The people in our village of 1,800 in east central Italy are very friendly and gregarious. We cannot step outside very far without someone greeting us, whether we know them or not. It is both considered courteous and a custom of community connection.
So, yesterday outside a food market, a very affable man who I often run into seemed ready to issue the usual “Buongiorno! Come stai?” (Good morning! How are you?) I was ready with my usual response, often accompanied by a quick handshake. But this time, at a distance, he offered a new greeting. “Non ho paura.” “I am not afraid.” I was a bit taken aback, as I had not even mentioned the subject of Covid-19. We both smiled awkwardly and parted company.
The coronavirus does weigh heavily on people’s minds here. There are subtle signs of concern. Although no grocery stores have been cleared out, some shelves of staples are being emptied. People suddenly look up and step away quickly from others who cough. We observed a family out and about who were all wearing plastic gloves. And older people we know seem especially anxious.
The region we live in has had only one confirmed case; it was a man who was visiting from another country and went to a restaurant. But people see the news. Everyone is aware of the severity of the situation five hours to the north in the regions of Veneto and Lombardy, where a dozen towns have been closed and more cases are being found each day. Despite the lack of emergency here, the regional government has taken precautionary actions by closing schools, stadiums, museums, theaters, and other places of public assembly for a week. Major public events have been cancelled as well.
Sensible measures. For the most part, people are living their daily lives pretty much as always. Newspaper articles report 80% hotel cancellations in Rome, but that’s happening three hours to the west. Of course, as with my friend and his unusual greeting, there is a general wariness that things could change. It’s a sort of “I’m not worried, even though I really am.” Recently, several airlines serving Milan have cancelled flights due to decreased bookings but Milan is only one of more than fifteen international airports within Italy.
By contrast, friends living further north have had their lives seriously disrupted. People are not going into work; many are working from home instead. Classes at the University of Bologna have been replaced with on-line instruction. A professor there who I know has decided not to travel for at least a month, waiting to see what happens. She reports that there are noticeably fewer people in the big piazzas and many arcades that Bologna is known for.
People traveling appear to have a fear not so much of contracting the virus but of being quarantined for two weeks at a point of entry in another country. For many people, that would be a serious and scary form of disruption. As I check in with various friends and colleagues in different parts of Italy, it seems most are being cautious and careful, but there is little real hysteria. After all, most people have had past experiences dealing with other outbreaks and understand the personal measures that can be taken.
These days we all live in two worlds – real life and virtual life.
The latter is where the problem lies. I am part of a group that moderates an on-line forum about life in Italy for expats. Normally, it is filled with tips on restaurants, paying taxes, and how to get visas and residency permits — good questions and good sharing of advice. But in the last week, 90 percent of the content has been filled with frightening posts.
Many are just conjectures or derived from dubious sources; we simply delete those. Others are from people who seem to like to stoke the fires. They post camera videos and make assertions that are clearly personal opinions. It’s not uncommon to see people arguing over who has the most accurate information. “My uncle works in a hospital…” “My cousin’s friend is a researcher…” “ I read that this is all a scheme by Big Pharma…” Inevitably, antivaxxers show up and claim its really a plot by governments to force everyone to be vaccinated.
Some people online are simply going crazy. One guy recently posted a video that looked like he had taken in person. It was shot through the dirty glass doors of a train station. It showed people running away from a gurney being taken out to an ambulance at the curb. No context. No explanation. Just a stupid caption: “A new victim of the coronavirus!!” Turned out the person had another illness and it was a typical emergency call. I think some people hope to find stunning evidence that will give them their 15 minutes of fame on Instagram or Facebook. Its really selfish and irresponsible. Not unlike yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater.
Covid-19 has not hit the U.S. yet in a significant way. But it is highly likely it will at some point, with so many possible ways of people traveling and while not showing symptoms. What’s more frightening is that public agencies don’t seem to be very well prepared. One of the reasons that Italy has been able to report and find many cases is that the National Health Service (SSN) offers free testing. News accounts here report that tests in the U.S. are probably not cost-effective.
The vast majority of people contracting the coronavirus recover; the people most susceptible to dying are those who already had other severe health problems — largely people over 75. The testing and monitoring being done by Italian health agencies can at least track the progression and adopt measures to contain it. Meanwhile, researchers are rapidly working on vaccines.
I certainly do not mean to minimize either the current situation or the real possibility of an actual, official pandemic. But the frenzy associated with this outbreak seems totally out of proportion. At least online.
In the 48 hours since this story was published, a number of events and actions have occurred:
Two persons have died in our region, an 88 year old man and a 60 year old man. Both had previously displayed significant health problems. Both people were in the far north part of the region, in the province of Pesaro-Urbino next to the region of Emilio-Romagna, which has seen a large number of cases in the past few weeks. The region we are in – Le Marche – now has 60 people who have tested positive, a 50% increase in two days.
The regional government has taken a number of measures:
- The province of Pesaro-Urbino has been included in the “Yellow Zone” which means more concentrated medical support and restrictions. Schools and colleges have been closed, as well as other public assembly buildings, including stadiums, cinemas, and museums.
- The regional government has allocated one million euros to providing emergency isolation centers in a number of locations, using temporary structures. In other parts of the region, everything is open and unrestricted. However, health agencies recommend that people keep a distance of 1 meter between themselves and others. This has affected, for example, the arrangement of adult education classes and seating in cafes and restaurants. People are also avoiding the usual personal greetings involving hugging and kissing.the sides of the face. Everyone is being reminded to frequently wash their hands and refrain from touching their face.
We ventured out today. The stores were fully stocked again. But few people were out.