Update from Italy: Saturday, March 7

The U.S. coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Photo by NASA on Unsplash.

It is an extremely quiet day in Florence. Our family is working on equilibrium in the new circumstances of the school closures. We’ve brought the kids up to Jason’s office for a few hours this afternoon so that Victor can spread out on the conference room table to do his homework. He is saving his Italian grammar homework (my favorite) for me, so tomorrow we will be switching verb tenses in a written passage – from future to past, past to future, present to past, past to present, and so on. In solidarity, as usual, Eleanor has devised a project of her own to work on amicably next to Victor. Jason found her a set of 24 magic markers somewhere upstairs in the Student Life quadrant.

Italy now seems to be in Phase Three of its response to the Covid-19 outbreak. We’ve been through denial (Phase One, everything is fine, this is only happening in China), panic (we’re all going to die, massive rumor mill), and are now on Phase Three, calm and needed public measures. (This rubric is entirely my own, so disagree with me alone, and don’t Google it.) Schools are closed; public guidance has been broadly disseminated. No one is wearing a mask as a matter of course. Everyone is mindful of handwashing and general hygiene. No one is hoarding. Hospitals are well-staffed and on high alert. I am very comfortable with all of these measures. I do not feel they are too much or too little. If public health made a case for greater measures, I am fine with that. If statistics support fewer measures, I am fine with that.

I feel the news (shouty, inaccurate) in America is causing its citizens to either ignore the epidemic or to take outsized measures. I have had friends tell me they believed none of the news and that everything was overreaction. I have seen people in Italy be mailed care packages from American friends of face masks, sanitizers, and Pringles (speechless). I have seen the news of the run on grocery stores of Americans cleaning off the shelves as though they expected a nuclear holocaust. I am not sure how 24 bottled liters of water and 500 rolls of toilet paper are going to help you in a moment like this. The water is not going to be turned off. I get that toilet paper is near and dear to American hearts, and rears. Pro tip: a little bit of soap and water work just fine, folks, in a pinch, pun intended. No one’s gonna die from a Charmin outage.

What I would like to say here, and what I do feel concern about, is this: you, yes you, can take small measures now to protect your communities. Check around to see if anyone, perhaps older or recently recovered from an illness, would feel better maybe limiting their time in public spaces, and if you’re up to it, drop off groceries and items for them. (This very project is happening now in Florence.) Limit social time and public events. If you don’t need to take a trip, do not take the trip. If you’re sick, stay home. I know the U.S. culture around sick leave really, really sucks, and maybe the events of March 2020 will change people’s minds and some of our laws about employees working in the U.S. when they’re sick.

Take the measures. You are a part of the global community. Yes, you. You people everywhere on Earth, which is all of us. I have read items on social media that made my head explode. How Americans are able protect “themselves and their families,” how they did not need anyone else to help them survive. Good luck trialing that vaccine, or keeping a highly trained hospital staff in a clean, modern hospital. Why don’t you run all that by an unchecked viral contagion. And for everyone who bemoans the economic impact, take a breath. It is affecting everyone in every country. On the plus side, the atmosphere over China has really cleared up. On the minus side, Italy is suffering a crushing economic blow as tourism forms 13% of the national economic base, and in Florence I am sure it is three times that. On the plus side, it’s low season. And so it goes. There will be an economic impact. We will deal with it. Some companies won’t survive, like the Exeter-based Flybe in the UK. Others will come back. It just all depends. We don’t know! We’re living in an unfolding story, and our pathogen overlords (I stole this from the recent Psychology Today article) have the upper hand in this contest, for the moment.

Ok, that’s my minor rant. Stress levels have been high this week, and I am logging into social media to post my updates, but I will tell you now, I see things – I see things – in there that make my eyes burn.

My offering to you today is this document, written by a friend of a friend, who is an Assistant Scientist in Health Geography at the Applied Population Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Malia’s area of research and focus is social contact of humans, and spatial patterns of infectious disease, among other things.