Tick tock. Tick tock. Goes the global quarantine clock. At the heart of the watch, all eyes are on Italy to see how long the pandemic will take to run its course. When COVID-19 first reared its ugly head, there were hopes it would pass quickly, quietly. However, Italian hospitals are overwhelmed and even turning patients away, the death toll surging past 3,000, surpassing that of China. It is now glaringly clear that we are on the first leg of an infectious marathon.
Countries around the world are racing to close their borders, shutting down schools, large sports and music events. Bars and restaurants are empty, and there have been initiations of police or military enforced quarantines. A virus that caused concern in China back in January of this year has spread its virulent wings and created a world-wide pandemic unlike anything we have seen in over 100 years.
In Italy, questions abound, and no concrete answers are to be found. A mandatory nationwide quarantine that was initially decreed to be from March 12th-31st has now been extended. The finish line for when the COVID-19 killing spree will be a thing of the past seems to keep getting pushed back and back.
What will happen after the fact? Will students be able to graduate? Will tourism return to Italy in 2020, a country where 13 percent of its GDP is reliant on foreigners coming in to enjoy historic sights, scrumptious food and wine, beautiful beaches and stunning ski slopes? When will this boot-shaped Mediterranean country be able to kick the coronavirus out and look toward the future again?
And when will we, wherever we may be, follow in the footsteps of Italy…struggle through whatever the outbreak may bring and be able to give a collective sigh of relief?
On March 10, I spoke with a dear friend of mine, Leanne Stam, in Brunico—a charming town in the South Tyrol region of Northern Italy nestled in Alpine mountains with world-class skiing along the Austrian border. I was joking with her, thinking that the Italian government was perhaps overreacting. She quickly corrected me and said they were enacting necessary preventative precautions and that the shit was hitting the fan. She advised me to not panic, but to get prepared, “It’s heading your way.” And indeed it has.
Stam, who teaches in the public school system in South Tyrol, and is a mother of a 12 year old son, said that as of March 18th school is officially closed until the 5th of April. However, she said that she just received an email that school will most likely be conducted online until mid-June, in the hope that students can physically return to classes at the beginning of the new school year in September. The graduating class of 2020 will still have a graduation in some capacity, they’re just not sure how that is going to look yet.
Stam is luckily earning the same teaching from home as if she were physically at school. She has started using Google Meet to hold classes virtually, and she is uploading texts and homework for the students to do at home and turn in online. Her classes consist of 10-25 students, and she’s found that this online platform works well. It just takes some getting used to. She said her son has adjusted to his online education with great ease.
“You have to have a computer at home to be able to continue your education, if you don’t and you don’t have any internet you’re totally screwed,” Stam said.
According to Stam, the quarantine has been “quite peaceful” in the small town of Brunico. No one is getting black eyes brawling over toilet paper or hording goods apocalyptic-style. “Just the fresh produce, there is less of that, but other than that the supermarkets are, you know, normal.”
“The police force is out, you have to carry a piece of paper that says, ‘I myself am healthy and I’m going to get groceries,’ and if they catch me, I don’t know, just like trying to go to a friend’s house or somewhere that I don’t need, I get a 250 euro fine,” Stam stated, “Playgrounds are closed, any open space, any park, you can walk through but you can’t stop.”
She said that she thought that the government in the South Tyrol region acted quite swiftly, “From one day to the next schools were shut down, and then that weekend people were going skiing and stuff, and after that weekend they shut down all of the ski lifts and everything.”
The economy of the region relies heavily on the income from the ski resorts, and usually is teeming with tourists this time of year. Stam said it feels surreal driving through the deserted town.
Down south in Naples, one of Europe’s most densely populated cities, the quarantine is in full swing as well. Ciro Cefalo, whose family owns Hostel Mancini in central Naples, said that if you are found on the streets with no reason to be walking around, you can get arrested.
Cefalo is a first-year University computer science student. His classes have all gone online, “However it is very difficult as the websites keep shutting down because there is not capacity for all,” and even though he is studying computer science, he said there are also issues with the online classes “because some professors really don’t know how to use computers very well.”
Cefalo said that he and his family had to close their small yet popular family-run hostel on March 12th, by order of decree. “Now they [the government] say that we are able to open the end of April, but we are not sure about it. It is a virus. You cannot make predictions one hundred percent,” Cefalo said.
The Italian government is offering compensations to workers that are facing the brunt of financial losses during this trying time, though Cefalo doesn’t think it will be enough. He said that even if someone was eligible for a 600 euro a month stipend, they would still have to pay taxes upwards of 300 euros on it. Making it a meager amount to try to survive on.
“The biggest problem is who has to pay rent, families and businesses…the law in Italy is very complicated, for now they won’t kick you out, but after all of this, we have to see,” Cefalo said as he shrugged his shoulders and gave a look of forlorn during our WhatsApp video interview. “It’s very difficult the situation. It’s new for everyone,” he said.
Naples is a tourist hub for people who want to enjoy the city’s history, exquisite cuisine, (Napolitan pizza, mozzarella de bufala and wide array of pastas and seafood dishes) as well as check out the Amalfi Coast, Capri, or Pompeii. Normally, Hostel Mancini’s 45 beds are booked to the brim from May to September. But this year will most definitely be financially challenging for the Cefalo family. Ciro’s father Alfredo said that they are not receiving any support from the government to help with the rental cost for their hostel. And to add salt to the wound, the family had just made major renovations to their cherished hostel that finished five days before the state of emergency was called. It’s money that just “flew away.” The hostel is vacant…for who knows how long.
Ciro Cefalo said that even if they are able to reopen at the end of April, all of Europe is using their vacation days during the limbo period of waiting out the pandemic, and when it is over, they will need to return to work. The fear is that this year, holidays and travel to Italy will be a fraction of what it normally is.
“It’s going to be terrible for hotels, hostels, restaurants, everything,” Cefalo said. “The hope is that next year we can regain everything.”
Cefalo said he understands the need for the quarantine, but is tired of being cooped up, “We can’t go out, it’s like being in prison, you know?”
When asked if the viral videos of people singing from their balconies is true in his neighborhood in Naples he smiled and said, “Everyday at midday and 6pm there is somebody who puts [on] music and everybody goes out and sings,” he gave a laugh and a smile. “Very Italian style.”
Only time will tell when this pandemic will pass, how many lives will be lost, and what economic peril will come after. We might as well find time to sing our hearts out if we can muster.
Tick tock. Tick tock. Goes the global quarantine clock.