Quarantine in the Time of COVID-19
For the past twenty months I have lived in the city of Turin, Italy with my husband and two children. We, along with the over sixty million people in Italy have been instructed to stay home to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
As I write this, on Friday, March 13, we enter our fifth day, locked down at home. But the orders for quarantine began sooner, around Saturday, February 22, when 50,000 people were placed under quarantine in Lodi, just 111 miles away from us. Although we’ve never been to Lodi, we’ve traveled through Lombardy (where it is located), numerous times to reach Milan, Parma, and Venice.
21 days have passed since we started using the words Italy and quarantine in the same sentence. No one that we know has been diagnosed with the COVID-19 illness, but with the virus spreading so quickly, and with so many Italians living in the same region as their parents and grandparents, it is possible that we will know someone who will be affected, before all of this is over.
It is a strange time to be living in Italy. The streets are empty. Nearly everything is closed. The ancient ruins and splendid palaces are silent. Soccer, which is even played on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, in rain, snow, and hail, is at a standstill. Italians famously greet with kisses, stand very close together in conversation, and transgress what many Americans would consider their personal space. Today they would sooner cross the street than risk coming closer than one meter to another person on the sidewalk.
24-Hour News, Social Media, and Humor
The incremental unfolding of the quarantine in Italy seems like it was made for an age of 24-hour news and social media. Every morning we wake up to something new to lament, or to laugh at. Pictures of people wearing surgical masks, empty grocery shelves, people flouting the rules of “social distancing”, circulate widely. Amidst this, many Italians are finding humor wherever they can.
The newspaper La Repubblica asks “Are Italians really snubbing penne lisce (smooth penne), even as they prepare for the apocalypse?” referring to the often-maligned slippery, smooth short pasta. Images of the pasta section of a grocery store completely cleaned out, save for bags of penne lisce, have been circulating for days. Until now I didn’t think penne lisce existed in Italy; the last time I saw penne without the characteristic vertical lines, indenting each piece, must have been at a college dining hall.
Stories of Italians finding their way around the rules, and other Italians scolding them for their disregard of the older generation, is a national conversation playing out in the news and in social media. A meme is circulating featuring a cozy blanket, throw pillows, and a mug, all organized around a warm fireplace. The text reminds Italians to “…remember that our grandparents were asked to go to war. We are only being asked to stay on the sofa.”
On the subject of social distancing the humorous Facebook account I Piemontesi (referring to the people of Piedmont) reassures Italians: “It is possible to survive just fine without kisses, hugs, handshakes, and pats on the shoulder…we, the Piedmontese have been doing it for centuries.” It makes light of the stereotype that, just like the northern climate, the people of Piedmont are a colder, more standoffish people.
Dreams Crushed, Confusion, and and Careers in Limbo
The numbers of infected people, and the newly deceased are constantly updated. The suffering of the people they’ve left behind devastate readers and viewers. International students realizing their dream of studying art in Florence, the cradle of the Renaissance, or living their culinary fantasy in Bologna, were sent home nearly two weeks ago.
Husbands and wives have been separated by the quarantine. A father wonders if he is allowed to drive to his ex-wife’s house to visit his son. Struggling businesses have been forced to temporarily shutter their doors, and forego day after day of business. Countless people separated from their jobs, their wages lost. Even those whose lives haven’t been directly touched by the virus itself, are wrestling with the consequences.
A Rough Cold and Flu Season in Turin, But Not For Us
This January, following my kids’ winter break from school I began to see and hear news of the “coronavirus” over and over again. Although I had heard about the mysterious “flu-like” illness earlier, the news began to intensify with the start of 2020. Reports of rampant illness, death, and the drastic measures taken, including the closing-off of Wuhan, from the rest of China, steadily increased.
In Turin, at that time (early to mid-January), there wasn’t really concern that the “coronavirus” (COVID-19) which was wreaking havoc in a city in China, would find its way to Turin. Families in Turin were dealing with the illnesses that were already here.
Around the same time that I started hearing increased reporting on COVID-19, in the news, I was receiving daily (Hourly? By the minute?) updates on the WhatsApp groups organized by my children’s schools, and soccer team. Sick classmates and teammates; irritation that soccer practice was being skipped. Some friends, who happened to be fellow-Californians, were sick for what seemed like weeks. My daughter’s music teacher had to reschedule a lesson for a particularly brutal case of the flu. A Norwegian friend spent two solid weeks bound to her home, while she nursed her two children back to health. A nonna (grandmother) who I would regularly see at pick-up, lamented her granddaughter’s repeated sick days, and the endless bugs that were being passed around.
I am familiar with the cycles of colds, flu, and the myriad of other illnesses that circulate in schools, but something about this year just stuck in my mind. It felt like the illnesses were more harsh, they seemed to circulate very quickly, and once they struck, they seemed to linger.
Perhaps what made it so noticeable for me was the fact that we receive a constant stream of information via the WhatsApp groups; something we never had at our public school in California. Another thing that made these illnesses more noticeable: Our family has remained remarkably healthy this winter, in stark contrast to last winter. While I remained grateful for this, I also feared that illness could enter our home at any time.
This is the mindset that I had been in for the past several weeks, heading into the last week of school prior to the Carnavale (Mardi Gras) holiday. I wanted to make the most of my last “semester” in Italy, and had a full week ahead; but the specter of illness remained present.
On Tuesday, February 18, a friend prepared a multi-course Persian meal at her home. Two different guests messaged at the last minute; they had to stay home to care for sick children. Two days later, on Thursday, February 20, I went out for drinks with a couple of friends, two of these friends were pregnant, one is due to give birth any day now. Afterwards we went to see another friend give the ethereal soprano solo performance in Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater at the baroque Chiesa della Madonna del Carmine. The following day I had a great visit to my chiropractor, and said hello to her precious baby.
It was one of the most fun weeks I had spent in Turin, and it led up to a 4-day weekend. What could be better? But in the back of my mind during each of these events I thought about the illnesses in our midst. I resisted playing with my chiropractor’s baby, just in case I was carrying any germs that could spread to her, I hoped that everyone I had seen that week, and their children, and my family, would remain healthy.
At the end of that week our family began to relax. Finally, the Carnavale holiday had arrived. We had planned to go to Genoa, a sunny harbor city that we had fallen in love with the year prior, when we fled there to escape the bitter cold of Turin. I called and made a dinner reservation at a place that blends Spanish tapas and traditional Ligurian cuisine. We couldn’t wait.
A Carnavale Trip Canceled, School Closed for The Week
We were set to depart for Genoa on Monday morning. We had selected the 10 AM train so that we wouldn’t have to rush. But over the course of the weekend my son’s soccer matches were canceled, and more and more news emerged about closures and lockdowns in Lombardy, just north of Liguria (where Genoa is located), and east of Piedmont, where Turin is the capital.
On the evening of Sunday, February 23 we learned that museums and theaters in Genoa would be closed for one week, because of COVID-19. In our home region an announcement closed schools for the remainder of the week. With the virus seeming to close in on us, we canceled our trip.
School did not start the on the following Monday, March 2, as we originally thought it would. Days prior, on Saturday, February 29, the government announced that schools would re-open “mid-week”. A message arrived from my daughter’s school that it would be sanitized, prior to the children’s return. Everyone assumed that “mid-week” meant the following Wednesday. But school did not start that week at all. On Monday, March 4, we learned that all schools would re-open on Monday, March 16.
Soccer Practice Canceled as The Red Zone Grows
On Thursday, March 5 we received word that all activity at my son’s soccer club would be suspended. Late Saturday, March 7, a friend in Parma sadly informed me that now she was in the “Zona Rossa” (the Red Zone, or quarantine zone). I soon found out that in addition to Parma many other cities, across several regions, were now subject to the rules limiting movement and assembly.
On Sunday, March 8, the Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte, announced the expansion of the quarantine zone to include a large swathe of Northern Italy, including sections of Piedmont, but not Turin. Despite Turin’s exclusion from the quarantine zone, people in the city knew that it was only a matter of time until it, too, was included.
Nationwide Measures to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19
By Monday, March 9, quarantine measures were extended to the entire country. Currently, all schools (and universities) are to remain closed through Friday, April 3. In the four days that have passed since March 9, new language has been introduced by the government to close any loopholes that might seem to permit any risky behavior.
Stores, restaurants, and bars were initially permitted to be open, but only for limited hours, while proprietors were responsible for keeping customers at least one meter apart from one another. Grocery stores placed colored tape on the floor to indicate the space of one meter, in order to help customers maintain a safe distance, and reduce the possibility of transmission.
In subsequent days the same places were only permitted to be open from 8 in the morning until 6 in the evening. People could go outside to walk their dogs, or get some exercise, but could not gather in groups.
As measures have been taken to ensure that residents follow both the “spirit of the law” as well as the “letter of the the law”, the streets have grown increasingly quiet. It is strangely peaceful to step out of our palazzo, and into silence. Even in the quiet days of Ferroagosto, the mid-August holiday, when people leave the city in droves for the mountains and seaside, it isn’t as quiet as it was today. But this quiet seems to indicate that the government’s measures are working.
The simple hashtag that Italy has adopted to describe these measures, and to encourage compliance: “#IoRestoaCasa”, or “#ImStayingHome”, has become a badge of honor for Italians on social media. They search for ways to stay connected, as they are confined to their homes.
The Consequences for Turin, For Italy, and What’s Next
I can’t guess how the next couple of weeks will go. Circumstances change quickly, and so many in Italy wait for news, daily. I have no idea when the city, and the country will be fully functioning again, although the quarantine measures are supposed to end on Friday, April 3. We share the hope that the late spring and summer months will bring a resurgence of travel and tourism.
What is certain for now is that these mass closures, flight cancellations, stoppage of movement, and even prohibition of religious services, is having a massive impact on people’s lives, both in Italy and abroad. We live in Turin’s center and have watched small businesses struggle, and fold, under economic pressures, before the strain of the quarantine. I worry about how Turin will cope with the reality of the post-COVID-19 world.
Hope, Solidarity, and Finding Comfort in Song
For now we are doing our part, simply staying home, and making the most of it. In our ever-connected world we are able to watch the unfolding of hope and solidarity across Italy.
Last night our phones began to light up with image after image of solitary candles, lit and placed in windows all around Italy to illuminare (to illuminate) “this moment of darkness, with hope, and to tell all sick people, to tell the doctors, to tell the nurses, those who are on the front lines that we are all united, and with our commitment and responsibility, we can do it…”
In the southern city of Naples, some residents have adopted singer Andrea Sannino’s Abbraciame, sung in the local Neapolitan dialect, as a sort of anthem of solidarity. Videos of residents of an apartment complex singing the song in unison have started to appear online.
I knew that I would learn a lot about Italy by spending two years here, but these days of quarantine - this national emergency - have shed so much light on aspects of Italian society that I took for granted.
Sometimes I feel like I'm learning more about the country by staying indoors and reading these exchanges, than I do by going outside. What I know for sure is that Italian society has been through crises before, and it shows.
There is a universal awareness of how to cope, and how to support one another, in times like these. Italy has been through worse than this. War and devastation, political turmoil, years of poverty; all of it remains in the national consciousness.
Italy will come out on the other side. Slowly, the economy will rebuild. The jokes about the cruel rejection of the penne lisce, will remain and will be a reminder of when Italians “prepared for the apocalypse”. But by then, I fear, I’ll be back home in Southern California; the memories of our time quarantined in our palazzo, a memory. Our time in Italy will be marked not only by our joyful travels, and trials and tribulations, but also by this particular moment, when we too were Italian.