance, wear a mask. Is there any government in the world, any NGO which has not released a COVID video tutorial by now. Yes, teach me how to do it. The virus is virtual and by definition merely invisible. I can only see it when it is too late, in the crowded hospitals, those are the images of the pandemic. How does one get there, where is the peripety, the retardation? Fate is decided by the COVID test. The swab up in the nose as purgatorio, deciding about hospital inferno or homely paradiso. Get satanised with dingy hospital sanitiser or Pizza delivered to your doorstep by guys named Angelo.

The setting

  • a tent at a highway, a sunny winter morning, less than five degrees
  • a long queue waiting in front of the tent

The characters, in order of appearance

  • three mummy-looking health care workers in PPE clothing
  • their boss
  • two young men
  • businesswoman, stressed and without much time
  • man in his fifties, calm, does not say anything
  • elderly sick looking couple, hearing impaired
  • even more sick looking old couple
  • passers by: a lady with a dog sniffing around the tent, a mother with her schoolchild, various other neighbours

First Act

exposition: The authors finally received a testing slot, after facing the void of countless unanswered and hung up phone calls

author 1: Let’s be on time, we still don’t know how the payment system works. Even though it is strange that we have to pay on the spot. Wouldn’t that be too crowded?

author 2: (passes by the tent for the first time. Many people are gathered in front of it) I need a short moment for a little rant. How come that it is so crowded here? All these people are looking rather sick. Let’s park our bikes as far as possible from here and see what is happening.

author 1: (after minutes of observation) Nothing moves.

author 2: Nothing at all.

a lady with a dog passes by, the dog first has a sniff at the bench of the authors, then moves on to the tent, does a slalom around the legs of the queuing people.

author 1: Why are all these people having forms in their hands? Maybe there is something we don’t know. Should I go and ask?

author 2: Are you sure you want to move close to the tent? It seems to be quite a crowd already.

author 1: I guess we don’t have a choice. (leaves, indistinct conversation with one of the healthcare workers. A1 returns with two forms and two pens). Alright, so the testing system broke down within the whole city. It has been dysfunctional since the last thirty minutes and they do not know how to reactivate it, or whether it will be possible today at all. But if it will work again, we will have to pay and do the test, everything inside the tent. The only thing we can do is wait and fill out the form.

author 2: But the form contains many information relating to the Italian healthcare system. I am not part of that. Do you think I can still get tested?

author 1: That is not clear at this point. I think the only thing we can do is wait.

A mother is passing by with her curious daughter with a schoolbag.  

author 1 (mumbles): Yes, sure, bring your kid here on a walk, because what could be more beautiful than a morning walk along the covid tent.

(another half an hour passes with the authors sitting at the bench overlooking the tent where more and more people are coming in for their respective booked time slots which are put on hold due to the system crash).

Second Act

rising action: The authors change from outside observers to participants of the scene. All the 50 sick people unite within a space of less than five square meters after a break down of the testing system

the lady with the dog comes back, the dog first checking out the cars parked in the middle of the road next to the tent, full of people waiting, then passing on to the bike area

author 1: Almost one hour has passed. Should we line up in the queue?

author 2: Can’t we just go home and leave it? We haven’t paid anything yet.

author 1: That is not possible. Once we register we are inside the system and they would know we have bunked the test. They could come to our house and check if we are there, I gave them our address.

author 2: Then I guess we do not have a choice. It also seems that everyone is trying to cut the queue and get ahead. There is not even a barrier or a marker for a line. No wonder people are standing in a crowd rather than forming a line. There is simply no infrastructure.

author 1: So are we ready for lining up for this without any social distancing, meeting most likely the sickest people in town?

author 2: Ok

while approaching, indistinct voices are heard, while the three health care workers are seen rtaking off and on their gloves to reply to text messages on their cellphones. In the meantime, the position the authors want to take up in the queue behind two young men is taken up by an elderly couple cutting through the one metre distance between the young men and the authors.

author 2: Should they not be afraid of us? For all we know we could have COVID. Should I say that a little louder?

businesswoman: (addressing no one in particular) How much more time will this take? This is so incompetent. How can you make people wait for so long?

The older couple changes their mind and joins the crowd around the healthcare workers in front of the queue at the entrance of the tent.

Third Act

crisis: chaos, forcing the head of the testing agency to issue the threat of calling the carabinieri

healthcare boss: (appearing at the tent entrance) This is unacceptable. Everyone, move backwards immediately! I say you cannot stand here without social distancing. Do it now!

The crowd responds with equal hostility and loud indistinct complaints. 

Give us a test immediately! We want access to the tent!

man in his fifties: the only one saying nothing

healthcare boss: Alright, if you do not make a line I will call the police and the carabinieri immediately! No one gets a test who does not maintain social distancing.

author 2: standing at the end of the crowd, far from the shouting healthcare boss, making a video

healthcare boss: You! (the crowd divides, for the first time takes distance from author 1 and 2, the healthcare boss approaches author 2) What are you doing? Did you take a video of me? Delete it immediately! Show me, I want to see that you deleted it.

author 2: I am sorry, I was just taking a selfie.

healthcare boss: Ah ok no problem. (returns to the tent entrance)

Fourth Act

retardation: after three hours of waiting, the test is finally conducted, could it be that all the pain had been worth all the while?

healthcare boss: Alright, the system is on again. I know that you have been mixing and trying to get ahead of the queue, so I will now pronounce the time slots for the tests that were scheduled and not yet conducted. That way, we will restore order in this mess.

She notices some confused people standing next to the tent and quickly addresses them.

healthcare boss: Hey you, why are you standing there? Do you have an appointment? (people shaking their heads) I see. Ok, well, just stay there, don’t move. I’m afraid you will have to wait after everyone got their test done. Yes, this afternoon. Then she proceeds shouting out time slots. Nine o’clock! Please, go ahead. 

sickly old couple: heavy loud breathing

an even more sick looking couple appears and moves to the front of the tent in the middle of the organising procedure. The lady can hardly stand so her husband organises a chair for her in the middle of the newly formed line

authors 1 and 2: line up behind the two young men again

businesswoman: receives an important phone call, picks up and takes off her mask to be able to talk better, wanders along the line while speaking

author 1: I will have the longest shower ever after this.

author 2: I will have the longest shower ever and then I will disinfect myself entirely after this.

author 1: But even if we did not have COVID yet, we might very likely have it after today.

author 2: And it would not even be detected in the test, we would only come to know about it if we did another test.

author 1: A vicious cycle.

After another half an hour, author 1 enters the covid testing tent. Author 2 observes how the entries of the form are copied into another form by the first healthcare worker in handwriting. Author 1 is ordered to stand and wait at the other end of the tent, next to the chair where one of the young men is just getting a swab up his nose. Then author 2 enters.

healthcare worker 1: What is your name? You have not written it properly. Also, where is your Italian health insurance card?

author 2: I am sorry, it is a German name, that is why the letter does not exist in Italian. I have put it in the English transcription instead. I –

healthcare worker 1: (interrupts) Please maintain your social distance while you are talking to me!

author 2: I am sorry, I just wanted to ask if it is alright that I do not have Italian health insurance. I only have a –

mother with her schoolchild: moves in the space between author 2 and the healthcare worker 1, taking off her mask to talk better to healthcare worker 1: Ciao cara! What a busy day, eh? I heard that the system broke down, must have been a lot of work for you, no? I thought I just passed by with my daughter and see how you are doing.

healthcare worker 1: Yeah, you cannot imagine it is such a mess. But it is so great to see you! How are you doing? (indistinct conversation between the mother and the healthcare worker following)

author 2: Excuse me, but are my documents alright?

healthcare worker 1: Yes, please move to my colleague doing the payment on the other side of the tent.

author 2: Thank you! (moves to the cashier)

healthcare workers 1 and 2: Further!!!

authors 1 and 2: wait until the person before them has paid in cash and collected all the coins. Then author 2 watches as author 1 is asked to sit down at the chair and gets his swab conducted by healthcare worker 3, first deep down inside the throat, then inside the nose.

healthcare worker 3: Alright, it is your turn, author number 1. Let me check your name on the form. There is a strange letter here, let me write it differently. performs the test Ok, that’s it!

author 1: I can’t believe we did it!

author 2: Let’s go home and let’s go to bed.

Fifth Act

tragedy: in which the author’s swab get lost and the procedure starts again, perpetuating until infinity

the same evening

author 1: Oh, I received a text message from the laboratory. They have processed my data and will send me the result soon. Have you received the same message?

author 2: No.

author 1: That’s strange. But maybe we simply have to wait a bit.

the next evening

author 1: Oh, I received an email with a link to my test result. I am negative. Wow, that is amazing. Did you get the same message?

author 2: No.

author 1: That’s strange. Let’s wait until tomorrow, maybe it will come.

the evening afterwards

author 2: There is still no result. Should we call them?

author 1: Alright. Let me do it immediately. (dials the number of the test centre. After four attempts and 10 minutes, finally the call gets through). “Salve! Yes, we have been tested two days ago. Yes, I’ll hold on. Wait, what do you mean you do not have access on the database? You cannot find the test of author 1? We have to go back to the testing site in person? But is that not dangerous, given that this could increase the contagion rate for everyone? There is nothing we can do about it? Sure, of course we will come back.

the end

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