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the globe in italy

In 2020, The Globe’s Eric Reguly saw the pandemic hit Italy first, and hardest, before spreading across the continent and the world. Here, he continues the story

Rome, March 13: A medical worker injects an elderly man with a dose of Moderna vaccine at his home in Dronero in northwestern Italy.MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP via Getty Images

Latest entries

March 11, 2021

25,673 new daily cases in Italy. 101,184 deaths in total so far. Personal fear factor: 7

Today I begin my vaccine hunt in Rome, an adventure that will present Italy at its worst – and best – in a matter of hours.

It begins when it occurs to me that my “monorenale” health status – I lost a kidney to disease in 2017 – might legitimately shunt me into the high-risk category, allowing me to get a jump on a vaccine for my age group. Early in the morning, I visit the hospital where the surgery was done. The nurse behind the counter pulls up my records and hands me an “esenzione” (exemption) code that should do the trick. So far, so good.

There is a catch, of course. She tells me I have to register my code at the health office for Lazio, the region that includes Rome, so the computer system will recognize my status, allowing me to make my vax appointment.

So off I go on my Vespa, arriving mid-morning at the office, located on an oddly British-looking residential street near the centre of Rome. About 15 people are strewn on the sidewalk and the street outside the building’s main door.

I ask a woman who is fiddling with her phone: Where does the line start? She looks at me incredulously and says there is no line, the subtext being: You dumbass foreigner, no one in Italy actually forms a line. I ask if we need a numbered ticket. No tickets, she says, just wait.

So I wait – for what I don’t know. Eventually, an elderly security guard with white hair comes out and asks everyone who is waiting for what. I raise my hand like I am at a news conference and shout, “Esenzione.” He ignores me and disappears. Little did I know that he would be my saviour.

Twenty minutes later, he re-emerges and tells me to follow him inside. He takes me to a glass counter, behind which is a bored-looking woman not wearing a mask, never mind that this is a health office amid a pandemic. I hand her my exemption form, and she asks me for a copy of said document.

I don’t have one and suggest that she make one for me. No photocopiers here, she says. Go find a tobacco shop that has one. Dejected, I leave. Twenty minutes later, I find a shop with a copier. The fee is 20 euro cents. I only have a €50 note. No charge, he says, today is your lucky day.

I return to the health office and wait. The guard spots me and escorts me back inside. I hand the same woman the copy of my exemption form. She asks me for identification. I give her my Italian social security card, and she says: I need a copy of this. I ask her why she didn’t tell me earlier that she needed a copy of the ID, too. You didn’t ask me, she says.

At that point, I am almost in tears, knowing that I have to traipse back to the tobacco shop, beg for another free copy, and line up again when I return. The security guard sees that I am virtually distraught and tells me to follow him into the next room. We actually do have a copier, he says, but you’re not supposed to know that.

He kindly makes a copy of my ID, and I hand it to the woman behind the counter. I thought you didn’t have a photocopier, I say. She glares at me. We’re not allowed to use that one, she explains. Sullenly, she registers my exemption, then, to my surprise, gives me a wry smile. I suspect she is expressing her admiration for my clever little alliance with the guard – I had beaten the system.

I thank the guard profusely on the way out. He asks where I am from. Canada, I say. Things work differently here, he says, but they do work if you know how to skirt the rules. I know, I say – I have lived in Italy for 13 years and am still learning. Another 13 years should do it, he says, laughing.

Rome, March 12: Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi puts on his mask after speaking during a visit to a COVID-19 vaccination centre at Rome's Leonardo Da Vinci airport.Guglielmo Mangiapane/Pool Photo via AP

March 13, 2021

26,062 new daily cases. 101,881 total deaths so far. Personal fear factor: 7.5

The new cases and the deaths are climbing relentlessly – Italy is swamped by the third wave – and new lockdowns are coming. The difference this time is that the government gives ample warning, about two days, before deciding which regions will go from yellow (low risk) to orange (medium risk) and orange to red (high risk, meaning the tightest lockdown). It’s Saturday, and Lazio is to be coloured red Monday.

The advance warning makes everyone try to squeeze several weeks of living into a couple of days. I assemble my biking squad, and we blast up to the Castelli Romani hills, near Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence overlooking Lake Albano, just southeast of Rome. The weather is lovely, and Stephen Mariano, one of our group, makes a video of our 75-kilometre roll to record our last bit of freedom.

When I return, I shower and rush to my barber, who works from his apartment. Everyone in Rome seems to have the same idea. The beauty salons are full of women getting their hair and nails done before the new lockdown clamps the city shut. Plague chic is rather fetching, I decide.

Watch: Eric Reguly and fellow cyclists toured a scenic region southeast of Rome on March 13, just before Italy's newest national lockdown.

The Globe and Mail

March 14, 2021

21,315 new daily cases. 102,145 total deaths so far. Personal fear factor: 8

It’s Sunday, our last day of relative freedom. I have so many (distanced) coffees with friends in parks and on sidewalks that my stomach is burning by mid-afternoon. Should have gone with wine instead.

By late afternoon, my spirits are sinking and my fear factor is rising. Another lockdown is only hours away, and by now it is painfully apparent the pandemic is not going to end any time soon. The vaccines won’t save us, at least not in Europe, and the seemingly endless open-close cycles will continue.

In Europe, the vaccine rollout is simply too slow, allowing the new variants to take over. There is not enough political will to keep the economy tightly shut while enough vaccine supplies arrive to get the jab job done in a hurry. The scientists say we need about 70 per cent of the population vaccinated before herd immunity sets in. But how will we ever reach that level, given the slow rollout, the hesitancy that afflicts a large minority of the population, the questions about the duration of immunity and the lack of vaccine testing among children?

Manaus, Brazil, is a cautionary tale. There, some 60 per cent of the population was estimated to have been infected by mid-2020, apparently enough for herd immunity. But the disease proved relentless, and Manaus today is a hell zone. If Europeans think they will have a normal summer, they are deluded.

Previous entries

Saturday, Feb. 20

14,931 new daily cases. 95,486 deaths in total so far. Personal fear factor: 7

I run into a teacher at one of the international schools in Rome, where roughly half the students are not foreigners but rather the children of rich Italians who want their kids to learn English so they can apply to British, American and Canadian universities. The teacher tells me that a 16-year-old student at the school is telling her friends that she has already received a vaccine. Of course, the student’s parents are known to be wealthy and well-connected. The rest of us have to wait our turn. Italian doctors, nurses and other front-line hospital workers have received their jabs. Next up is anyone over 80. No one else is supposed to have gotten them yet, and I don’t expect mine for several months, after all the seniors are topped up.

My immediate thought is that an illegal black market in vaccines is already operating, catering to the impatient rich. But one of my Italian journalist friends, a crime writer for a big newspaper, says this is probably not the case. The Mafia almost certainly is not involved because of the logistical complexity of obtaining, transporting and storing the vaccines, which require ultra-cold refrigeration. Those who are jumping the queue probably have close friends among health authorities and are not paying for the privilege – they’re gifts. Still, the stories in the media about a few of the less vulnerable getting vaccinated before the more vulnerable is demoralizing in a country that is still suffering intensely from the pandemic.

Codogno, Italy, Feb. 21: Authorities unveil a memorial for COVID-19 deaths in the northern town where the first case was diagnosed. The military sealed off this region the day after.Luca Bruno/The Associated Press

Monday, Feb. 22

9,615 new daily cases. 95,992 deaths so far. Personal fear factor: 7

A year ago, when the pandemic began, I was obsessed with the daily death and new case counts. They were the first bits of data I checked in the morning, the last bits at night. In March, when both numbers were climbing relentlessly, and we knew next to nothing about COVID-19′s true lethality, all of us in Italy were terrified that the disease would decimate the country, using the historical – and accurate – definition of “decimate”: One in 10 of us would be six feet under.

I checked the numbers compulsively until about mid-May, by which time the death and case counts were plummeting, cities were reopening, and I relaxed a bit. Now, with the arrival of the vaccines, I have a new obsession: checking the speed of the Italian and European Union vaccine rollouts. The two are connected because no EU country is buying its own vaccines; the European Commission is doing that and has botched the job badly.

The U.K., the United States, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Chile and a few other countries are far ahead of the EU. At last count, the EU had doled out 6.3 doses per 100 people. The equivalent U.S. figure was 19.6 – and 27.8 in the U.K., according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker.

I suppose we all get inured to ugly numbers, but not me. The slow rollout in the EU is making me miserable – making everyone miserable. It means the EU’s lockdowns and semi-lockdowns will probably last through the summer, at least; that many thousands more will die than in the high-vax countries; that the economies of the EU countries will remain stressed and more jobs will be lost; that we all risk going mad from isolation and worry; that the virus will have a greater chance of mutating into more contagious and deadlier forms. Looking at the vax-rate numbers is like a drip water torture. When will the EU’s 6.3 turn into a 12.6, then double again? Months? A year? Longer?

My British-Sicilian friend Carol told me this the other day: “I don’t feel at mile 24 of the 26-mile marathon. I feel halfway through this. The economic and mental-health side of all this is set to unravel.”

That’s more or less my view. Third wave, anyone?

Pisa, Feb. 23: A patient recovering from COVID-19 exercises in a swimming pool at the Casciana spa's thermal baths, which have opened as a rehabilitation centre for people with respiratory difficulties.Jennifer Lorenzini/Reuters

Tuesday, Feb. 23

13,314 new daily cases, 96,348 deaths so far. Personal fear factor: 7

San Marino is a landlocked micro-country in northeast Italy that I have never visited. It covers 61 square kilometres and has a population of 34,000. Its constitution dates from 1600, making it the oldest constitutional state. Ambassadors to Italy are, typically, also ambassadors to San Marino; they drop in now and again for a Torta Tre Monti (Cake of the Three Mountains), a chocolate-covered layer cake depicting the three towers that decorate the national flag.

San Marino is on my mind because it has a problem, other than the fact it has no ambassadors or tourists around to eat its cakes. It has a solution, too.

The problem is that it has one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the world – maybe the highest. San Marino has had 73 people die – equivalent to 2,149 deaths per million (Italy’s rate is 1,595, Canada’s 573). Everyone in the country knows someone who was felled by the virus.

The solution is, of course, vaccines. But how to get them? Turns out San Marino is not a member of the EU, a status it shares with the Vatican, the other micro-country surrounded by Italy. That means San Marino has the option to rustle up its own supplies. And that’s exactly what it’s doing, since Italy’s and the EU’s vaccine rollouts have been embarrassingly slow. So far, none of Italy’s meagre vaccine supply has been diverted to San Marino.

Last week, San Marino announced that it had struck a deal with the Russian Direct Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund that is managing the vaccine’s distribution, to buy the Sputnik V vaccine. San Marino’s health authority was thrilled and said the first Russian jabs would land “in the coming days.”

There was one small hitch. San Marino has no international airport, only a little private airstrip, meaning the vaccine supplies would have to come through Italy. But since the EU has not authorized the Russian product, no one knew if it could be legally imported. In fact, a Sputnik V shipment destined for San Marino was stopped by Italian customs agents in Milan. By Tuesday, presumably after a lot of yelling and screaming by San Marino’s Health Minister, the problem was resolved and a shipment of 7,500 Sputnik V doses made it to the country’s hospital under police escort, negating the need for San Marino’s tiny but brave military to invade Italy and seize Milan’s airport.

A truck with doses of the Sputnik V vaccine crosses San Marino's border on Feb. 23, surrounded by a police escort.IssRSMarino via AP

Sunday, March 7

20,765 new daily cases. 99,785 deaths so far. Personal fear factor: 7

My new obsession is the health website for the region of Lazio, whose capital is Rome. I go to the site repeatedly – like, every hour – looking for information on when I can make an appointment for my vaccine jab. Today there is some good news: Starting Monday, the under-65s can register.

The announcement surprises me, because there is an embarrassing shortage of vaccines in Italy and the rest of the EU. Then I figure it out. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is not being used for those north of 65, so it’s being pushed down the age ladder. I’d rather have the fancy mRNA Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine but will take what I can get. I haven’t left Italy, and have barely left Rome, in 14 months and want to get on the road again. Also, I have only one kidney – and COVID-19 is rough on kidneys.

I decide to get up before dawn to book my appointment.

Rome, March 8: A demonstrator holds a sign reading 'Our safety' to mark International Women's Day.Remo Casilli/Reuters

Monday, March 8

13,902 new daily cases. 100,103 deaths so far. Personal fear factor: 7

It’s still dark. I lurch out of bed and snap open my computer to make my vaccination reservation. My heart sinks. There, in bold red letters, the Lazio health site tells me that appointments for under-65s have been “suspended.” No explanation is given.

It becomes apparent why later in the day, when the Italian Health Ministry approves the Oxford-AstraZeneca product for those over 65. So the supply that was to go to the relatively young is being diverted to the old. My disappointment makes me feel guilty. After all, it is elderly Italians who are still getting mowed down by the virus in alarming numbers. In the past year, 60 per cent of the 100,000 Italians who died of COVID-19 were over 80.

I will just have to wait my turn and be ultra-careful for another month or two or three. Who knows how long? Vaccine supply problems are endless, a classic case of overpromising and underdelivering.

Italy has fully vaccinated only 3 per cent of its population. Based on its daily jab rate of about 170,000, it will take a full year or longer to administer the first doses alone to the entire population.

Why heads are not rolling at the European Commission, which set itself up as the EU’s sole vaccine supplier last summer, is a mystery to me. The EC has failed its greatest test, in my view. Italians look at the U.K. with envy, even though its early response to the pandemic was incompetent. There, the vaccine rollout has been four times faster.

Rome, March 9: Members of the military queue to receive a dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine at the Cecchignola military compound.Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters

Tuesday, March 9

19,749 new daily cases, 100,479 deaths so far. Personal fear factor: 7.5

Today marks the first anniversary of the government’s order to lock down Italy in its entirety – the first country to do so – and the national misery is palpable. All of us called the pandemic wrong, me included.

Last March, a theory circulated that the mysterious virus would get snuffed out by the heat, and Italian summers, conveniently, are hellishly hot. We’d be out of this by June or July, I thought. I urged my Italian cousin in Toronto, Giancarlo, not to cancel his July trip to Italy, where he and I were to take part in the Maratona dles Dolomites bike race near the Austrian border. By late spring, the cases were still high and the race was cancelled. We were out of lockdown by then, but the pandemic was still rudely intact.

Our hopes rose again in mid-summer, when new cases dropped away and reports of promising vaccines filled the media. The end of the pandemic was in sight. Wrong again. The newfound freedoms created a virus renaissance, and by late August the pandemic was surging back to life. By early autumn, we were back in the thick of it – more restrictions and lockdowns. But fear not, the vaccines would save us. By the new year, we thought, the worst would be over. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The EU botched its vaccine rollout, and highly contagious new variants arrived, as if some cosmic force were punishing us for our hubris.

What’s the expression? No plan survives contact with the enemy. Indeed.

So morale is sinking again. In Italy at least, we have no idea whether we are one-third, one-half or two-thirds through this hell, all the more so since the U.K., Brazilian and South African variants are galloping across the country, triggering what appears to be a third wave. Will the vaccines protect us from them? Maybe, maybe not. There is talk of another tight national lockdown in a few weeks, after a big supply of vaccines has arrived – if it arrives. The idea is to kill off community transmission while vaccinating millions in a hurry. I would support that idea if it meant we could have a summer of freedom.

As the pandemic drags on, I feel especially sorry for the young and the very old, the latter because spending their precious last year or two in isolation is terribly sad. I know of great-grandparents who have not been able to hug their new great-grandson. They wave to him through a car window. The young have virtually no social life, no chance to misbehave and push against the boundaries imposed on them by their annoying parents.

Governments in Europe and the Americas messed up their pandemic responses big time with tentative half-measures and confusing messages. Meanwhile, countries such as Vietnam, China, Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan are pretty much back to normal. Quick, tight lockdowns, it turned out, didn’t wreck economies, they saved them.

Feeling down, I jump on my Vespa and go for a little tour of Rome. The traffic is still lighter than it was before the pandemic, because so many Romans are working from home.

I swing by the elegant Piazza della Repubblica, the only part of town that reminds me of Paris. The piazza is dominated by the enormous Fountain of the Naiads, installed there in 1901. Normally, the fountain is ringed by ferocious traffic, but today there are few cars.

The fountain makes me smile because it plays a notorious role in my family history. In 1970, shortly after we moved to Rome for the first time – my father, Bob Reguly, was the new Mediterranean bureau chief of the Toronto Star – Dad and a reporter friend got savagely drunk and jumped into the fountain on a hot summer night to cool off. That’s a big no-no in Rome, and they were arrested. He came home dripping wet, laughing.

Maybe I will take the same plunge when the pandemic is over.

Piazza della Repubblica in Rome. Eric Reguly's father and a fellow journalist once jumped in this fountain to cool off, and were arrested.Eric Reguly/The Globe and Mail

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