What I’ve Learned From Being in Italy During Coronavirus
90 days ago I watched with disbelief as Florence shut down. Here’s what my friends and I think now we’ve emerged from lockdown.
On February 24 this year, I wrote one of the first articles about the Coronavirus as I watched dramatic scenes unfold from our apartment in the historic centre of Florence, Italy. In front of my eyes the city closed down, changing from a bustling, vibrant, tourist-filled Tuscan icon to a ghost town in a matter of days. On February 24 the death toll in the whole of Italy was two souls. It was pre-lockdown, but I knew from the unprecedented events I was witnessing that something very big was happening.
Apart from describing the situation on the ground from what turned out to be the hardest hit country in Europe and the first to lock down, the article was about fear-mongering and how that could be a greater potential danger than the virus. To my surprise, the piece went viral and to date has had over 264K views. It was very much a case of right place, right time, if that doesn’t sound too trite. At times as the numbers of views literally went up as I watched, I felt quite scared of its “success”. Who was I to be writing such forthright stuff anyway? Did I know what I was talking about?
Coronavirus: My Unlikely Muse
I wrote many more pieces. My suspicions of a link between air pollution and the viral epicentres,( which turned out to be the case according to the latest research), about what it was like to be the first country in lockdown, about moving from Florence back to the countryside just in time. I described Italians singing from balconies and how I felt guilty because I was quite enjoying the peace and quiet as the natural world hit the reset button.
I shared my husband’s prayers for the virus (he is the Anglican vicar of Florence) and described how the churches in Italy had all closed. I wrote about how it wasn’t wrong to compare the virus and the flu (but not in the way you think), and about how my animals had helped me cope and kept me sane.
Then I stopped writing about coronavirus.
Everyone had caught up. The things I was warning about and sharing happened. There was nothing new for me to say and to be honest I didn’t want to be associated solely with “that article” about Covid-19.
And out of the blue a day or so ago, someone wrote a comment on one of the articles, asking me, in the light of what I had written and what had happened, if I still felt the same.
Interestingly enough, the message arrived on Italy’s “Super Monday”, 18 May, the day that the country emerged from lockdown as almost all restrictions were lifted. It seemed a good time to gather my thoughts and write about coronavirus again.
The Lifting of Lockdown
Italy has had the toughest and longest lockdown in Europe. I was lucky enough to escape Florence on the first day, March 9, when police checks were just being set up and the “reasons for travel” forms had just been released. We wore masks and social distanced before anyone else. The country was the guinea pig and for a while had precious little support from other nations as it contended with a massive death toll, mainly in the Po Valley region in the north of the country.
Premier Giuseppe Conte took “a calculated risk” and brought forward the reopening by two weeks after bowing to immense political pressure. He also agreed to reduce the recommended safe social distance in bars and restaurants from 1m 80 cm (70 inches) to one metre (40 inches) after lobbying from restaurant owners.
When I ventured into the local bar I was greeted by a neighbour extending an extended pinkie finger which I tapped with mine
The president of Tuscany, Enrico Rossi, thinks the premier should have stuck with the plan of staged reopening and also to the two-metre social distance advice. “One metre distance makes no sense,” he said. “You might as well not bother at all.” He described Monday’s reopening as a “bomba libera” which I think is best translated as a “ticking time bomb”.
The mayor of my province, Arezzo, Alessandro Ginelli warned people that while he understood Monday’s euphoria, it also sounded some alarm bells. “People were there flouting the rules, with masks around their necks, forming groups along the street. This is not good.” He said that his fellow citizens needed to show a sense of responsibility. “I’ll be sending the police in this weekend to make sure things are being enforced. I’m sorry to have to do this but I know the people of Arezzo and if persuasion doesn’t work, we’ll have to resort to stronger measures.”
My experience so far is that there are more people around, more laughter, a more relaxed attitude to masks, often worn around the chin, but a general sense of maintaining distance. Shops have notices up and distances marked. Bars have mask-wearing staff and screens up. There is also a sense from some people that they have to go through the motions, but it’s almost over. When I ventured into the local bar I was greeted by a neighbour extending an extended pinkie finger which I tapped with mine and we both laughed. I still washed my hands, and loose change, when I got home though.
The big and imponderable question is the economy. Italy is heavily dependent on tourists and there are none, although Schengen countries plus Switzerland and Monaco, are being allowed into the country from June 3. Will visitors come back? Who knows.
On Super Monday an Italian newspaper interviewed bar staff and restaurant owners in Milan. They were happy to be back at work, happy to see colleagues and to take the first steps back to “normality”. The problem was obvious though. Apart from locals popping in for a quick espresso, there were no customers.
The Numbers Now
The implication in the reader’s question, or at least the one I drew from it, was “look at the huge death toll. You were mistaken weren’t you, to tell people not to panic?”
The numbers do tell a story, and a sad one at that.
After 90 days, when I wrote that the number of deaths was “2”, Italy’s death toll is now 32,486. It has been surpassed by the USA and the UK, but it is still a very high figure.
But I still believe what I wrote a few months ago: “Context is everything.”
Now we have some facts to add real context, because time has passed and numbers have been crunched. The Italian institute of statistics (ISTAT) has issued death rates for Feb 20 — March 31st. On average they would expect that to be 65,592 (figures from 2015–2019). This year it was 90,946. The discrepancy (known as “excess deaths” is 25,354 more than average, which is an excess figure of 49.4 percent. Of those, 54 percent are attributable to Covid 19.
What is not clear, to me at least, from those figures is whether the excess flu deaths have been factored in. As I wrote three months ago, excess flu deaths in Italy have been on the rise since 2014 and in 2016/17 the excess flu deaths figure was 24,981 in a season. (mid-October to mid-April) That would average out at 4163 per month.
But even if we include those deaths, we can see that the figures are higher than normal. You need to dig into the figures a bit more to see that the greatest increases (up to six times normal) were in Italy’s hardest-hit regions in the north. There are also over 11,000 deaths which aren’t accounted for in those extra figures, which could be from over-stretched intensive care units or from indirect effects of the virus.
Was I wrong to tell people not to panic?
I don’t think so. Panic does nothing except fill your body with stress hormones and stop you sleeping and thinking straight.
How I Feel Now
Three months down the line, was lockdown the right thing to do, considering the collateral damage to economies and individuals, and all the hidden victims?
In trying to evaluate how I feel about the pandemic now, as opposed to when it started, I have felt the same pressure that I imagine scientists and politicians feel. The obligation to provide an answer. To say: these are the facts, so I was right/wrong after all.
There is just one problem. The real facts are still as thin on the ground as unicorn hoofprints.
One of the key aspects of this situation has been that speculation and conjecture, theories and ideas have been presented as facts on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis.
Scientists who normally take months or years to develop, test and review hypotheses have, unfairly, been rolled out in front of the media to explain their findings so far, which are then challenged and overturned by the next group of experts. Masks are useless. No, masks are crucial. Children don’t get coronavirus. Children do get coronavirus. You need to wipe down all your shopping. The chances of getting the virus from shopping are tiny. And so on.
No wonder we are all confused about the real danger we are in.
What People are Saying
This week I did an unscientific poll of my Facebook friends, from a number of countries across the world, asking them how much of a risk they thought the coronavirus was now, how sure they were of the real facts and were governments right to lockdown.
I haven’t the space to quote everyone, nor to quote what each person wrote in full, because while I was expecting a line or two of response, people wrote a LOT. This had clearly touched a nerve. One friend in Spain replied in private “I will get back to you at the weekend, because this is so important, I need to think and work out what I want to say.”
It struck me that despite all the opinions from pundits and politicians, no-one has asked individual people: how do you feel about this now?
The time for thinking and the amount being written just shows this is far from being an easy question.
“It all depends where you live,” wrote a Canadian friend. “Montreal, Quebec, a city of three million tried keeping things open such as subways and stores and got hit with a lot of deaths in nursing homes. Sweden closed very little, had many deaths but seems to be surviving… is that the best model?”
“I think we locked down too slowly,” said a UK-based friend. “Now we’re at risk of racing out of lockdown. The most disgraceful act was sending covid-positive patients back to care homes, a stupid error that was so obvious and someone in the future should be accountable for.”
One Italian friend said “I still don’t feel safe, there’s not enough information. I live every day with the possibility that we may all be locked down again and confined to home.”
And another: “The lockdown imposed by Italy was the best action that could have been taken at that moment. It is one of the reasons I’m so proud of Italy right now. The virus is still a threat and the risk of infection is still high… We know that much of the information given out in the media has been either vague, ludicrous or dangerous and I feel we should trust more in our common sense.”
“I really do believe I live in the lucky country, Australia, and in particular the lucky state Western Australia,” wrote this lady. “We watched and learned from other countries. Lockdowns haven’t been as strict as in Italy, but we were encouraged to stay home and only go out if essential…As restrictions lift, I feel lighter, but I am concerned that some are not taking social distancing seriously, partly I think because increasingly it seems that the virus is no longer in our community. But you never know!”
“The virus did not wipe us out,” wrote a UK friend. “The disease did not always kill the person it attacked. Yes, there were a lot of deaths worldwide, but how many of those were excess deaths? I would like more information on the numbers. I am not sure if lockdown was a good idea or not, but as far as building immunity goes, I would say it was not a good thing. If the coronavirus returns and we have no vaccine and no immunity, then we will have no fighting power. As for returning to work, it’s a Catch-22 situation. You need protection and immunity, but the economy is also important. It’s all about choices, and sometimes, luck.”
A British journalist pal living in Italy wrote: “I have found the whole experience bewildering and continue to do so. For example, which ‘experts’ can I trust? The ones that tell me that masks and gloves are essential, or the ones that say they are counter-productive, the ones that tell me that we face the apocalypse, or the ones who say that the numbers of deaths are actually quite low? Added to which, there’s a feeling of paranoia, in which the slightest sneeze or cough leads you to think you’ve been infected. As for judging the Italian government, the jury is still out, although it has clearly done a far better job than its British and American counterparts. And in Italy, as elsewhere, there’s a tendency to politicise everything: if you voted for your prime minister, mayor or regional governor, then they’re doing a good job, and if you didn’t, then they are inept, whereas incompetence, like the virus itself, doesn’t respect political ideology. In personal terms, most of the people I have had dealings with have been helpful and responsible, especially my GP, who has been marvellous. I think the lockdown was a good idea, under the circumstances, and I worry about the consequences now that it is being eased. And, even if it was miserable in a city like Milan, it was good to see the drop in air pollution, the return of nature and the use of phones and computers for actually talking to friends and relatives. I hope we have learnt something.”
Another living in Italy wrote: “Listening to my own gut feeling and talking to the locals of our town of Cisternino, Puglia, it is way too soon to open up. I work in the travel business so my economic side says we need to open borders but I distrust nationals and visitors to abide by the rules. I can already see them slipping, allowing masks not to be used due to intolerance of heat or simply just intolerance. At the same time there are people who go to the opposite side of the road to avoid contact. How are we to welcome or invite tourists? Let us stick to that which is comfortable for us as a region and encourage regional tourism.
This is from the heart. I fear and the locals fear that this opening is an economic risk that we may pay dearly for. If they really thought about it without economic consequences, I would guess that most people feel it is too early.”
Is the Risk Real?
One thing that I noticed from the comments was that almost everyone accepted that the threat was real and felt at risk to a greater or lesser degree. When pressed about what convinced her there was a real risk, one lady replied: “the death count works for me … and it’s probably not accurate, at least in the US.”
A mother of two young children in the UK did address the risk issue: “I believe we have forgotten how to live with the risk of serious illness in our lives due to the advance of medical treatment and vaccines/immunisation that have artificially protected us from diseases for decades. For millennia we lived with a higher morbidity and lower life expectancy due to TB, polio, measles etc. We can live with C19, we just have to be able to live with risk again. I am ready to take that risk, although I completely understand the need to protect vulnerable members of society.”
Another one expressed her frustration at the lack of real information: “Here in the UK I don’t think we can trust anything the government tells us, and even data such as the number of cases, deaths, number of tests and R rate is skewed. This makes it very difficult to have an informed view of how dangerous the virus is.”
It is difficult to have an informed view, especially when the situation is changing by the day. Maybe it’s time to accept that things are messy and grey even though we all feel more secure when things are black and white. Most people agree that bad news is easier to deal with than the agony of not knowing. There is inordinate pressure on those who deliver information to the public to give us the definitive facts we crave when no such facts are available, or likely to be available for some time. The advisors and decision-makers are being asked to define policy and make plans based on a constantly shifting landscape of quicksand and mirage, then criticised for any action they take. I could almost feel sorry for them were it not for the fact that governments have been warned for YEARS about a pandemic and chosen not to take action and are now reaping the whirlwind.
Fear and War
My first article (you know, that one) called fear “the real virus”. Is that how I feel now? Obviously there has been — there is still — a real virus out there which is complex, changing and not fully understood. It has killed people, lots of people. Am I seriously still saying that fear is more dangerous?
Fear has certainly played a huge role in creating an extraordinary degree of compliance in the public, not just of Italy. The UK government was apparently astonished at how cooperative people were about lockdown. It had anticipated far more resistance. Now the opposite effect is taking hold. The fear message has been so successful that people are now afraid to return to everyday life as it was. As a small example of this, the Italian Catholic church has pressured the government to allow mass to take place again. This started on 18 May, with very strict guidelines on the use of masks, gloves, sanitizer, stewards, cleaning pre and post service and so on. My husband’s church is not reopening yet because a poll of the small congregation shows they do not feel safe enough to return to worship, which also includes using public transport. Is there a real risk? It doesn’t matter. People believe that there is and that is all that counts in the end.
It’s not new to use military metaphor about contagious diseases
In Italy, as in other countries, the pandemic has been classed from the outset as a war. The language has been combative: we are fighting an invisible enemy, our health staff are heroes on the front line, the human race is under attack, but we have a winning strategy and we are going to win the battle.
This is understandable when you are dealing with mounting death tolls, hidden carriers, mobilization of large groups of people and attempting to unite a population. It’s not new to use military metaphor about contagious diseases. But it then places leaders in the role of generals and victims as soldiers whose outcome depends on how heroic they are.
The problem with the war analogy is that it makes you feel you are letting the side down if you don’t feel strong or selfless. It discourages people from asking for help in case it distracts from the fight.
If it is a war, then we have gone into it unprepared and disorganised. A journey is probably a better metaphor to use, and if it is then we are still at the beginning, but at least able to see the road ahead.
The Way Forward
Something that has emerged over the last three months is the speed with which we adjust to a situation, no matter how surreal or initially unacceptable.
It used to be just the citizens of Venice that wore masks during carnivale. Now we all wear masks of a different kind.
An innovative designer in the south of Italy has even created the “trikini” a bikini and matching mask and been inundated with orders.
We humans have been united as never before with this shared, if unwelcome, experience. We have been forced to assess our lives and it has become very clear, very fast, that certain systems, beliefs and structures must change. Things are broken, our planet is crying out for help. People are not prepared to put up with it any longer.
We have found, some of us, that lockdown has taught us some interesting lessons. Maybe we have become kinder, less materialistic. Maybe enforced separation from loved ones has made us value them more.
Maybe we will throw away our masks, dive back into our old lives and pick up where we left off. Although I doubt it.
I don’t regret writing that first article. It is a very personal take of how I felt at the time. I was, and still am to a certain extent, convinced that over-hyped, media-induced panic and incompetent politicians caused a great deal of unnecessary terror. I still advocate a calm and measured approach is best.
Is the Coronavirus as dangerous as people say? That’s anyone’s guess. There are so many asymptomatic people walking around that we have no idea of the true death rate. Mass testing for antibodies will give us answers down the line. Italy has tested over two million people, so just 58 million to go.
Like everyone else, this pandemic has made me re-evaluate a lot of things.
In thinking about how I feel now, 90 days after I wrote my first coronavirus article, I have come to the conclusion that the right/wrong, black/white attitude I had at the beginning was genuinely felt, but wrong. The situation is far too complicated for that.
Sometimes it’s braver to say “I just don’t know.”