‘The silence is overwhelming’: Rome’s seniors struggle with life under coronavirus lockdown

Italy is a country of seniors and very few of them live in retirement homes. With the strict government lockdown to fight the coronavirus spread many of them are now forced into a life in silence.

'The silence is overwhelming': Rome's seniors struggle with life under coronavirus lockdown
A woman wearing a face mask walks across the Campo dei Fiori market square on March 16, 2020 in Rome. AFP

Leaning out his window, the dashing octogenarian looks down on the little street in the ancient heart of Rome.

It looks desperately empty, again, and Roberto Fichera could easily not see another human being today — a growing problem in Europe's oldest country.

“I am a homebody and I like to take care of myself,” says Fichera, who might come across the odd stranger at the pharmacy, should he decide to venture out and pick up his pills.

While Italy is a country of seniors — the average age last year was 45.4, higher than anywhere else in Europe — very few of them live in retirement homes.

The downside of such independence is clear during lockdowns that governments are imposing to ward off the invisible killer of thousands around the world.

Almost 3,000 have died of COVID-19 in Italy, which is on course to overtake China this week for the highest number of coronavirus fatalities.

The Mediterranean country's lockdown has been in place for over a week, longer than in any place outside China.

'You hear footsteps'

Fortunately for Fichera, the Monti district where he lives between the Colosseum and the Termini train station is packed with shops.

He can get what he needs on foot, which Fichera considers a “blessing” since he does not drive.

“I take my place in line at the store just like everybody else, respecting the safe distance,” says Fichera, a hale 84-year-old with abundant white hair.

Under the rules, people are urged to stay a metre (a yard) apart, and some stores have yellow tape on the ground, measuring out the distance.

“I am often allowed to jump the queue given my age — and I gladly accept it. For once, being old has an advantage,” he says with a laugh.

Otherwise, the jovial octogenarian tries to keep himself busy by doing the odd chore around the house. He started his spring cleaning a few weeks early this year.

“That kept me busy for a few days,” he says with another wry smile.

Yet all is not well, clearly. The din of the city, comforting to some, overwhelming to others at times, is gone.

“We don't hear noise,” says Fichera. “No cars, the streets are empty…

“When you go out for a walk, you hear footsteps behind you, and you worry.”

“It feels overwhelming, the silence, Fichera says.

“That is what worries me.”

'Be patient'

The Eternal City is celebrated for the stunning harmony between its ancient ruins and Gothic churches graced with mesmerising Renaissance art.

It is a tourist city, a working city, and one where life is celebrated outdoors, in cafes along winding cobblestoned streets.

That life is gone. But in its place, Fichera finds a different Rome, with new, fleeting charms.

“We hear the birds sing, right in the centre. It is amazing!” he says, visibly moved.

The city is suddenly teeming with them, sea gulls with long yellow beaks, now that the people are gone and the cars are silent.

Fichera sleeps like a log, going to bed late at night and waking at around 9:00 am.

On the other side of the Tiber River, not far from the Vatican, Carla Basagni also spends time looking out her window and onto a street that leads to a graceful fountain.

The painter and poet usually watches a continuous flow of tourists, drawn by the Trastevere district's countless bars and restaurants.

The area, normally one of Europe's hottest nightspots, is now a stone desert, lined with metal fencing that covers every display window in sight.

Carla, willowy, fragile, with big dreamy eyes, takes refuge in reading.

“The bookstores are closed and I can't buy anything new. So I decided to re-read old books that opened my mind and touched my heart,” Carla says.

“They help me remember that time is on our side. You just have to know how to be patient.”

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

As the infection rate rises sharply across the country, Italian virologists are calling for concerts and festivals to be rescheduled.

Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

Italy has seen a large increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in recent days, so much so that a number of virologists across the country are now urging the government to postpone major live events in a bid to curb infections. 

According to a new report by Italy’s independent health watchdog, the Gimbe Foundation, 595,349 new cases were recorded in the week from June 29th to July 5th; a worrying 55 percent increase on the previous week. 

In the same time span, the country also registered a 32.8 percent rise in the number of hospitalised patients, which went from 6,035 to 8,003.  

The latest Covid wave, which is being driven by the highly contagious Omicron 5 variant, is a “real cause for concern”, especially in terms of a “potential patient overload”, said Nino Cartabellotta, president of the Gimbe Foundation. 

As Italian cities prepare to host a packed calendar of concerts and festivals this summer, health experts are questioning whether such events should actually take place given the high risk of transmission associated with mass gatherings.

READ ALSO: What tourists in Italy need to know if they get Covid-19

“Rescheduling these types of events would be the best thing to do right now,” said Massimo Ciccozzi, Director of Epidemiology at Campus Bio-Medico University of Rome. 

The summer wave is expected to peak in mid-July but, Ciccozzi warns, the upcoming live events might “delay [the peak] until the end of July or even beyond” and extend the infection curve.

Antonello Maruotti, Professor of Statistics at LUMSA University of Rome, recently shared Ciccozzi’s concerns, saying that live events as big as Maneskin’s scheduled Rome concert are “definitely not a good idea”. 

The Italian rock band are slated to perform at the Circus Maximus on Saturday, July 9th but the expected turnout – over 70,000 fans are set to attend the event – has raised objections from an array of Italian doctors, with some warning that the concert might cause as many as 20,000 new cases.

If it were to materialise, the prospected scenario would significantly aggravate Lazio’s present medical predicament as there are currently over 186,000 Covid cases in the region (nearly 800 patients are receiving treatment in local hospitals). 

Italian rock band Maneskin performing in Turin

Italian rock band Maneskin are expected to perform at the Circus Maximus in Rome on Saturday, July 9th. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

But, despite pleas to postpone the event, it is likely that Maneskin’s concert will take place as scheduled.

Alessandro Onorato, Rome’s Tourism Councillor, said that rescheduling is “out of question” and that “all recommendations from the local medical authorities will be adopted” with the help of the event’s organisers and staff on the ground.

At the time of writing, there is also no indication that the Italian government will consider postponing other major live events scheduled to take place in the coming weeks, though the situation is evolving rapidly and a U-turn on previous dispositions can’t be ruled out.

READ ALSO: At a glance: What are the Covid-19 rules in Italy now?

On this note, it is worth mentioning that Italy has now scrapped all of its former Covid measures except the requirement to wear FFP2 face masks on public transport (though not on planes) and in healthcare settings.

The use of face coverings is, however, still recommended in all crowded areas, including outdoors – exactly the point that leading Italian doctors are stressing in the hope that live events will not lead to large-scale infection.

Antonio Magi, President of Rome’s OMCEO (College of Doctors, Surgeons and Dentists), said: “Our advice is to wear FFP2 masks […] in high-risk situations.”

“I hope that young people will heed our recommendations and think about the health risks that their parents or grandparents might be exposed to after the event [they attend].”