What happened in Italy (March 2020)
This article was published in the Chronicle of the Horse at the start of the pandemic (March 2020).
It’s been two weeks since Italy was put in quarantine to contain the world’s deadliest coronavirus outbreak. It’s an experience that I would compare to living through a war. But in this case, the war is a virus- and we can’t fight it with traditional weapons, all we can do is hunker down in isolation and hope the infections slow like they did in China.
I write this article sitting at the kitchen table; my colleagues and I were all sent home 14 days ago due to the new restrictions, and now our whole team works remotely.
My house is located on an isolated hill that overlooks the village of Castelfiorentino, in the province of Florence, Tuscany. I am quarantined here with my 12-year-old daughter, my boyfriend, our two dogs, a cat, and 4 parrots. Unfortunately for me, my horses are located 5 km away at a local livery barn, so I have been quarantined from them too.
The number of deaths from coronavirus in Italy has now surpassed that of China, so we are happy to be outside of the cities. Sometimes it feels like we are characters in Boccaccio´s The Decameron, in which people escaping the plague hunker down in a Tuscan villa. Except in my case, animals outnumber human beings, and instead of telling stories to each other — we are communicating with the world through our devices. There are news broadcasts 24/7, detailing the current situation, showing the regional infection tolls and reminding everyone to stay at home. It doesn’t feel real. The last few days have been the worst. On Saturday evening, we all hoped the quarantine measures would lower the infection rate — instead, we were all floored by the days’ death toll; almost 800 people.
The first weeks of the crisis were alleviated by the novelty of the situation. The Italian government announced a positive case of Covid-19 on the 21st of February. He was a 38-year-old marathon runner from the Lombardy region in the north of Italy, believed to the first source of local transmission in Italy. This patient was a super-spreader, and he unintentionally infected his pregnant wife and at least ten others when medics failed to test him.
Within days of his diagnosis came the first deaths. When those deaths started multiplying, everything started to change.
Red zone areas were set up around affected villages, travel restrictions were enforced, and all kinds of gatherings were banned. The busy village piazzas, which function as the nucleus of Italian social life, were all abandoned.
Italian fashion week was one of the first big events called off. Pubs and nightclubs were all closed, and even the Carnival of Venice was canceled. We joked at work about how Coronavirus was taking all our fun away.
Then came the travel bans, quarantines overseas and even the closing of borders to Italian residents. It started slowly, but when the Coronavirus gained momentum, everything started crashing down around us.
During these early days, the message from Italian authorities was confusing. As international tourists fled the country, the tourism boards told visitors not to cancel their trips.
Museums and galleries tried to encourage tourists with free entry, and the mayor of Milan encouraged a campaign called “Milan doesn’t stop”, reassuring the Milanese not to be afraid. He publicly encouraged locals and tourists to frequent the deserted piazzas and support the local hospitality scene- effectively encouraging group get-togethers when we all should have been doing the opposite.
This contradictory information, combined with less-than-urgent appeals by the government to change our social interactions, meant that along with much of Italy, I grossly underestimated how contagious the previously unknown Coronavirus could be.
In my small town in central Tuscany — the danger didn’t seem real. Complacency is contagious, and since Florence was a relatively unaffected area initially, life went on as normal. We knew the situation in the North of Italy was bad, but we were a few hours’ drive from the closest red zone. The threat seemed distant, and unlikely. My daughter still went on regular playdates and took swimming lessons at the public pool. I worked, met friends for lunch and spent time with my horses at the equestrian center where I board them. I met a friend and her daughter in Florence, and we both remarked how strange the city felt without tourists. Our kids wanted to eat sushi, but it took us more than an hour to find an open restaurant. All the Asian restaurants in Florence were shut up. The entrances had handwritten notes plastered to the front apologizing to clients for their unscheduled closure.
Then on March 4, the government closed the schools across the country. The announcement brought everything a lot closer to home
We had been expecting something to happen with the schools, but not as suddenly as it did. The decree was officialized mid-afternoon, during the middle of the week. My daughter had taken the bus home after school to a friend’s house, her mother, a close friend of mine and fellow ex-pat, called me after the announcement was made and asked if I could pick up some ‘important ’ supplies at the supermarket on the way home.
I stopped at the village shopping center, the small supermarket was about to close, and since all I needed was a bottle of wine and some snacks, I hoped to avoid a line. The hostile fluorescent lighting in the supermarket made the place feel like a scene in an apocalyptic movie. Worried faces pushed trollies like zombies through empty aisles, cleared out earlier when the decree caused a flurry of panic shopping. The soft hum of background music drifted through the air, and a guy packing shelves coughed. A dry, hacking cough. Everyone in line side-eyed him and avoided walking near him. That was when social distancing really kicked in for me.
From that moment on, I became far more aware of my personal space and keeping away from anyone that looks mildly ill.
The next weeks were a blur as Italy descended into full-blown crisis mode. Initially, going out wearing a mask was still considered excessive, but the mood changed quickly from indifferent and brazen to subdued and somber. Villages that were usually full of people, were suddenly deserted. Face masks sold out everywhere.
For a week I commuted back and forth to my job. Our habits changed quickly. We had to check our temperatures twice a day, wash all surfaces regularly and pay special attention to keeping a safe distance between each other while we worked. Some of my workmates were anxious, wearing gloves in the office. Others were more critical about following the safety restrictions and practices.
On March 10, Italy became the first democratic country since World War 2 to impose a nationwide lockdown. Every region of Italy officially became a ‘red zone’ and this was followed within two days by further closures of most shops and businesses in an effort to control the outbreak. Only pharmacies, grocery stores, and businesses considered essential were permitted to open to the public. I was sent home from work.
It became evident as the weeks passed, that we were following the same trajectory as China — and then, on a bleak afternoon last week, we passed China’s death toll, and became the epicenter of the most deadly epidemic in the world. It was a heartbreaking to watch footage of military trucks moving into Bergamo to assist with transporting the coffins to the morgue.
Roadblocks with armed carabinieri now control the movement of people, and in some towns the military are also checking that people stay indoors. I am required to carry an auto-certification document that explains where I am going, the destination and motive. Walking on the streets without a valid reason is a punishable offense. There are 4 allowed concessions to staying home, these are: going to work (if providing a necessary service); basic necessities; health reasons and traveling home. Exercise is not allowed.
The concept of basic necessities has caused some confusion as it means different things to different people. Ask a horse owner if keeping their horse fit is important, and he or she will likely nod their head — but the authorities do not agree. Basic necessities were clarified by the Italian officials as catering for non-self-sufficient relatives, going to the supermarket, buying medicine from the pharmacy, and walking house pets (dogs) 200 metres from the home.
Horse owners are permitted to care for the horses they keep on their own property, but if the horse is kept at a boarding center, then visiting is not permitted. Riding is forbidden, not for the risk of contagion, but because the Italian health system is so overwhelmed, if I was to injure myself — there would be no room in any hospital, and no ambulances to take me there.
When the new decree was established, I had to adapt quickly to some major changes in my routine, and the toughest of these was being cut off from my horses.
My horses live out 24/7 but due to their ages (19 and 23) and recent health issues, I am especially careful of their wellbeing during the change of the seasons. The quarantine rules forced the club where I keep my horses to close down completely during quarantine. These rules serve to stop any sort of social mingling, but also mean that I am not allowed to visit my horses until the quarantine has been lifted.
This has been a bitter pill for me to swallow — I have managed to see my horses only once in the last 12 days (I had to drop off some medicine) and I am not supposed to visit again until the lockdown finishes (in two weeks). My horses live outside, so exercise is not essential right now, but as most dedicated horse owners will understand, not having the possibility to visit, check on their wellbeing, change rugs etc, is not easy.
Two weeks ago, it had seemed like a big deal when the international football matches were canceled, now that seems so trivial.
The virus has ravaged the North of Italy, with so many patients in intensive care, that they are being tended to in makeshift intensive care wards inside the waiting room. On Saturday 793 people died. The highest daily death toll since the virus emerged in December. There were so many bodies that the military had to bring in trucks to move away from the bodies.
Over 50,000 people have tested positive to the virus in Italy alone. Medical experts from China are recommending that all movement of any kind should be banned — because for now, it seems that quarantine just isn’t enough. 17 doctors have already died, and many frontline workers have succumbed to the virus including two post workers and a supermarket cashier.
This again highlights the issue with public offices and shops staying open — the staff of these businesses are exposed to the public daily, and since in Italy we are lacking in masks and other medical equipment — these people are often unprotected.
When you buy something online, the courier will put the parcel on the ground then step away. You pick it up, sign the receipt, put it on the ground and step away. They put your receipt on the ground and move back as you move forward. If you run into a neighbor as you leave the house, you don’t stand around chatting, instead, you wait for them to pass, and then leave your house when the path is clear.
While I work, my daughter takes online classes and chats with her friends online. Only a few weeks ago we all moaned about how much screen time our kids had access too — nowadays we are grateful for the fact they can carry on their classes, talk with their friends and family, and watch anything other than the news on TV. It’s hard not having contact with friends. I miss catching up with them after work. I miss riding my horse in the mountains. I miss worrying about things that now seem so banal and trite — bills to pay, deadlines at work, babysitting hours.
This is not an Italian problem or a Chinese problem. This is a global pandemic, and it is affecting all of us. The light at the end of the tunnel requires all of us to do our part. What has happened here in Italy should be a lesson for everyone.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. Nature is enjoying a breather, and the hills are alive with life of the non-humankind. Outside of my window I often see groups of deer grazing on the hills, butterflies, dragonflies, and wildflowers fill the landscape with energy.
We are all learning what is important again. Parents are teaching their kids to bake, to draw, to laugh. It’s not all grim here in Italy — but I sure do miss my horses.