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There is no place in the world left that would not be affected by the coronavirus outbreak, but all hell broke loose in Italy. Fighting the virus for two months, this country has already lost nearly 5,000 its citizens (and this horrific number now exceeds China’s deadly statistics.) There is an acute shortage of medical supplies; thus doctors (who are in lack as well) are forced to prioritize saving the younger patients; funerals are banned (old people die alone – all buried or cremated very fast, without ceremony, and their relatives who are in quarantine have to deal with their loss alone as well) – blood runs cold just from watching such news from Italy.
So imagine what is like – living in the middle of such madness? How do Italians deal with their fears of losing loved ones, or staying jobless? How does this outgoing nation, locked in four walls in front of TVs, still being not just brave, optimistic, and surprisingly united but using their humor as the weapon against depression and sadness? The Storyfy asked these questions Dasha Parinova from Ukraine, who has been living in Rome for 14 years.
- So. Dasha… Why did coronavirus hit Italy so hard? Why have so many people been dying? How is it explained to Italians?
Well, there is no absolute answer to that; the experts say it’s a combination of reasons. First of all, according to the official statistics, about 22% of Italians are aged 65+. It means that almost every fourth Italian (!) is 65 or older! Think of it; the coronavirus has been known as a disease of old people, so here you are… Italians are shocked, saying that this virus has been taking away the whole generation. But at the same time, there are still many 50+-year-old sick people who are in critical condition because they have had health issues troubles such as cardiovascular or respiratory diseases before.
Look, all I’ve just mentioned at least can be explained with the statistics. But why are Italians freaking out a bit is because of the strange fast-unfolding cases. When, for instance, a person feels okay during the weeks, then, one evening, he/she suddenly has a fever, and the very next day he/she dies. Our doctors do not know why it has been happening. It’s like a tragic nationwide mystery.
- Also, the World Health Organization says that many people can carry coronavirus for weeks but simply not be aware of it…
Exactly! This is the point. The virus can remain “invisible” for two weeks – you can be positive, but you don’t have any alarming symptoms; thus, you think you are fine. This is what happened in Italy weeks ago – people were feeling good, they still were going to work, meet up with their family and friends, and successfully spread the virus everywhere, not knowing that. The same is happening now in Spain, France…
The problem is that if you suddenly got some symptoms, it means that you could have been affected for two weeks. Imagine? How many people have you been in contact with (even a random handshake in the streets) for this time? How many places did you visit? I think that unfortunately, the situation in Italy is yet to reach its peak.
- What should people do when they have a fever or other symptoms? Go to the hospital?
No. It is strictly forbidden! This is actually what happened before the quarantine was set up, and it has aggravated an already bad situation. Hundreds of people didn’t feel well; they went to ordinary hospitals spreading the virus all over and infected many doctors and nurses. Now, if you feel like getting sick, the first rule is – please, stay at home, for god sake and sake of all Italians. Do not run to the pharmacy. Do not call an ambulance. Call your family doctor instead and wait for a specially equipped ambulance to come, make a test, and if it is necessary, bring you to the infection hospital.
- Do many people wear masks outside?
Well, I guess people would be staring at you as an alien if you would walk outside without a mask or gloves. Although it is already a well-known fact that if you put on a mask, you can’t pass the virus, but you still can catch it, even healthy people wear a mask. Firstly, you actually cannot claim to be virus-free as you simply do not know it. Secondly, I agree that wearing a mask offers you, as many experts say, that “false sense of security.”
- Are there enough masks for everyone? Are they expensive?
Absolutely not enough. A week ago, you could easily find a mask or sanitizer in the shops and pharmacies but now they are not available. Our factories are making them but it just does not meet the staggering demand for them. Especially there is a big lack of proper medical masks for the hospital staff. That’s why Italy called for help from other countries.
I have one disposable mask, and every time I rub it with alcohol. I remember that a few weeks ago, mask prices had begun to rise, but the tax police stopped it. The average cost of a mask is 0.60-0.70 euros.
Also, pharmacies have started to produce their own sanitizers and charge 5-6 euros for one.
- Dasha, tell us please when and where has it all started in Italy?
The first case of coronavirus was diagnosed back in late January in Rome. It was a Chinese couple from Wuhan province who was holidaying in Italy. I would not say Italians were either surprised or terrified by this news, to be honest. More like, “Oh, really? Okay.” We saw what was going on in China and knew that sooner or later it, surely, would reach Rome, one of the most tourist cities in the world.
Besides, this case was handled pretty fast: all the people who this couple contacted were traced (they traveled as a part of a tourist group of 40 people from Wuhan), brought to the hospital, and isolated. After two weeks, these two tourists had recovered and left Italy. End of story. Seeing how fast our government and doctors put the situation under control, Italians were feeling rather calm and relaxed.
- What happened after?
A few weeks later, a 38-year old Italian man from north Italy had been diagnosed with COVID-19. Again, all the people this man had contacted were traced and isolated; all the places he had visited were disinfected and shut. Still, coronavirus has been spreading in the north with lightning speed.
This is the point when Italians have started to be a bit more cautious and suspicious. And then the horror movie scenario has started unfolding so fast! You know what I mean; many people all over the world are living the same right now. This is all just being surreal…
Soon two towns in the north went into complete lockdown after the two deaths from coronavirus. It was very severe. People in the north were shocked living this madness, and the rest of the country was watching the news and talking to their relatives and getting more and more concerned. But it was already a matter of hours, not even days. So the first cases were recorded in and around Venice, Milan… From 11th March, the whole of Italy has gone on national lockdown, and I guess that it would be extended as the situation is not getting any better.
- Is a 38-year old Italian man that you have mentioned considered to be a zero patient?
He is considered to be the patient one, not a zero patient. It’s still a mystery who’s a zero patient in Italy. Now the doctors are working on finding the genetic traces of this virus. As our scientists say, all the links surprisingly lead to Germany, not China.
As for Mattia (in Italian media, patient one has only been identified by his first name – Ed.), he had pneumonia and was in very critical condition for a month. His eight months pregnant wife had also got infected but, thank god, she recovered soon after. A week ago, Mattia left the hospital. This story has been all over the news, so people were happy for them. But the next day it became known that Mattia’s father, who had got infected from his son, has just died… People are shocked. Just look at those numbers – for the past two days, over 1500 infected patients died. It’s a national tragedy.
- How did people react when the government had announced that the entire country goes on quarantine?
Well, the awareness of Italians has been growing slowly step by step. As I’ve already mentioned, initially, when the first two cases had been recorded in Rome, people just did not take it seriously. Later, when the north of Italy went on lockdown, locals in the Lombardy region (the worst-hit by the virus) cleared the store shelves up and started to panic. But… C’mon. It’s somehow understandable, isn’t it? Especially if you have kids and grandparents to take care. I was not terrified that much as I live alone, and I am responsible just for myself. I have never seen empty shops in Rome so far; I cannot say what the situation like in the suburbs.
Later, in March, the authority shut all the schools in the entire country and asked people to stay at home at all times. What I mean by “asked” is there initially was no law. And people (especially the youth) like, “Sure” and the next day went out to the parks, squares, cinemas, celebrating school-free days. The little kids were brought to their grandparents for a holiday. Later on, it turned out that kids can pass the virus. In a few days, the government had realized all the dangers of this situation and shut everything down, except pharmacies and supermarkets.
- So… How’s the life like in the quarantine?
It is okay. We are in our second week of quarantine. But I am afraid that the further it goes, the more people likely to get depressed or sad or trapped in fear. And I am not talking just about the fear of catching a virus but a big concern about the future, jobs, and the financial situation.
For instance, I am an assistant manager at the store which sells yacht clothes. My working contract expires on 10th May, which is in less than two months, and I have no idea what will be after. I am still being paid so far, but who knows how long all of this would last… The questions are constantly popping up in my mind… Will I be able to find a new job? Will I be even allowed to leave the house in two months? Everything is uncertain. I do not know what to expect; we all are in the same boat.
- Do people still receive their salary?
People who have official work contracts keep receiving some money. As for now. But what will be in one month? Just a few days ago the government promised to give 25 billion euros to help businesses and workers to keep a more or less stable situation. Let’s see.
- Are there any other steps from the authorities towards people to ease the situation?
I would say they are doing what they can. First of all, they announced that the taxes for everyone would be frozen until 30th May. Secondly, if you took a loan from a bank to pay for your apartment, it would also be frozen. As far as I am aware, some European countries followed the example of Italy. Thirdly, to encourage doctors and nurses to keep working, the state will provide 1000 euros for each medical worker to hire a babysitter.
Another good thing is that the elderly and disabled people who live alone are offered assistance. The volunteers are sent to the people in need to do some shopping for them. You know, at least, they do not feel forgotten and so lonely.
Finally, people are well informed about the current situation. There are a couple of news channels which broadcast the latest news 24 hours and news agencies that regularly update the coronavirus statistic. Also every day at 6 p.m. there is a conference with ministry representatives who report on the latest updates, so the journalists can ask any question they want in live.
Besides, there are lots of posters stick next to the pharmacies and supermarkets where people are asked not to break the rules. For instance, to keep at least one-meter distance or wear masks and gloves. But the main message with which any state communication begins is, “To limit the spread of coronavirus, do not leave your house.”
- But people do…
Yes. They do. That’s why, to keep people in the houses, the government came up with the fines for going outside without a valid reason. So far, more than 40 000 Italians were fined for breaking this rule. Each of them has to pay 206 euros. By “valid reason” means you can go either to a grocery or to a pharmacy. That’s it (even the parks are closed.)
For instance, when I go to the supermarket, I have to carry a particular document. I fill in the name of the supermarket, its address, and my address. There are many police check-points in the streets that can check this document any time. But since the situation is not improving, the authorities have placed the army in the streets of Milan and shut all the non-strategic business activities – all to enforce the quarantine.
But you have to understand, for Italians, an open-hearted and somewhat pretty touchy nation, a concept of social distancing is very strange.
- How is it so?
Look, just to let you know, Italians used to start their day with the cup of coffee. And it is not just about coffee and often not about coffee at all. It is about communication and, let’s say, the art of living among people. So you go to the bar or a coffee shop, “Un espresso e un cornetto, per favore!” (“An espresso and a croissant, please!”
You exchange news with the barmen complaining about the weather and the politicians, you say a few compliments to those sitting next to you, you smile to a waitress, and finally open up a new newspaper to quickly go through. You see, it is a whole morning ritual. It’s been running in the blood for years and years. And suddenly the people are told, “Stay at home,” and they are shocked. They do not know how it is – NOT to see anyone and NOT to talk to anyone in person. The first thing I had noticed when I came to Italy and watched people is that Italians can live without food, but they cannot survive without talking. (Laughs.)
Needless to say, that it’s really tough on south Italians who are known to be extremely outgoing and love to mingle. It is a massive problem for them to stay at home. I am not joking! Psychologically they are absolutely not ready for it! The climate conditions in the south are always lovely, and the people used to gather with big companies and chill over good wine.
All the images, videos, and memes you see now on the Internet where people are dancing and singing on their balconies are all with the locals from the south.
- So what do they do?
Come up with any excuses just to leave their apartments! Once, the police stopped the car, and the driver tried to convince them that he just wanted to walk a dog. It seems like nothing funny except that his home, as police noticed, was 30 km away, and it’s a quite long walk for a dog. (Smiles.)
By the way, one of the jokes which has gone viral – it’s that dog’s owners rent out their pets to those who are pet-free, so they would have a valid reason to go out. There are thousands of memes on social media about it.
I have to say that Italians are generally very optimistic. It’s been the second week in quarantine, and I have not noticed my friends being depressed. Maybe, because all of them have dogs. (Laughs.) I do not have a dog.
Some people, for instance, do not buy all the things they need in the supermarket at one go – only to be able to walk daily. But the situation is getting worse and worse, so we are asked to go shopping just once in 3-4 days.
- Going to the supermarket turns out to be the whole adventure, yeah?
Indeed. It is so weird when you see your neighbor on the way, want to give a kiss (in Italy, giving two kisses is the usual form of greeting – Ed.), and even pull your head a little forward, but suddenly both of you realize that you can’t do it anymore and both start to laugh.
There is security at the entrance of the supermarket controlling the number of visitors who can come in. And, by the way, only three persons at a time can be inside a pharmacy – so you do not immediately go in but wait until you are invited.
The line to the supermarket can sometimes stretch for 300 meters – not because of the number of people but the distance we have to maintain between each other. It was not like that even a week ago, but, thank god, people are getting more aware of after all those terrible statistics on the news and choosing to play it safe.
- Do people support each other?
What I noticed is that this lockdown has united the nation. South Italy and North Italy, as in many countries, I guess, has this competitiveness in a relationship like “Who`s more Italian?” By now, it`s all gone, giving way to more important things. I would say that the people rather than “Italians from the South” and “Italians from the North” feel themselves only Italians, and this spirit of solidarity is all over the news and social media.
Neighbors even create groups on Facebook and keep an eye on each other. So if they know an older person is living next to, they always ask if he/she needs food or medicine.
- The Internet is full of pictures and video from Italy where people are singing and dancing on their balconies…
You know, balconies have become an outlet, a little connection with the outer world for many Italians. For instance, every day at 6 p.m., many Italians go to their balconies and applause doctors and nurses who have been working in crazy conditions to save human lives… It is very emotional… People are sometimes crying.
It is also quite trendy to decorate your balcony with a national flag, which usually happens once-twice a year on the state holidays. Also, I remember, the Minister of Health asked kids to make colorful posters and hang them from the balconies as well. It gives you quite a warm feeling when you are coming back from the supermarket and see all these posters with a rainbow and the phrase, “Andra tutto bene.” (“Everything will be okay.”)
- What has completely changed in your daily routine since you are quarantined?
Well, for a few weeks, I have been waking up to the birds chirping, not the cars` honking. It is so weird… It feels like a never-ending weekend, and I am in the countryside and not in the center of Rome with all its traffic jams and noise pollution. Since there are no outside sounds, sometimes I can hear when a crow is flapping its wings… How weird is it?
As for my schedule, well, now obviously, I cannot come up with the excuse as before, “I do not have time.” So I have been finishing reading all the books I had abandoned previously. I read and write a lot. I try to develop all the ideas on business, hobbies, and future I`ve been having for years. I take care of my plants. By the way, my friends are the same going back to their hobbies or adopted the new ones. My boss has started crocheting again. How does that sound, huh?
I am quite okay so far not to go to work every day from 9 a.m. to 9.30 p.m., honestly. It is not a big problem for me to spend a few weeks (I hope not more!) at home since it can save someone`s life! And if one sick person potentially can infect at least two other people (this is what doctors say) – isn`t it a valid reason to simply stay home and make yourself busy?
- I believe people have been surfing social media a lot… What is your Facebook newsfeed looks like?
Well, the Italian humor has been exploding! I laugh a lot! Dinner has been a trending topic so far! (Laughs.) Not only I know what all my Facebook friends and their friends are having for dinner, but which ingredients they use, how long it takes to make pasta, what type of pasta (it is important for Italians. If you are not aware, there are over 350 of them in this country), and how they feel making all of that! (Laughs.) I am sure after the quarantine has finished, the number of talented cooks will increase dramatically. Yes, there is food delivery, but I think people prefer to cook, maybe because of the fear of getting infected.
And you know, Italians used to have pizza outside – and it`s never just about pizza but more about people you are going to have the pizza with – so maybe, this is the first opportunity for many people to learn how to cook their own cuisine.
I see lots of pictures on Facebook where mothers teach their kids how to make pizza, and it`s so funny. The kids look so excited topping pizza with tomatoes and mozzarella.
Many famous people make some sketches as well, or funny videos showing how`s their life is during the quarantine.
To remain sane, I am trying to see some positive moments in the quarantine. Maybe, we will appreciate socializing more, our natural need to live among people because the modern culture pushes us to communicate through social media. Like we could chat on WhatsApp sitting next to each other, right? And now we are being locked at homes with our beloved ones; we have to look into each other and speak and listen…
- Do you think this forced solitude will change people?
I believe the fear of people will remain with us for a long time… And we certainly will need a lot of time to come back to our natural way of living. I am 80% Italian now, so I keep being optimistic. (Smiles.) But actually, what else can I do?
- World Health Organization:
- Google Coronavirus Website (state-based information, safety and prevention tips, search trends related to COVID-19, and further resources for individuals, educators, and businesses)
- Wiley Online Library (Coronavirus resources and news)
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Worldometer (statistics on coronavirus constantly updated)
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