The cobblestone streets in the center of Rome – usually teeming with tourists – are empty. At the Colosseum a woman with a big white sanitary mask on her face poses for a selfie. In St. Peter’s Square a young couple walk past in black face masks, a guidebook in hand. At the Trevi Fountain a couple in face masks raise up their phone for an iconic selfie– Rome at the time of the Coronavirus.
I am obsessed with the numbers. Every evening at 6pm, Italy’s Special Commissioner for the Coronavirus announces the daily numbers. How many new cases of people infected with the virus, how many dead, how many in the hospital, how many in intensive care, how many without symptoms but in isolation at home, which regions of Italy they are in. Even when I am not working, I have to find out. I call in to the office to ask, I look on twitter or on WhatsApp groups. Now the spokesman from the Civil Protection sends me the chart directly with all the numbers. And they just keep growing.
It is hard not to be obsessed. This week the Prime Minister announced Italy was closing down all schools until March 15th at least and warned that if the crisis continues to grow exponentially, Italy may have a problem with finding enough intensive care units.
I have listened to many press briefings with experts and, to make it really simple, they have broken it down like this. For 80-percent of the people infected with coronavirus nothing much happens, it can be even less uncomfortable than a common ‘flu. For 15-percent it causes serious respiratory difficulty which requires access to intensive care, and for 5-percent, especially the elderly and people with other compromising medical conditions, it is deadly. It is that 20-percent that is causing all the anguish.
Italy is particularly at risk because it has one of the oldest populations in the world, with 23-percent of the 60 million population over 65. The only country with more elderly people is Japan.
We are all obsessed in different ways. Some with the damn gooey, sanitizing gel that they carry around and offer to everyone all the time. Others keep sanitary masks – that they have paid a fortune for – in their bags, others avoid handshakes and the traditional Italian double-cheek kiss. People are inventing new ways of greeting – lengthening their legs so the toes of their shoes touch, shaking their own hands while smiling at the person they are greeting.
The correct distance we are supposed to maintain is one meter (roughly a yard). At this week’s opening of the highly-anticipated exhibit of Raphael’s paintings at Rome’s Scuderie del Quirinale, an attendant stood outside and politely asked people in the line to step backwards leaving the “safe distance” between each other. And there is a new term, “droplets”. Those let inside the museum were ushered through the door in “droplets” so as not to create crowds inside.
At movie theaters people are only allowed to sit in every other seat, and at a Fiat press conference chairs were placed at a distance so journalists could not be near one another.
Public service ads on TV remind us all to wash our hands frequently for 20 seconds and cough or sneeze into our elbows. It you want a seat on a bus in Rome these days, do not obey these rules. Cough loudly and do not cover your mouth and you will have six seats to yourself. In the bathroom at the Civil Protection Headquarters this week I found myself at the sink next to a French colleague and friend who said, “remember to wash for 20 seconds,” so, with the water rushing over my hands I rapidly reeled off the numbers, “1,2,3,4,5,6…”.
“Too Fast!,” she said, “you’re counting like a kid,” she exclaimed. “Do it properly! One hippopotamus, two hippopotamus, three hippopotamus….”
State of Emergency
When Italy got its first two cases of coronavirus – a couple of tourists from Wuhan in their 60s, there was a general panic – the government stopped all flights to and from China and declared a state of emergency for six months. I thought they were being ridiculous hypochondriacs. I was wrong.
It exploded in the Lombardy region of northern Italy with the case of what has become known in Italy as “patient number 1”, a 38-year-old healthy, athletic man who was apparently carrying it around for a few weeks before he got really ill. He participated in games of soccer and a road race, he met with friends for dinner and had coffee at the local bar. When he started getting sick, he went to his general practitioner who diagnosed a flu and sent him home, when he felt even worse, he went to the local hospital that did the same. It wasn’t until he was in a dangerous respiratory situation that his pregnant wife suggested that maybe he had coronavirus. By that time, it had spread dramatically.
Elderly people who went to the same coffee bar were infected, the disease spread to many people at the hospital, and patient n. 1’s pregnant wife had it.
As of this writing, Patient number 1 is still in intensive care and is breathing with the help of a respirator. A team of doctors are working around the clock to save him. He has become symbolic of the battle against the coronavirus. The cluster that started with patient one in Lombardy has risen to 2612 cases.
Over ten towns have been put into lockdown with some 18,000 residents forced to stay within the town.
It has taken longer to get to Rome, but the coronavirus has arrived. We now have 54 cases in the Lazio region which includes Rome, and the hysteria is running high. Today someone passed me a phone call on his desk phone and then after I had spoken insisted on a total wipe-down with sanitizing gel.
As I was riding a bike down Via del Corso, a street running through the historic center of Rome, on my way to work the other day, I heard sirens blaring behind me and immediately pulled over. A police motorcycle escort came racing past with an ambulance behind. I have never seen a police escort for an ambulance before and can only guess that it was carrying someone with the coronavirus. (for the record, since I am obsessed with the numbers, as of March 6th there are 44 cases in the Lazio region which includes Rome)
Today we had the first confirmed case at the Vatican. The doctors’ offices inside the Vatican walls which treats the Vatican population (the total is roughly 600), had a confirmed case of the coronavirus. The Vatican spokesman, Matteo Bruni, said they were retracing to see everyone this person had been in contact with. They are also considering stopping the Pope’s weekly audiences and public prayer on Sunday, and limiting entrances into the Vatican museums. Droplets.
The Pope has been putting off all appointments for a week due to a “cold” Bruni has said. After a lot of back and forth with journalists who continued to ask if Pope Francis had been tested for the coronavirus, the press office finally issued a statement saying, “The Holy Father’s diagnosed cold is running its course, and no symptoms are suggesting other pathologies.” This is how the Vatican communicates when it comes to a Pope’s health. Was he actually tested for coronavirus? My colleague Franca Giansoldati, from the Italian news “Il Messaggero” reported that she had it from a source that he was. No one else has been able to confirm this.
In the general panic, there has been a run on masks, gel and food! In Northern Italy the shelves in the supermarkets were cleaned out, left bare. Actually, that is not accurate. One thing was left behind, penne lisce. That is the short pasta that is smooth rather than ridged. I was very perplexed by this turn of events and consulted with one of my food experts, AP Television cameraman Gianfranco Stara, a renowned chef and food aficionado. “Trisha mia,” he said with a huge sigh as if he were talking to a small child, “don’t you understand that without the ridges the sauce slips right off. No one likes penne lisce, it’s obvious.”
“But spaghetti is smooth. It has no ridges!” I replied. Another sigh of exasperation from Gianfranco, “But you twirl the spaghetti, that’s how you get the sauce.” Ok, lesson learned. I still have not figured out why they produce penne lisce if no one eats them.
Another pocket is Vo’ Euganeo, a small town outside of Padova. That city with 3,300 residents has been in total lockdown. They will be released from the quarantine this Sunday at midnight. One man slipped out and went skiing in the Alps, unfortunately for him he fell and broke his femur.
My daughter is a student at the University of Padova which was closed down immediately and she came home for a week. But we could not convince her to stay. She has gone back up to be with friends and continue her volunteer work. She told me she went with a group of friends yesterday to visit the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice – a short train ride from Padova, and they had the city to themselves.
On Thursday, after the government closed the schools across the country, I sent a camera crew out to visit the parks and playgrounds of Rome to do a story that I imagined as “desperate parents.” To our surprise and pleasure, what the crew found was quite the contrary. It was a gorgeous sunny, relatively warm day, and the playgrounds were packed with grandparents who were happily stepping in to help and parents who said they were taking the opportunity to do some “smart-working” from home on their computers while watching their kids.
Italy’s tourist industry has been devastated. Hotels owners’ associations say they have had 90 percent of their bookings canceled. On Monday a large group of travel agents protested outside of the Ministry of Economic Development in Rome asking for help. The President of the Lazio Region Association of Travel Agents said not only do they have massive cancellations but for Italians, traveling has become a Russian roulette. You don’t know if they will let you on the plane, if you do get on the plane you don’t know if you will be allowed off, or taken off and put into quarantine, or sent back. And in the case that an Italian traveler does manage to begin his or her journey in another country, there is no guarantee that they will be able to fly back.
The US Embassy has been sending all Americans such dire travel warnings that one would think we were back in the plague epidemic of the 17th century. First flights from northern Italy to and from the US were canceled, the latest is that they will measure the temperature of all passengers boarding flights to the US and if anyone has 37.5 (99.5) they will be turned back at the gate.
But it is not just the US, a poor group of Italian tourists flew all the way to Mauritius only to be forced to turn around and go back without even getting off the plane. What a bummer. Finally escaped from all this coronavirus mania only to be sent back.
A group of 21 Italian tourists from the area around Lodi, one of the towns now in lockdown at the center of the northern clusters, traveled to Jaipur in India, only to discover two of them had the coronavirus. India was not pleased. The Italians have been put in quarantine at a military base in New Delhi and India is no longer granting visas to Italians.
This is pretty bad, but Italy has seen worse. Surviving the bubonic plague features in some of the most prominent literary works that all Italian students read. I’ve heard many people over the past two weeks mentioning Boccaccio’s “Decameron” written in the 14th century which describes a group of young people at a villa on the outskirts of Florence who have escaped the city to flee the epidemic of 1348 and pass the time telling stories.
Here is a quote from “Decameron”: “so the deathly pestilience which, either by will of superior beings or as just punishment by an angry God against our misdemeanors perpetrated in previous years in eastern parts…”
Then there is Alessandro Manzoni’s “The Betrothed,” in which dead bodies are thrown onto wooden carts and dragged out of the piazzas in Milan during the height of the plague epidemic in the 1630. About one million people died in that epidemic.
It is not the bubonic plague but the coronavirus is scary and it will likely get worse before it gets better so I will hunker down with my penne lisce and hand gel and wait for this all to be over.
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.