I thought I was prepared mentally, should a full lockdown happen. After all, Coronavirus has affected Italy worse than any country outside of China and has been a shadow over our lives for the past four weeks. 15,113 people here have contracted it so far and 1,016 people have died.
Suzanne Abbott-Lee is a British broadcast journalist living in south Milan with her Italian husband and 18 month-old son. They are currently on day six of a month-long Coronavirus quarantine.
My son’s nursery closed as a precaution two weeks ago. A polite email was sent out asking us to withdraw our children from public spaces, where possible. The broken sofa arm in my living room serving as a lesson to adequately occupy my toddler, should further confinement ensue.
I learnt of the lockdown on the nursery mum’s Whatsapp group. “I doubt that’s true then” my husband said. But it was. Our whole region of Lombardy had been declared a red zone for the next four weeks. Two days later it was extended to the whole of Italy. Unless it was for work or health reasons, you weren’t even allowed out of your own town. All the schools, universities and gyms were closed. Even weddings had to be cancelled as they constitute a public gathering.
My 74 year-old father-in-law, like all the sick and elderly, had already been advised by the government to self-isolate for the last five days. We’ve not been able to see him since.
For everyone else, the Italian government had “invited” us to remain at home, where possible. Those who had jobs were permitted to go to work, although many chose to do so from home. And we were assured that pharmacies and supermarkets would stay open for the duration of the lockdown. And the vulnerable would have supplies delivered. All of which seemed to prevent panic buying.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the distrust. It seemed to spread among my fellow residents quicker than any virus could. Day Three (Tuesday 10th March) of the quarantine I was waiting for my husband outside our local supermarket. Lockdown rules allow one person per family to shop for food. A woman, laden with supplies, tripped and fell as she left the store. I could see the blood beginning to pool in the bottom of her face mask. I stuck out my hand to help her up. She immediately recoiled from my human response, backing out of my reach on her hands. Embarrassed, I offered to carry her shopping to her car and then watched in my rearview mirror as she systematically sanitised each bag that I’d touched. She was right to do so. No one can be sure who’s carrying this virus or not.
At present, only *128 of the 2539 Coronavirus cases in Italy are children or teenagers. My son doesn’t understand what’s going on, but is obsessed with washing his hands. So far, no one under the age of 19 has died. Hours upon hours of extended tv talk shows provide the country with information on the virus and the latest quarantine measures. The experts say that if children are infected, they tend to have only mild symptoms. However, that can be dangerous in other ways. Kids are the best conductors. Their grubby hands could innocently carry the virus into their grandparents’ house.
Those who have continued visiting family have been heavily criticised on their lack of responsibility. Even a quick coffee with friends is a no go.
Local police told us that if you’re stopped and don’t have a valid reason for being outside, you could be fined almost £580 or sent to jail.
It may mean a costly lunch date, for more reasons than one.
Day Four brings queues outside the food shops. Maybe it’s the Brit in me that’s strangely comforted by this. Sure, we’re all shuffling one metre away from each other, but at least we’re able to stand united for a short while.
Yesterday’s news that the Italian government are suspending mortgage payments has also helped lighten the mood. As the first country to release their true coronavirus stats, I’m impressed with how transparent and effective they’ve been in this crisis. It’s a rarity.
And thanks to the commercial giants, seemingly unscathed by the quarantine, there’s been a semblance of normality. Ikea came and replaced our sofa arm. And Amazon is still managing to deliver all the items we’d ordered. Receiving two wall stickers of a jungle scene, during a world pandemic, does seem somewhat superfluous though.
However, the big dogs bear no resemblance to what’s happening to smaller businesses. For them, Coronavirus may not harm their lives, but it will their livelihoods. Employer’s struggling to justify wages while their businesses are shut. At best, workers who can’t go to work are being offered their holiday allocation. Some, are being paid cassa integrazione; 60% of their usual earnings, substituted in part by the government for employees of failing businesses. Others are still waiting to be told if they’ll be paid or not.
Our friends working from home are still receiving their pay checks but they’re worried how sustainable that is. Will they even have jobs to go back to? Italy had some of the worst unemployment rates in Europe, even before this.
We’re also feeling the strain in our house. I’m due to finish maternity leave this month and my husband, a sound engineer, due to start rehearsals in London next week. Under quarantine rules, he could still go. Travelling for work is permitted. But he’s decided not to and they’ve found someone else to replace him. At present, we both feel a stigma about travelling back to the UK for work. Even my friends are concerned in case “we bring something back”. And neither of us would want the burden if we did.
We’d made it this far without knowing anyone who actually had the virus, until this afternoon. Our friend Sandra’s dad, suffering with shortness of breath, was taken to hospital. He’d never leave. He tested positive for Coronavirus and died of heart attack while being treated. The saddest part is he died alone. No friends or family are allowed near a Coronavirus patient in case they too are infected. We’ve read stories of people with the virus Skyping their loved ones to say goodbye. For Sandra and her family, there will be no mourners coming to visit, no flowers sent and no funeral. Under quarantine rules that would be classed as a public gathering.
A newsflash on the TV tells us that from tomorrow, all non-essential shops will close, along with bars and restaurants. It doesn’t surprise us. The threat of catching the virus seems closer now than ever and the stats confirm the same. Despite the lockdown, the number of people dying of Coronavirus has jumped by just over *30%. The predictions are it will rise again tomorrow.
It’s not my husband and son that I’m worried about, we’re in good health and we’ve seen the victim breakdowns. The vast majority being the poor elderly or sick. That’s not saying strapping teenagers and young people aren’t catching it, it seems no one’s immune, but after a brief stint in hospital they’ve been shown to recover completely. What we fear is unknowingly having it and passing it on. It’s what keeps us from heading over to his grandparents or allowing our son the quick play in the park he keeps begging us for, after being cooped up in the apartment all day.
Meal times in Italy are one of the only things in our lives that have remained consistent. Being married to an Italian has taught me that you can skimp on anything but food. And it seems our household is not alone. The smells of freshly cooked focaccia come flooding in through our window. Even during this time of austerity, Italian’s are doing what they do best, nurturing their loved ones round the table, despite the goings-on of the world outside.