By Suzanne Saluti

Italy has been in a nationwide quarantine since March 10.  Many areas in the north of Italy were declared red zones weeks before in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19.  As of this writing, more people have died due to complications from the virus in Italy than in China. It’s hard to know exactly why Italy has been affected so severely, but the virus was clearly circulating “silently” for some time. Because Italy’s population skews older, there are more people at high risk. New reporting implies that recorded deaths may have been artificially inflated, which would mean that in fact only 12% can be directly attributed to the virus. The rest of the reported deaths were mostly elderly, with significant co-morbidities, and therefore were unable to deal with the virus.

Whatever, the reason, this is a dark time for my beloved adopted country. The economic impact of COV-19 will be huge, further damaging its already struggling economy. There is no doubt that the path to social and economic recovery will be a long one.

My daughter came down from Rome to our home in Ascoli Piceno for my 60th birthday on the Friday before the lockdown began. My husband was in California visiting our older children and grandchild. By the time the weekend was over, my daughter was miles from her life, friends, and boyfriend, quarantined, and abruptly laid off from her job. These early blows felt especially personal.

We’re lucky to live outside of town on a large property. The weather has been good, and there’s plenty of work to be done around the garden. My friends who live in small apartments in the historical center of the city seem to be going stir crazy. Attempting to replace our nights out and about on the town, we are finding new ways to connect, like a virtual aperitivo twice a week. Jokes about juggling schedules full of Skype and Zoom sessions with family and friends around the world are common, as are funny photos and videos. Nevertheless, the aura is much more subdued than usual.

Italians have faced this situation with grace, relative calm, and a sense of solidarity. There isn’t a sense of panic, and no one is stockpiling. When our daughter, the designated shopper, goes to the grocery store, there is still an abundance of fresh food, cleaning products, and toilet paper. She has sometimes seen a line to enter when stores attempt to maintain the one-meter social distancing guideline.  Everyone waits quietly outside with their carts, masks, and gloves.  Perhaps the hardest adjustment has been to refrain from the traditional two-cheek kiss when meeting. Instead, folks greet each other rather forlornly with a wave. Children all over Italy have painted banners with rainbows that say tutto andrà bene, or everything will be fine. You can see these hanging from balconies in most cities. Almost every day, entire neighborhoods go out on their balconies at to sing or play musical instruments. We are keeping the faith as best we can.

I am extremely proud of how Italy has managed this crisis, but not instituting a country-wide lockdown sooner was definitely a misstep. While the government, like many of us, failed to grasp the seriousness of the situation, our political and medical leaders have been very transparent. There is a government website that updates daily with nation and regional testing information and statistics. I track the numbers, waiting for the eventual decline in new cases that will signal that the lockdown is working, and the country is winning the battle.

On March 21st, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced new restrictions that closed all non-essential factories and confirmed that the country-wide lockdown would last until April 3rd. He also extended the lockdown in Lombardy, Italy’s hardest-hit region until April 15th. With case numbers slowing their growth, initial signs that the curve is beginning to bend are appearing.

To friends and families in the US, my advice is to act quickly. The fact of the matter is no health care system, regardless of quality, has the capacity to handle the influx of patients with COVID-19. The heroic efforts of Italian medical staff in the face of this crisis have been truly inspiring. Nurses, doctors, and more are working long hours without seeing their families. It is vital to slow down the pace of new infections, instead of squandering precious time playing a blame game.

In these challenging times, I have unwavering faith in the spirit and solidarity of the Italian people.  Despite everything, I feel safer here than I would in the US. I hope with all my heart that things will stabilize soon, and that people will once again be able to enjoy the beauty of Italy. Forza Italia! Be safe America.

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