After weeks of debate and confusion in Italy, in what feels like a blink of an eye I have gone from living in a country in the midst of mild hypochondria to one in state quarantine-induced national panic. And it all started, literally, with an earthquake.
On the day the first reported case of COVID-19 hit Carpi, the small northern Italian town in which I live, a sizable tremor rattled our walls and windows — as if signifying the beginning of our ensuing war against an invisible enemy. Such words may seem dramatic, but it is indeed the language adopted by politicians and journalists alike in Italy’s national press.
At the time of the initial outbreak, being in a town still living in the shadow of a devastating earthquake just eight years ago, personally I felt greater worry about the seismic activity than coronavirus. But, as the dust settled, my attitude rapidly changed. All schools were suddenly closed, leaving myself, an English teacher, at home watching a relentless 24-hour news cycle, updating minute-upon-minute skyrocketing rates of infection.
“The usual busy crowds in streets and piazzas were reduced to handfuls of high school kids relishing their unexpected holiday.”
People’s fears over public health intensified. Public facilities such as gyms, libraries and cinemas soon followed suit. People stockpiled food from supermarkets as teams of cleaners sterilized the windows and aisles around them. Pharmacies soon ran out of hand gel and face masks. The usual busy crowds in streets and piazzas were reduced to handfuls of high school kids relishing their unexpected holiday.
Until this week, public opinion seemed divided. Torn between alarmist panic and anti-alarmist dismissal, there was seemingly no middle ground between “we’re all going to die” and “it’s just a passing flu.” The media had a hand in this, with their relentlessly dramatic coverage followed by the confusing message of “don’t panic, keep calm and carry on.”
The tone severely shifted following Monday’s shutdown, amplifying public fears up to 11. Businesses were forced to either close or adhere to restrictions such as limiting the number of customers at one time and keeping a distance of at least a meter between people.
Such measures are a result of — as of writing — 10,000 cases of coronavirus, of which only some 700 patients have fully recovered, while more than 450 people have tragically died. The rest, we are told, are being incubated in intensive care units within Italy’s overstretched hospitals.
It had been previously considered that patients at severe risk seem to be primarily the elderly and infirm; the high-profile case of a 38-year-old entrepreneur from Milan then proved otherwise. Coined by the press as “patient one,” only after three weeks in intensive care has just been taken off his respirator and is breathing independently.
In the meantime, mainstream media channels are circulating images of hospital beds lining corridors due to the lack of space on wards. The stress on the health service has led to a complete prioritisation of those with coronavirus. Anyone seeking other treatment have been told to stay at home and sweat it out — or in matters of severe emergency, face long waits. This includes a client of mine, a pregnant woman in her thirties who has had her prenatal appointments put on hold.
“I have to say I’m thankful for Netflix in giving me a necessary respite from this otherwise inescapable pandemic.”
The big question facing people like me in locked-down Italy is: How did we let it get to this? Following Italian President Giuseppe Conte’s decision to put the whole country in lockdown, he’s been criticised by locals for not acting sooner. Simultaneously, there’s contrary argument over the devastating effects this crisis will have on an economy still not fully recovered from the credit crunch of 2008. For this, the virus’ hotspots couldn’t have been located in a worse place — Italy’s northern regions worst hit by coronavirus happen to be the country’s major producers, and the subsequent fallout will inevitably be felt by all of us here.
As for me, for the time being, I am “smart-working” — teaching from home on Skype to students who are able to or want to continue. The news channels are keeping us updated, and I have to say I’m thankful for Netflix in giving me a necessary respite from this otherwise inescapable pandemic.
Aside from teaching, my work as a fitness model means I have had to be creative about my training in light of gym closures. My proverbial solitary confinement has so far limited me to the “Max Cady school” of prison workouts.
How long it will take before cabin fever sets in, I can only find out.
James Emmerson is a teacher based in Carpi, northern Italy