Millisphere: a discrete region inhabited by one thousandth of the total world population.

My friend Chris Shorter, whom I first met when he was a teacher at Whanganui Collegiate in the 1980s, is currently sitting it out in a Covid-19 hotspot in Italy.

In this smartphone age we sometimes video call, half a day apart, and catch up. Last week he showed me the last snowfall of the season and the spring growth in rural Marche, northeast of Rome.

Chris lives in the eastern Apennine foothills and his nearest city, Benedetto del Tronto, was entirely depopulated by a plague in 1478. Marche has not been as badly infected by Covid-19 as Lombardy but nearly a thousand people have been cut down by the virus there.

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Chris and I have been discussing his millisphere, which we call Adriatica. Marche (1.5 million) combined with neighbouring provinces Abrusso, Molise and Apulia gives us seven million inhabitants.

Adriatica covers the watershed from the Apennines into the Adriatic Sea all the way from the heel of the boot of Italy in the south and it includes the independent country of San Marino (33,000) in the north.

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History had left the tiny kingdom of San Marino out of the process of Italian Unification in the 19th century and it was independent during both world wars.

San Marino is one of the world's wealthiest countries and is the only country that has more cars than people.

San Marino also has "the world's best health-care system" - and the world's highest percentage of confirmed Covid-19 cases per capita.

As of April 2020, San Marino had one confirmed case per 54 inhabitants and one Covid-19 death per 814 residents. Wealthy Italians who had retired to a tax haven were hit hard.

The rest of Adriatica is poorer than San Marino and most of it was considered to be part of South Italy. Poverty drove rural depopulation in the 1960s and 70s, leaving mechanised small-scale agriculture and small crafts workshops making everything from shoes to accordions.

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Poor but stable, Adriatica is not one of Italy's tourism nodes, although Romans come over for the pristine beaches in their summer holidays. Other than that it was pretty quiet, and had a "very Italian personality", Chris said.

Italy is the only G7 country to embrace the Belt and Road relationship with China. Presumed to have started with one of the 100,000 Chinese workers in Milan, Covid-19 quickly spread through North Italy.

In early March 2020, all of Italy went into lockdown. It became illegal to go more than 200 metres from home. Churches, mosques and synagogues were closed. The Pope preached on television to an empty St Peter's Square and clergy debated whether you could hear a confession over a cell phone or not.

Things got medieval.

A cross associated with "the miraculous plague cure of 1522" was resurrected and a mad Rabbi living in the Golan Heights claimed that Italy would continue to suffer until it returned the sacred vessels taken by the Romans from the Jerusalem Temple and currently held in a cave in the Vatican. Hallelujah.

Whanganui resident Andrew Zimmerman saw his Italian holiday cut short with the outbreak of Covid-19.
Whanganui resident Andrew Zimmerman saw his Italian holiday cut short with the outbreak of Covid-19.

Two months later, and with falling daily Covid tallies, Italy is relaxing its lockdown. Five million workers are going back to their offices and factories. Religious gatherings are permitted again - with masks, gloves and safe distancing.

The Catholic Church managed to negotiate thermometers out of the agreement with the government and priests are having a hard think about whether to put the eucharist on the tongue.

Before Covid-19 arrived the olive farmers of Adriatica were already suffering. In 2015 the Xylella fastidiosa bacteria appeared in the olive groves in Apulia, in the heel of the boot of Italy. Hundred-year-old olive trees would turn black and die.

Plant scientists discovered that the olive quick decline syndrome (OQDS) was caused by a bacteria that had originated in the Americas.

Like Covid-19 there is as yet no known cure for OQDS and it has spread to Corsica, Spain and France. The EU has declared OQDS the most serious threat that European agriculture faces. OQDS and Covid-19 means a double whammy for Arcadia's economy.