‘I’m not worried, even though I really am’: Life in an Italian village during the coronavirus outbreak

'I'm not worried, even though I really am': Life in an Italian village during the coronavirus outbreak
All photos courtesy of Savina Bertollini
How has everyday life changed for people living in Italy during the coronavirus outbreak? While some areas are harder hit than others, residents of most towns are carrying on more or less as normal. Mark Hinshaw describes the atmosphere in Le Marche.

The people in our village of 1400 in east-central Italy are very friendly and gregarious. We cannot step outside very far without someone greeting us, whether we know them or not. It is considered both courteous and a custom of community connection.

Yesterday, outside a food market, a very affable man who I often run into seemed ready to issue the usual “Buongiorno! Come stai?” (Good morning! How are you?) and I was ready with my usual response, often accompanied by a quick handshake.

But this time, at a distance, he offered a new greeting. “Non ho paura.” “I am not afraid.” I was a bit taken aback, as I had not even mentioned the subject of Covid-19. We both smiled awkwardly and parted company.

The region of Le Marche in east-central Italy. Screenshot: Google Maps

The coronavirus does seem to weigh heavily on people’s minds here. There are subtle signs of concern.

Although no grocery stores have been cleared out, some shelves of staples have been emptied. People suddenly look up and step away quickly from others who cough.  We observed a family of four all wearing disposable gloves. And older people we know seem especially anxious.

“Although no grocery stores have been cleared out, some shelves of staples have been emptied.”

As of March 4, within the region where we live – Le Marche – 61 people have tested positive; three have died. Not a massive outbreak. But everyone is aware of the severity of the situation five hours to the north, in the regions of Veneto and Lombardy, where eleven towns have been closed within a quarantined “red zone.” More cases are being reported. 

MAP: Which parts of Italy are affected by the coronavirus outbreak?

The regional government in Le Marche has taken precautionary actions by closing schools, stadiums, museums, theaters and other places of public assembly for two weeks.

Major public events have been cancelled, as have adult education classes. Special medical centers have been set up for isolation and treatment. And a province at the north end of the region has been included in the “yellow zone” of the adjacent Emilia-Romagna region.

All sensible measures.  But for the most part, people are living their daily lives pretty much as always. 

There are reports of mass hotel cancellations in Rome, but that’s happening three hours to the west.

Of course, as with my friend and his unusual greeting, there is a general wariness that things could change. It’s a sort of “I’m not worried, even though I really am.”

By contrast, friends living further north have had their lives seriously disrupted. People are not going into work; many are working from home instead. Classes at the University of Bologna have been replaced with online instruction.

READ ALSO: 'A strange, absurd situation': Life in Italy's coronavirus 'red zone'

A professor there who I know has decided not to travel for at least a month, waiting to see what happens. She reports that here are noticeably fewer people in the big piazzas and many arcades that Bologna is known for.  

Several airlines have cancelled flights serving northern Italy, due to decreased bookings, but Italy has more than fifteen international airports.

People traveling appear to have a fear not so much of contracting the virus but of being quarantined for two weeks at a point of entry in another country. For many people, that would be a serious and scary form of disruption.

As I check in with various friends and colleagues in different parts of Italy, it seems most are being cautious and careful, but there is little real hysteria. After all, most people have had past experiences dealing with other outbreaks and understand the personal measures that can be taken.

However. 

These days we all live in two worlds – real life and virtual life. The latter is where the problem lies.

I am part of a group that moderates an on-line forum about life in Italy for expats. Normally, it is filled with tips on restaurants, paying taxes, and how to get visas and residency permits. Good questions and good sharing of advice. But in the last week, 90 percent of the content has been filled with frightening posts. 

Many are just conjecture or from dubious sources; we simply delete those. Others are from people who seem to like to stoke the fires. They post camera videos and make assertions that are clearly personal opinions. It’s not uncommon to see people arguing over who has the most accurate information.

READ ALSO: How safe is it to visit Italy after the coronavirus outbreak?

Covid-19 has not hit the U.S. yet in a significant way. But it is highly likely it will at some point, with so many possible ways of people traveling and without showing symptoms. What’s more frightening is that public agencies don’t seem to be very well prepared. 

One of the reasons that Italy has been able to report and find many cases is that the National Health Service (SSN) offers free testing.

ANALYSIS: Why has Italy seen such a huge leap in coronavirus cases?

The vast majority of people contracting the coronavirus recover; the people most susceptible to dying are those who already had other severe health problems — largely people over 75.

The testing and monitoring being done by Italian health agencies can at least track the progression and adopt measures to contain it. Meanwhile, researchers are rapidly working on vaccines.

I certainly do not mean to minimize either the current situation or the real possibility of an actual, official pandemic. But the frenzy, at least online, associated with this outbreak seems totally out of proportion.

An earlier version of this article appeared on Seattle’s Post Alley.

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