This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
It’s Sunday and my family and I have just taken stock of our supplies. We’ll be fine for a few days, but the supermarkets where we usually shop are closed, and queues are forming outside other shops in the area. Customers are only being allowed into stores in shifts. I guess these are the short-term effects of a lockdown.
I live in Codogno, in northern Italy’s Lombardy region. The town of 15,000 was the first to report a case of coronavirus in Italy's north and one of 11 towns to go into immediate lockdown on Saturday. I’m among the residents not allowed out of the red zone of the outbreak, which somebody on TV last night described as being "armoured". A roadblock is preventing people getting in or out, and trains aren’t stopping here.
Friday’s sudden outbreak in the area, apparently unconnected to anyone who has traveled to China, has already resulted in seven deaths here in Italy and propelled the country into becoming the third-worst affected globally. The Italian government has acted urgently and some would say drastically: schools, museums, certain shops and businesses are closed in the affected areas, which cover parts of seven of Italy’s wealthiest regions. All forms of public or private gatherings are suspended in the red zone, as are deliveries and public transport. Despite rumours, we have not been forbidden from leaving the house, but we have been advised to limit time spent in public places.
I’ve personally been trying to make use of my capabilities and the information at my disposal. I'm 33 years old, and teach both natural sciences and hygiene and anatomy at the Cesaris high school in Casalpusterlengo, about 50 kilometres southeast of Milan, and another of the towns in Lombardy currently on lockdown. I was getting ready for work early on Friday morning when I found out about the case in Codogno.
It was unsettling to see images from the hospital in Codogno in major Italian newspapers; to see the coronavirus go from being something abstract to something very concrete. At school, the kids were in shock and some colleagues had no choice but to cancel class because tensions were so high. Knowing how much time I spend surrounded by people, my own parents wanted me call emergency services to get myself tested for the virus. I tried to talk some sense into them and offer some reassurance.
If only someone could do the same for the residents of Codogno. The run on face masks – which the World Health Organisation warns are only useful if you are coughing or sneezing, or taking care of someone suspected of having coronavirus – is underway, until stocks last. Requests for testing swabs are also through the roof, and the mayor has had to instruct people not to go shopping in off-limit areas, since supermarkets will be able to re-stock and re-open regularly.
The streets, as one might expect, are almost empty. Not that Codogno was ever a hectic metropolis: like most small-to-medium Italian towns, it is an ageing population, so it’s very funny to hear news reports claiming the “nightlife in Codogno is on standby”. Nightlife in Codogno was never a thing, but before the lockdown came into effect, we did suddenly have masses of journalists asking random passersby for their personal takes.
Online, virus anxiety has gone viral. Despite my objections, my mum keeps hanging out on morbid Facebook groups, where fake news and unnecessary alarmism is being spread. A journalist simply looking for someone willing to talk about their experience was verbally abused and accused of trying to exploit the situation. On WhatsApp, anonymous voice notes are circulating, spreading false information about the virus, the infected and the alleged lies being told by authorities.
But, aside from the alarmism and the newfound media interest in Codogno, my quarantine has so far been a question of filling time. I've spent two days at home, calling to cancel any commitments in the near future, and replying to the many messages from friends wanting more information. My family are keeping busy, and if we need to leave the house, we do so without too much fear, make sure to take the necessary precautions.
And morale seems to be returning. Even someone I know who has been put under total quarantine because their relative is infected, sounded calmer on the phone. She told me the authorities still hadn’t done tests for all their close relatives possibly affected by the virus, probably because at this stage, they are focusing on higher-risk cases.
Meanwhile, as a scientist I would like to offer some advice to anyone who is in a similar situation as me right now. I know isolation can increase fear: it makes you feel the danger much more acutely and you risk overestimating it. So, first of all, don’t panic. Before you think about worst case scenarios, try to get serious information about the coronavirus and what is really going on. Follow official instructions carefully, but don’t go beyond that. Finally, stay away from random Facebook groups and WhatsApp chats where people swap opinions and news – they are spreading faster and wider than the virus itself.