Update from Italy: Day 6 of General Quarantine

This is about the amount of food that we are purchasing each day. Photo by Maddi Bazzocco on Unsplash

The new title convention speaks volumes. It no longer really matters here what the date is, but rather where we are on this new timeline of waiting, isolation, anxiety, and monotony. It’s not easy. We don’t know when it’s going to end. We have a general idea (sometimes around Easter? earlier if we are lucky) that is subject to the whims of daily developments in the machinations of our pathogen overlords. We are not in control here. All we can do is cope, and manage. But we are not the decision-makers in the grand scheme of things. And in choosing our responses we find our agency. See this piece posted on CNN by an American living in Bergamo, up in the very hard-hit north.

Spain and France joined Italy last night in a general quarantine. The virus is already everywhere and spreading fast. Personally, I am more in favor of closed borders as it stops people from travelling and treating this crisis like a holiday. People, please, for the love of God, go home and stay put, if you can. Stay there. The WaPo has created this nice animated graphic article to illustrate why you need to stay home, if the facts of this are unclear to you. And if the facts are clear to you, it’s calming to watch the little dots slow down as isolation strategies work as expected. Although it is a flaw in the model that no dots are disappearing, which should be the case, given the facts of reality.

I received a long communication yesterday from a Canadian friend living in the D.C. area. She had some excellent questions. I copy her questions (lightly edited for anonymity) below in their near entirely, as I am sure they will resonate with many of my readers.

I’ve been reading your recent posts with a great deal of interest – thank you for being so frank but also down-to-earth in communicating what you all are going through right now. We are probably a couple of weeks out from the kinds of measures you’re currently living with, though it makes me even more nervous to think that we won’t have these or any other serious measures implemented to prevent terrible outcomes. I have practical questions about how you all go about your day-to-day right now in light of viral spread and lockdown measures. I spent yesterday shopping for groceries at a local store, and it was the final leg of our stock-up. It was complete chaos, vs the perfectly ordinary shopping trips I’d taken the previous weekend and week. In any case, we have only a certain quantity of things like milk, yogurt, meat, and fresh vegetables and fruit; some of these can’t be stockpiled, and our daughter basically subsists off of these foods. How do you re-stock on perishables? Has there been any interruption to the food supply chain? Did you all experience the same type of empty-shelves hoarding before the country went into lockdown? What about work outside the home? Like Jason, my husband is still expected to go into work. He has an excellent cleaning staff and no contact with the public – only the same crew of library employees. Still, this worries me. Are you implementing good hand-washing practices and hoping for the best when it comes to working outside the home? We’re also currently in a part-time nanny-share with another family, which I know is a big risk, and I’m currently struggling to imagine how to step away from it and still be in a position to keep up the frequency of my doctor’s visits where my daughter can’t possibly come with. But we will figure this stuff out in the coming week. From your updates it sounds like you all are managing, and though Italy still can’t likely see the light at the end of the tunnel yet. But it will eventually come, for all of us. We are at a disadvantage here in the US, seeing this coming like a bullet down the barrel of a gun, but paralyzed in many ways by idiotic government decisions that reinforce private citizens’ dumb choices. Despite that, we are trying to mentally emphasize the reality of the current situation to ourselves, even though widespread viral contagion is not yet a visible, known reality here in DC. Despite all this, we’ve got beautiful spring weather, and like your account of monuments around town that are completely emptied out of tourists, we’ll have the cherry blossoms all to ourselves, probably, when they peak in a couple of weeks.

Q: How do you re-stock on perishables? Has there been any interruption to the food supply chain? A: We have not yet seen an interruption in the supply chain. Deliveries seem to be happening as usual. Jason made the point that the Italian supply chain (for examples, for groceries) is much shorter than America’s supply chain. He went to the open market yesterday and purchased fresh produce, meat, cheese, and a chicken. Under the general quarantine, one family member per day may go a grocery run to the most local store. Jason has been going once a day for a small bag of groceries. We ar enot going to starve. The shopping is not policed; people are calmly working together to make this happen in a calm and orderly way. Italians are extremely serious about grocery shopping even without a pandemic afoot. Still, buy some cans of pears and peaches if your child demands fruit. Get frozen fruit and veg. Buy some applesauce, and shelf-stable milk.

Q: Did you all experience the same type of empty-shelves hoarding? A: No. Jason reports to me from the dining room table that shelves have not been aggressively swept bare as we have seen on the news in happening in America. I have my theories about this. 1.) There is a long history of cooperative civilization through centuries of war, famine, and pestilence. 2.) As a fundamentally cooperative society, Italians excel at empathy and sharing with others. These are valued taught and reinforced from birth (with the exception of playground swings; don’t get me started.) Italians are quick to imagine how a person might feel if stricken with fear, suffering injustice, battling illness. Or running low on milk. Also, we have lots of soap and bidets, so the whole loo roll thing did not even happen. 3.) The Pope lives close by and is keeping a close eye on everyone. How’s that for gentle social pressure. In truth, cultural Catholicism continues to underpin Italian values. My two cents on that. 4.) Because Italy has public healthcare, health crises are collectively understood to be everyone’s problem, whether it’s a single instance of free open-heart surgery, or more than 20,000 positive cases of Covid-19, more than 1,500 deaths, and hundreds of people in ICU struggling with the infection. Asking this question, therefore, is a bit like asking “How in the world do you get by on Italian espresso?” or “Can you even get a glass of wine in Italy?”

Q: Are you implementing good hand-washing practices and hoping for the best when it comes to working outside the home? A: I have not worked in the office since March 3, and Jason hasn’t been to his office in days. The general quarantine provides that any work that can be done from home is best done from home. If you can assertively advocate for work from home, do so. If you are a manager, director, or CEO who can make this decision, please make it. If you are Congress or the president, please issue this executive order. The exceptions to Italian work from home include basic needs, like grocers and pharmacies, public offices, public safety, transpo; or if you have your own office and can guarantee a socially safe distance (official safe distance is one meter, but I think five meters is closer to safe, after reports from China emerged). We have been washing our hands assiduously as a family. We have bought creamy hypoallergenic soap and glycerine hand lotion.

Science will bring people to heel. Ignore science and imperil your life. It seems that in many places in America and the UK, phase 2 of the crisis is happening. The response: THIS IS AN ECONOMIC CRISIS. This is simply not true. It is the voice of panic and suffers from a gross lack of perspective. Defiant socializing spreads infection quickly. Guess what? The virus doesn’t care if you believe it’s real. Don’t fear so much the possibility of becoming sick and suffering yourself. Think of passing the virus on to someone older and/or more vulnerable than you. Please think about this. Or I’m gonna have the Pope call you at home to review basic ethics.