Sunday, Feb. 23
152 positive COVID-19 cases in Italy, three deaths. Personal fear rating (out of 10): 1
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte places 11 towns in Northern Italy – collective population 50,000 – into strict quarantine. “That’ll fix that,” I think. Normal life continues.
Thursday, March 5
3,297 cases, 148 deaths. Personal fear rating: 2
It’s the day after all Italian schools were closed. Tourists are vanishing.
I hop on my Vespa and head into the centre of Rome for a stroll. Delighted to see Rome’s most beguiling sites – Piazza Navona, Pantheon, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Campo de’ Fiori – almost entirely empty, as if they were abandoned movie sets for Roman Holiday. For the first time in my dozen years in Rome, I hear the water from the Baroque fountains the moment I enter Piazza Navona, which is normally a sea of jostling, noisy humanity.
Sunday, March 8
6,387 cases, 366 deaths. Personal fear rating: 3
Conte extends the quarantine to almost all of Northern Italy and our family makes an executive decision: On Monday, my wife, Karen, our 20-year-old daughter, Emma, and I will flee to our rented country place in Umbria, near Spoleto, an oasis of beauty and tranquility where we will probably not notice any quarantine, should one be extended to the rest of Italy. No rush; we probably have a few days before a national quarantine decree is signed.
I take a long bike ride into the hills outside Rome with a NATO friend, not realizing it would be my last taste of freedom. Stephen and I bump elbows when we meet – handshaking, hugs and cheek kisses had disappeared many days earlier and the one-metre distance rule is in force.
Monday, March 9
7,895 cases, 463 deaths. Personal fear rating: 4
Too busy writing stories about the disease spreading through Italy to get out of town. We will leave at dawn Tuesday, pedal to the metal in our new Alfa Romeo, stuffed with toilet paper, long-life milk and vitamins. But the national quarantine order lands that night and we are suddenly grounded. All of Italy is the new Wuhan.
Tuesday, March 10
8,514 cases, 631 deaths. Personal fear rating: 5
Our new world is a prison. We can only leave the apartment for pharmacy and food market visits, and then only if we carry a signed declaration to assure the police our escape is essential, because we don’t want to die of starvation or need medicine. The front door is the frontier beyond which lie potential infection and death. But since the streets are empty, meaning murderous Italian drivers are absent, I wonder if outdoor Rome is actually safer now than it was pre-quarantine.
Inevitably, theatrical Italians reference the plague – the Black Death – and I find my copy of Boccaccio’s Decameron and read his cheery little opener: “They fell ill by the thousands. Many fell dead in the open streets. … Such was the multitude of corpses there was not sufficient consecrated ground to bury them.”
My British author friend, Matthew Kneale, who lives in Rome, contemplates calling his diary “Under the Tuscan Plague."
Thursday, March 12
12,839 cases, 1,016 deaths. Personal fear rating: 5
No corpses on the streets. By now, I have a Groundhog Day routine that goes more or less like this: arise early as usual, don’t shave (why bother?) and check Worldometer’s coronavirus infection and death tally, always a good reminder to wash your hands until they bleed; make a lousy cappuccino, wondering why my version, using the same beans as my local barista, is barely drinkable; stroll aimlessly around the apartment dodging piles of unwashed laundry – our cleaning lady is in quarantine, too – in a feeble attempt to stretch legs; spend several hours looking at coronavirus memes; write a story about death and despair for my newspaper; get on bike trainer for an hour while I stare at the walls in a sweaty, bored stupor; look at more memes and grim COVID-19 statistics.
I read somewhere that the real reason the quarantine is making Italians miserable is that it means they can only sleep with their spouses. I suspect there is some truth to that.
Saturday, March 14
17,750 cases, 1,441 deaths: Personal fear rating: 5
Hooray, it’s the weekend! We can do … absolutely nothing.
I don a face mask and rubber gloves, and venture to the local supermarket. To my surprise, the customers are uncharacteristically disciplined. They are lined up outside, several metres apart. When one customer leaves, another enters, ensuring only a few shoppers are inside at any one time. It is the highlight of my weekend, like the escape in The Shawshank Redemption.
My spirits lift somewhat when, at 6 p.m., we open the windows to hear the locals play the Italian national anthem, sing Volare or blow on a trumpet from their balconies to honour the utterly courageous medical workers, hundreds of whom have tested positive, and the patients who didn’t make it. This little tension-buster becomes a daily routine.
I also hear Spoonful of Sugar, from Mary Poppins.
Monday, March 16
20,073 cases, 2,158 dead. Personal fear factor: 6
The daily routine remains unchanged. I hear delightful stories of Italians pitching in to help one another and one story that saddens me to the core.
The former involves my local fruit and vegetable man, Roberto, one of two food shops open in my ‘hood, which is near the Circus Maximus. Roberto sends his sister and aging mother home when the quarantine hits and works the place himself, putting in long, tiring hours. My kindhearted American neighbour, Brook Edinger, takes pity on him and brings him elaborate breakfasts and lunches, one meal being omelette with asparagus tips.
The latter involves a friend of mine in Milan, a young lawyer. She learns that her cancer has spread. She needs chemotherapy, but her hospital might be jammed with COVID-19 patients and she can’t risk getting their infection.
Tuesday, March 17
26,062 cases, 2,503 deaths. Personal fear factor: 7
We enter the second week of quarantine. Stress and anxiety all ratchet up as the body count rises and the number of positive cases continues to surge – no indication yet that the curve is flattening. I am a guest on TVO’s The Agenda and am shocked when I watch the replay. Tired and unshaven, I look like I’m auditioning for a stand-in role in a war movie.
I worry about Costanza Azzi, a widowed dear friend who lives in Venice. Costanza is 82, a retired English literature professor and one of the last of the true Venetians. An e-mail I had sent her a couple of days ago has gone unanswered. The moment I pick up the phone to call her, her e-mail pops into my inbox: “We are coping as in wartime,” she writes. “Venice has become a ghost city, very sad, but on the other hand very beautiful. I do not go out and I do not see anybody except my son, who does my weekly shopping."
Having lived in Italy for 12 years, I have become superstitious. For good luck, I put on a pair of blue wool socks my Italian grandmother, Regina – my beloved nonna – knit for me 20 years ago. She survived two world wars and made it to the age of 99. I immediately feel better.
Wednesday, March 18
28,710 cases, 2,978 deaths. Personal fear factor: 7
First shave in 10 days. I head out for a shop. My ’hood is pleasantly bipolar. If I turn left from the apartment, I enter Rome’s most international street, Viale Aventino, whose stores cater to the thousands of foreign United Nations employees who work nearby; if I turn right and head to the top of San Saba hill, near the ancient Aurelian Walls and the Baths of Caracalla, I could be in a Tuscan village. I turn right. The San Saba piazza is a dream. It is sunny and warm. There is zero traffic, zero noise. I can hear the birds. The air is clean. A couple of old men sit on benches in the piazza, under towering Roman umbrella pines, in defiance of the quarantine. They wear wrinkled suits and spiffy straw fedoras, and are reading actual newspapers (remember them?). I smile. It feels as if I’ve stepped into 1920s Italy. I think: “Postquarantine, can we just ban cars and keep it like this?”
My spirits, already low, sink again after deadline. The government reports another alarming leap in coronavirus cases and deaths. Photos show army trucks carting off an endless stream of coffins from hospitals in Bergamo. Social media is full of speculation that the quarantine will be extended.
Thurs., March 19
33,190 cases, 3,405 deaths. Personal fear factor: 8
Bad, bad day. The total number of fatalities now exceeds China’s – though Italy has one-20th the population.
Conte extends the quarantine beyond the original cut-off date of April 3 and, ominously, sets no new expiry date. Another five front-line Italian doctors are reported dead, bringing the total to 13 martyrs.
I call my Italian buddy, Lorenzo Tondo, one of The Guardian’s corespondents in Italy. He lives in Palermo, Sicily. He, as with every other reporter in Italy, is exhausted and deeply worried. Southern Italy has relatively few COVID-19 cases, but the numbers are spiking up and the southern hospitals have nowhere near the resources of those in the wealthy north. “Some of our hospitals don’t even have isolation wards,” he says. “One positive patient could shut down an entire hospital.”
I call my friend Damiano, a Roman epidemiologist who went through the HIV crisis. He’s from a small town in Northern Italy. “My sister just told me four of our family friends in our hometown died," he says.
At 6 p.m., Italians come out once again to their balconies to sing. I am proud of them, proud of their spirit, their good humour and generosity, and of the sacrifices they’re making in a time of crisis. They’ve seen worse. They’ll get through this. But maybe not soon.
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