Italy has been labelled the epicentre of the COVID-19 crisis in Europe, with 17,660 cases and 1,266 deaths as of Saturday morning (Australian time). Five days earlier, the government locked down the entire country in an attempt to control the spread of the pandemic.
In Milan, the heart of the Lombardy region where the outbreak hit hardest, reports have described hospitals overflowing, forced to set up temporary structures and checkpoints to deal with the influx of patients. Shops and businesses are closed, except pharmacies and stores selling essential supplies.
People have been ordered to stay inside – no visits to friends or family – and the Red Cross is delivering medical supplies door-to-door. Travel within Italy is only permitted for work, family emergencies and health reasons, and anyone leaving the house, even to buy groceries, must carry ID and a self-certified document explaining why they are outside.
The Italian rail police have checkpoints to inspect travellers’ documents at stations, and those without correct papers are fined.
Going to a Lombardy hospital when you don’t have coronavirus
Eugenia Durante suffers from a rare chronic disease and has to travel from her home in Bologna to Milan for treatment once a month. The 28-year-old translator is part of a clinical trial at Milan’s Niguarda Hospital, where her immunologist works, and is unable to get her medication anywhere else.
On the way to her appointment on Thursday, she was one of very few Italians out and about. The usually bustling centre of Bologna was quiet, bars and shops shuttered and almost everyone she saw wore a mask. When she arrived at Milan station, she was met by army personnel in uniform, thick gloves and surgical masks.
“I went by train and my self-certification was checked and photographed four times, both in Bologna and Milan,” she told 9News.
“The stations were surreal – it looked like a disaster movie.”
Niguarda, like all hospitals in Lombardy, is now focused on treating coronavirus patients. All non-urgent surgeries, tests and appointments have been cancelled, and most of the shops and cafes in the large complex are closed. Virus patients are kept isolated and not allowed visitors.
Ms Durante’s paperwork was rushed through at one of just two reception desks that remained open. She and several other women receiving the same treatment chatted through their masks.
“It was almost deserted,” she said.
Despite the crisis, her doctors were cheerful and friendly, and made a concerted effort not to pass on any anxiety. “But it’s obvious there’s an emergency.”
More than the virus itself, many Italians’ biggest fear is that their prized national health system – free for all and regarded by Italians as “one of the best” – will collapse under the pressure of mounting cases. Demand for intensive care is predicted to outstrip limited resources soon. (China donated several tons of ventilators and other medical equipment on Friday.)
And as Ms Durante points out, Italy’s outbreak has so far been limited to northern regions, which have the country’s best hospitals and equipment.
“If it was to go down to the south, it would be very alarming,” she said.
Housebound in the eye of the storm
Olivia Dewey, a 27-year-old Australian translator has lived in the city for 10 years, but never seen it like this.
“It’s eerie,” she told 9News. “There’s no one anywhere – except queuing outside the supermarkets.”
(Ms Dewey is the sister of this article’s author.)
Only one member of each family is allowed to visit the supermarket. Ms Dewey, who is pregnant, is unable to shop as she isn’t permitted to take her one-year-old son. Her husband, 36-year-old Giovanni Navarra, goes instead.
On Thursday evening, their 84-year-old neighbour begged him to get her groceries too, even offering him money so she wouldn’t need to leave the house.
Everyday chores now pose serious logistical challenges. Since Ms Dewey can’t take her son when she goes for her pregnancy check-ups, Mr Navarra needs to take unpaid time off work to watch him. “I might just wait until quarantine is over,” she said.
Mr Navarra is one of the only people in Milan still going to work. He operates the city’s trains, which have been kept running for those requiring essential transport and wears a mask and gloves whenever he leaves the house.
Two of his colleagues fled Milan to stay with family in Naples as soon as they heard about the lockdown. But at train stations and bus stops around the country, police are checking for anyone entering from the Lombardy region. They were intercepted on entry and are now in a two-week home quarantine with their families.
“People are all very tense,” Ms Dewey said. “No one really knows what’s going on – and not being able to go outside is really getting to everyone.”
Contradictory advice abounds: parents, already under extra pressure with daycares and schools closed, are instructed in widely circulated videos to make sure their children get fresh air but also told not to let them outside.
Australian Amy Doherty, 41, lives in Rome, where she owns and runs a tour operations business, Luxe Associates Travel, and works as a guide. Her biggest concern right now is her livelihood.
“Everyone has cancelled, all March, all April, and it’s the same for my colleagues,” she told 9News.
They’re waiting anxiously for the high season: if the country isn’t ready to welcome visitors back by June, countless businesses – and an entire economy heavily reliant on tourism – are likely to be crippled.
Freelancers and self-employed workers don’t qualify for social welfare in Italy, which makes the current uncertainty especially daunting. “Unless you’ve got relatives or someone to help you it’s a big issue,” Ms Doherty said.
She was taking a tour group through the Colosseum when news came through about the lockdown, and they suddenly found themselves alone in the ancient monument.
“A structure of that size in complete silence – it was overwhelming.”
Still, she adds, she feels photos of abandoned icons making news headlines are misleading: they’re tourist sites, after all, and all the tourists have been told to stay away.
Elsewhere in Rome earlier this week was business as usual – if a little calmer, and perhaps more respectful of personal space.
“We’ve just got to wait it out,” she said.
A nation grapples with emergency measures
As late as Wednesday, several days after the lockdown was announced, parks in Milan were still full of people. Now, everyone across the country is doing their best to stick to the rules and make the best of a bad situation.
“You’ve got two camps,” said Ms Dewey. “One says: ‘Why are we shutting everything down just for the flu?’ and the other: ‘Why are you so irresponsible, condemning us all to a pandemic?’
“People are actually staying indoors down south, which I never thought I’d see… I think they’re being more responsible there than in Milan!”
“I think most of us understand that it’s for the greater good, but still there are a lot of issues coming out,” Ms Durante agreed. “Everyone is very confused and lost.”
“The lack of freedom is very destabilising – more than the virus itself. We are a free, developed country, a democracy, so it feels very weird not to be allowed to go out, see your family, visit your friends, go to the cinema, have an espresso at the bar.
“I hate not knowing when this will end, and I really hope that all countries in the world won’t make our mistakes.”
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