As I write it is Wednesday 4th March 2020. This evening we received notification from the parent representative for Miss S’s Year 5 class that all schools and universities in Italy will be closed from 5 – 15 March. The schools in this region were closed last week as sanitizing of the schools and public transport was ordered across Campania.
The closures are as a result of the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak. Italy is now recognised as one of the major hotspots for the disease, with the majority of the cases in the north. It’s difficult to keep up with the news but as I write the leading national press agency in Italy is reporting that there are 2706 infections, with 107 dead. 1346 of those infected are in hospital, 297 in intensive care. 1065 are in isolation at home. To date 276 have recovered.
These numbers feel heavy. But there are 60.48 million people living in Italy. So the total infected still only represents 0.003%. And the deaths have all been elderly people who already had pre-existing medical conditions. It’s reported that “80 per cent of people who contract coronavirus exhibit "such mild symptoms they barely notice it and that's particularly the case in children".
The numbers in China and South Korea are worse, but still more people die from cancer, heart attacks and suicide each day.
Despite reading the news and public health authority advice from the WHO and other agencies I feel unsettled. Like I want to get on a plane and fly back to Australia. As though Australia is somehow safer. The Australian government has declared that the country is ‘pandemic ready’, with two deaths to date. This morning I woke to the news that doctors and medical staff are struggling to access masks, and that the supermarket shelves are empty of toilet paper as panic buying sets in following the announcement that 40% of the toilet paper is sourced from Chinese factories which are currently closed. Australia has already stopped flights coming in from China, but to date is resisting pressure to stop flights coming in from Italy.
The Australian media are reporting that there are more than 3 000 cases in Italy and more than 80 nations have been affected. It seems that some rounding liberties are being taken on the island continent, or the media in Italy are using different statistics.
Italians are being urged to wash their hands regularly, not touch their faces and a proposed decree will also order Italians not to shake hands or hug each other. The custom of the double kiss will surely be a difficult habit to break for some.
We feel like we’re in a holding pattern. We returned from our trip to Israel to find the mood in Italy had shifted. We are starting to make plans for the second half of 2020, but it feels like we need to make several continency plans just in case.
People are keeping their children indoors, even more so than normal. We are avoiding shopping centres and crowded areas. In the north, football matches are being cancelled, government offices are closed, and any immigration matters are on hold for a month.
We have started to stockpile a few grocery supplies following a worrying phone call to Gigi’s aunt in the north. Her village and nearest town are in a ‘yellow zone’ but she claims that the supermarkets are empty, and you can’t buy fuel on the highway. I read other blogs written by expats living in the yellow zones up north who write that life is quieter, but supplies are still available and regular services are operational.
The other problem is the economy. Italy’s economy was already struggling. The coronavirus is having a major impact on tourism across the country as foreigners cancel upcoming trips, airlines are cancelling flights due to drops in demand and accommodation providers are cancelling bookings due to quarantine areas. But it is also impacting regular people. The closure of the schools directly impacts us as my regular Friday morning job teaching science in English to primary school children gets cancelled and we no longer have those funds to buy food and fuel for the week. If all businesses are compulsorily closed for a period, including the private language school where we teach, it will be even worse. Fortunately, due to good planning in 2018, we have savings that we can access, but I am reminded that many Italians live month to month. And for many Italians, if they don’t work, they don’t get paid. It’s also hard to imagine that the Italian government will provide financial support or cash injections to citizens in order to provide a safety buffer for families and stimulate the economy. People won’t have disposable income to spend at restaurants or on clothes and small businesses everywhere will certainly feel the pinch.
I feel uneasy. I don’t like not having a solid plan for the coming months. Our lease agreement runs out in early May. We have travel plans for my 50th birthday and for the summer. These involve crossing European borders, which for now remain open. But it feels like things could change overnight if coronavirus takes hold elsewhere on the continent. There is a blanket of low-level anxiety that seems to have taken hold despite my best efforts to educate myself and apply reason. I feel stuck, worried and impatient.
The reality is that patience and calm are the two qualities that are really needed as we wait and wonder whether the full force of the virus will sweep down south along the boot of Italy.
Miss S is a self-proclaimed ‘listening spy’ and those 10-year-old ears are certainly absorbing some of the information about the virus from the other children at school, and from our conversations. We try to give her the facts that are appropriate for her age. Science and facts seem to work. But I suspect she has a prickle of worry about the older people in our lives who have health issues as the best of times.
Prepare but don’t panic is the message. Go about your daily lives. So, tomorrow is another day of teaching adults how to improve their English language skills. Accompanied by a trip to the supermarket to buy some more non-perishable food items. And a child at home who will suddenly have more time to do her distance education lessons for Australian schooling. A walk around our quiet village, fold some laundry and a discussion about whether we should cook Italian, Indian, Thai or Mexican for dinner.
Oh, and deep breathing as recommended by some wise women I know in Australia.