By Suzanne Saluti
Although some regional lockdowns began weeks earlier in northern Italy, April 19th marked the 40th day of national lockdown here in Italy. The origin of the word quarantine comes from the 14th century Venetian word quarantena, a term for the forty days all ships were required to be isolated before passengers and crew could go ashore during the Black Plague.
Although we’ve probably all read historical accounts of quarantines, until very recently, the idea of living through something like this seemed pretty far-fetched. From our lovely but lonely post here in the Italian countryside, we continue to monitor the news of how other countries are managing through the pandemic, as they attempt to balance public health and economic concerns in the face of a virus about which we know very little. We often talk to our family and friends based in the San Francisco Bay Area and have been surprised by the differences between the relative gentleness of the shelter in place practices they are following and what is expected of us here in Italy.
Here in Italy, all non-essential businesses are closed. Grocery stores, pharmacies, newsstands, and businesses related those supply chains are still open and operating. Italians are limited to going outside only for very specific reasons. Folks with dogs can walk them, but only within 200 meters of their homes. There is no such thing as going for a stroll in the town center or even the nearby countryside whether one is social distancing or not. One parent can take children outside for one hour a day, but again, only within the 200-meter perimeter of their residence. In the early days of the lockdown, vans circulated through towns with loudspeakers reminding people to stay inside. Until a few restrictions were lifted last week, there was no take-out food service allowed from restaurants. I should note, though, that take-out food isn’t popular outside of larger cities in Italy. Since becoming an adult, I have never been more excited about getting a pizza-to-go than I was this week.
Anyone leaving the house for shopping, work, or medical treatment must carry a signed auto-authorization form stating their reason for being outside. The form includes your residence address, identity card number and destination. A friend told us that she was stopped by the police as she crossed town to go to the butcher on her bike, and our daughter’s car was flagged down on a main thoroughfare in a random check last week. They questioned her for 5 minutes, wanting to know where her uncle lived and why she was delivering vegetables to him. She told them that he normally helps us maintain our garden and as he is over 70, we felt it was best he didn’t leave the house.
While this level of oversight might sound invasive to Americans, for the most part, I’m amazing at Italians’ compliance — particularly for a culture that thrives on chaos and bending the rules. The pandemic hit Italy hard early. Death numbers were sobering. With a population that skews older, many families lost loved ones. The stories of people who had to die alone without the comfort of family are always horrifying to hear, but perhaps even more so in a country whose cultural identity is largely tied to family. Many households are multi-generational, and reverence for one’s grandparents is hard-wired in the Italian psyche. But it turns out that when it comes to family and health, Italians, who are notorious hypochondriacs, can be quite disciplined in making sacrifices for the greater good. However, if the lockdown is extended indefinitely, I am not sure how long this compliance can be reasonably maintained.
Thankfully, the number of reported cases is slowly declining, and although deaths and new infections still jump around a bit, likely due to increased testing. ICU bed occupancy continues to decline, which many people feel is a good indicator that real progress is being made against the virus. Although I was already a believer, this experience has shown me the tangible benefits of a swift, coordinated national response and nationally run health care system to which all residents have equal access.
Since I last wrote, our lockdown has been extended to May 3. In the harder hit, northern areas, it will go until May 15. We expect a new announcement from the Prime Minister in the next week detailing the very carefully staged return to something resembling normal life-although we all know it will be far from the normal we once knew for quite a long time-and that fills our hearts with both hope and sadness.