Coronavirus in Italy. Now it’s serious! – Adesso e’ una cosa seria!

An ambulance leaves the municipal hospital in Codogno, southeast of Milan, on February 22, 2020. –

Since the schools closed for the Mardi Gras break, we have been house-bound for more than two weeks now to fight the coronavirus. We were told that we all must self-isolate to limit the contagion. Despite this, three weeks ago, Italy had only three coronavirus cases. Now it has more than 15,000. We began self-isolating on February 22nd, before Italy decided to quarantine the whole country. Since then, my social outings, including the Carnival events my ten year old and I had been really looking forward to, have all been cancelled as most of them involved being in crowds. 

Here in Italy we are now all quarantined and it kind of sucks. It’s stressful. It is worse than being stuck in the house on a snow day in Boston. There, on a snow day, at least I was able to hang out with the neighbours who were shoveling snow outside their houses. William still misses jumping in the snow drifts from the heights of our patio, sliding around in daddy’s car, and sledding on the Arlington hills. 

Being house-bound now in Turin is worse. The vacant days continue but there is no hanging out with the neighbours outside, no coffee with a friend, no playdates, no lunches or dinner outside the house, no sledding. It is worse than being alone here in Turin at the end of August; a dream in comparison! The only social interaction I had in the last two and a half weeks has been at home over a boxed pizza, two meters away from my best friend Monica. And I was wondering for most of the time we have been together whether I should have been wearing the N95 mask or not to avoid breathing unwanted particles. 

Now William and I only leave the house to quickly walk around our neighbourhood, much like the elderly people do. I occasionally go to the pharmacy to purchase my meds but I have to wait outside. They let you in one at a time, exactly like a bread line in Prague circa 1984. In these two and a half weeks house-bound, I have turned into a full-time cook, cleaner, home-schooler, soccer player, playmate. I feel exhausted. To make things more difficult, my husband John is currently in the US and it is not clear when and how he can join us.  It feels as if William and I were in jail or in self-isolation on a desert island but I should be thankful: we are ok and our necessities are well taken care of.  

It is not the coronavirus itself that frustrates me. It’s what is happening around here. During this period I have to reduce the dosage of my immuno-suppressors to avoid being in the high-risk group. So I have to deal with my immune system attacks again (my eyes today are all red).  And I am worried about my 76 year old mom – who I am not supposed to visit. She often laughs at my strict measures, especially when it forces her to give up habits of a lifetime (e.g. using the same ironed white cotton handkerchief every day). This upsets me. Not to mention the other at-risk elderly people that fill Italy, without whom most children who are now out of school would not have care, while the parents are working. 

What upset me most is the fact that in my home land, there are basically two groups of people: the saints and the idiots, I said to John in a moment of discomfort. I have tried hard to not overreact to this and I tried to defend my personal space but I think I have been riding a dead horse!”.

Foto 1 – Night shift at ER Ospedale di Cremona. Courtesy of nurse Elena Pagliarini
Foto 2 – Crowd of idiots in Via Garibaldi in Turin on March 6.

Here in Italy, there is no sense of responsibility within the community, only the idea that the community has to provide all the solutions, and that the individuals have to do nothing, just wait and see. 

This morning, despite the “stay at home” bill which just came out, I overheard two middle-age women, who were standing outside my front window, chatting about the lack of hospital resources in Italy. They were reiterating over and over again that they were tired of following the mandatory hand washing measures – they were standing so closely next to each other I could not see space between them! They kept blaming the Italian Government’s lack of funding for everything. While they were ignoring the National health measures, once again they were pointing the finger at the Italian authorities.

In reality, here in Italy,  all doctors, Emergency Rooms personnel and intensive care units are free under the Italian National Health Service. Testing is free, and preliminary results are available and public. Furthermore,  anyone who is forced to stay at home in quarantine gets paid sick leave. The Italian Government, the public Health Institutions and all the physicians and nurses have worked incredibly hard to slow down the infection: they isolated the worst-affected areas, set up national and regional telephone hotlines, asked medical trainees and retirees to join in, opened infectious disease dedicated areas in hospitals, instructed a large number of volunteers placed in telephone and triage. I don’t see what else they could have done. 

You probably heard so much criticism from the media on the measures they adopted here in Italy, compared to what they did in Wuhan, China (“here they did nothing! It is too late now). Later on, when the situation became serious, and a few small towns in Lombardy and Veneto got locked up and people forced to stay at home, they started complaining about the excess in safety measures… (“They are going overboard with this! It is just a flu.”). Despite this, the media here did a great job in broadcasting three simple concepts: (1) self-isolate yourself even if you have no symptoms (2) if you have cough and fever, use the phone. Don’t go to doctors’ offices or emergency rooms  (3) If you think you might have coronavirus, ask a doctor to take a swab. 

It would be excellent if my countrymen had followed these simple rules, but as usual many of them didn’t. “A Rome policeman developed a cough on February 28th after hosting a houseguest from Lombardy, the northern region where coronavirus disease is most rampant. Instead of calling his doctor or the hotline he went to an emergency room, where the ER staff left him to stew in the regular waiting room, where he infected at least 15 fellow patients in addition to his wife and children”.  At the Molinette hospital in Turin an 80 year old couple with flu symptoms arrived at the emergency room and were mistakenly sent to radiology as they had failed to communicate the fact that their son was working in a town in the red area. So they had to quarantine the entire radiology unit as a result.

These stories and others I read  every day remind me of the dumb comments I constantly hear outside the house. ‘Oh, ma non muoiono solo gli over 70? Ma dai, non possiamo andare fuori? Ma dai e chi l’ha detto? Non  e’ una pandemia. Sono tutte stronzate dei media!” (Oh, but aren’t the ones dying over 70? C’mon, we can’t even go out? Who said we can’t? It’s not a pandemic. It’s all media bullshit!) The older guy making these statements was wondering if it is correct to call it a pandemic or not, while blowing waves of cigarette smoke in our faces. He then laughed when he saw William and I taking a few steps back, in order to defend ourselves.

How can such stupidity still manifest itself here in Turin, after days, actually weeks (feels like months) of seeing all over the news that Covid-19 is more contagious than the normal flu, as people can carry the virus for up to two weeks without any symptoms at all, and that the infection is now spreading as fast as oil stains all over Italy.  Do they have to find their parents or grandparents refused for intubation in a hospital or do they have to fall sick themselves to start taking this matter more seriously? The latest news from the doctors in Lombardia is that there are now more and more cases of younger (40+) people infected. 

It hurts me when I think of the so many dedicated Italians (the saints, see photo 1), including the doctors and nurses working days and nights with few breaks in between to fight this virus on one side and on the other side the other Italians (the idiots, see photo 2), who were laughing while they were not respecting the national measures three days ago. Sad and pathetic. 

A woman who was repeatedly coughing next to me on the fruits and vegetables I was about to purchase at the market defended herself, instead of apologizing, with the following comment: “Ma guarda che non ho un virus. Non c’e’ bisogno che tu mi stia lontana. Credimi, sono una infermiera! ” (Hey, I don’t have a virus. You don’t need to keep the distance from me! Believe me, I am a nurse!.Do I have the right to protect my personal space from a nurse coughing on me? I asked but got no  reply in return.

Here in Turin I saw people of all ages ignoring or joking about the coronavirus, daily. Yesterday, one of the children in the playground we quickly walked past was calling William and could not understand why we were not stopping at the playground so William could play football with him. When the 12 year old saw us leaving, he said loud and clear: “dai qui non c’e’ il coronavirus. Sono tutte balle!”. (come on, here there is no coronavirus. It’s all bullshit!)  His father shrugged his shoulders  with a smile.

Too many Italians seem convinced that in their small group the virus will not arrive and that, as a result, they can do whatever they want, regardless whether they could pass the virus on to “others”. They just don’t care about the “others” even if these MIGHT BE their parents or grandparents, who are IN the high-risk group. 

How individuals respond to advice on how best to prevent transmission will be as important as government actions, if not more important”, concluded a recent commentary from researchers at my University, Imperial College London, University of Oxford in the UK and Utrecht University.

Photo 3 – Carabinieri questioning people, courtesy of Brenda Sena

Yesterday, in our quick walk outside the house, we saw trucks in the street loaded with cops alerting the public to keep the social distance of one metre to fight the infection. Now there is police presence in all major areas to check any outside movements. Locking down Italy was beyond anyone’s imagination a week ago. Now it is serious. Today all stores were closed except for grocery and pharmacies and cops were questioning people walking in the street l with auto-certification forms on their whereabouts. Until two days ago, there were still too many irresponsible individuals going shopping at the mall, despite they had been told not to do so. 

What will happen next? “Gli italiani hanno bisogno di nuovo di un duce per iniziare a cambiare il loro comportamento?”  (the Italians need a dictator again in order to start changing their behavior?) I heard people saying this and that we are in a war. Are we really?

I consider myself lucky; I have a house, food and despite I have an auto-immune disease, I am not forced to go to work like all the people who are forced to do it and can take care of my child. William and I can continue to be careful, self-isolate and take precautions (we keep away from people and wear the mask when we have to go to a store), but not because the Italian Government says so, not because the Church says so, but because it is a social act for ourselves and our community.

Opps, I just had a visit from the Italian postman who came to my door with no mask and asked me to sign the receipt of a letter.

We have to be patient. As my 92 year old father Dolfy would now say if he was still alive: Voi giovani avreste bisogno di un po’ di guerra per imparare a vivere! Il coronavirus e’ niente in confronto.” (dudes, you would benefit from living through a little bit of war in order to learn how to live. The coronavirus is nothing in comparison). 

Maybe living through a pandemic will have some value for our society but this is another story.