Life's pleasures of living in Italy

Personal Update on the Corona Virus in Italy
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While the world is in a virtual state of lockdown in many places, and travelling freely seems to be a thing of the past, I thought you might be interested in how we are living here in Polinago, Italy at this time. This is our experience with this unseen enemy which seems in one fell swoop to have brought this wonderful country to a stand-still. I hasten to add that I can only speak from my perspective of life in a small town, albeit one sitting in what is considered the Red Zone of the epidemic.

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Polinago is a small town an hour outside the city of Modena and has a population of 1650, the majority of whom are very elderly, with many aged in their late nineties and still living in their own homes and caring for themselves. We had been following the news of what was happening in Wuhan, China regarding the Corona Virus and I must admit, that initially I was relatively sceptical about it all, thinking in terms of the Sars and Swine flu outbreaks which we had experienced in the past.

Around the 20th of February we heard that three small towns in the province of Lodi, in Lombardy a 2.5 hour drive away had several cases of residents with severe cases of the coronavirus in hospital. We didn’t think too much about it, but that changed the following weekend when we had a Tennis Coach come to stay with two young players. On their departure the next morning, the coach asked if it would be possible to stay an extra night if either of the boys went on to the next round in the tournament. I received a phone call from him mid-afternoon telling me that the tournament had been halted and that all coaches and players were told to return home immediately. All towns in the north of Italy were about to be put under lockdown. The next day we heard there were also several confirmed cases in Piacenza, which is the northernmost province in our region of Emilia Romagna. I believe that at this time, many of us did not really think it would end up affecting us greatly.

By the following weekend, the situation was unfolding further but at this point, apart from not going out unnecessarily, all we were doing was washing our hands religiously for 20 seconds and trying to remember to not touch our faces . At the time a couple came to stay at the B&B and rereading my diary, I was concerned enough to note that the man had given me a kiss on the cheek at check-out – yes, they had enjoyed their stay and he gave me a kiss goodbye, as many of our guests seem to do. They returned the following weekend. This time we kept our distance, but by Sunday morning it was announced that there was to be no unnecessary travel between the provinces, starting immediately. He was concerned about dropping off his girlfriend in Bologna and returning to his home in Modena, as they are different provinces. We haven’t heard further from them and presume that all went okay. Little did we know that they were to be our last guests for some time.

We now we realised that the situation was becoming graver by the day and that the virus was spreading rapidly. We had to remain at home and could only go out to do any necessary shopping; keep wash our hands, not touch our faces and our keep a social distance. By the following week we were told to also wear masks and if necessary, gloves. Each time we went out we had to complete a self-authorization form which was available online; police were stopping cars and questioning people and checking their forms. The forms changed weekly as the rules continued to become more and more stringent. That week Polinago still held its small, local weekly market, which is usually the only day that the Municipal policeman visits the town. That day we were surprised to see three different policing entities checking forms in the main street.

Day by day the numbers of those tested positive for coronavirus were rising as were the deaths at an alarming rate and we were still in a partial lockdown. However, on Monday 9 March we went into a total lockdown which included not even being able to leave our local council area. By now Piacenza, was suffering with large numbers of people testing positive and becoming extremely ill. Emilia Romagna has nine provinces and of those, the following were regarded as part of the Red Zone; Piacenza, Parma, Reggio Emilia and Modena, which along with Lombardy were the hardest hit areas. Only essential workers were able to travel and a week later the whole of Italy was fully locked down.

The severity and reality of the situation now also hit home. On Friday 28 February I had gone to meet a friend at the café in nearby Gombola, which is a part of Polinago, and she introduced me to the new owner of the bar, who served us our coffee and biscuits. On leaving we shook hands and the owner gave me a hug and kiss goodbye. By 12 March I was notified that she was the first person to be tested positive for the corona virus in Polinago. Many telephone calls later, I was told that as I had no symptoms, to not worry because it had been 12 days since I had seen her. However, my friend and her husband, along with her in-laws were very unwell; her husband and his parents all tested positive for the coronavirus and went into home quarantine. Subsequently another close friend’s mother died six weeks later from Covid -19.

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Over the next weeks we watched the videos of people singing on their balconies. Our local musical celebrity played and sang on you tube each Sunday evening and we would light a candle in homage to all those working so hard in the hospitals. Bergamo, in Lombardy was one of the hardest hit hospitals, and we read about the exhausted doctors and nurses trying to keep on top of the constantly stream of patients requiring intubation in intensive care. Sadly, it reached the point where it was like a battle zone, with patients being graded according to their age and chances of survival, and doctors were forced to make life and death decisions. China and Russia sent desperately need medical supplies. The saddest and most emotional moment for me was the sight on television of a long line of Army trucks leaving Cremona late at night to take bodies to crematoria in Parma, Reggio Emilia, and Modena as there was no longer room for them at the local cemeteries. Families could not hold funerals, patients suffered extremely painful deaths alone. The thought of the thousands who suffered, and their families still brings me to tears.

Throughout this time, I was amazed by the stoicism, resolute behaviour, courage and grace of most Italians. There has been little complaining, people pulling together to follow the rules. The behaviour of the Italian government and especially Prime Minister Conte during this time was inspirational. Conte has been a true statesman every step of the way and a few weeks ago, in a poll had an 80% approval rating; a former law professor in his mid-fifties, Giuseppe Conte was asked in June 2018 to become the Prime Minister of Italy when a coalition government was formed between the left leaning Five Star party and the extreme right Northern League. We are so grateful that he was in the chair to lead the country throughout this period. From the beginning he would address the people each week, explaining the rational regarding the lockdown, expressing his utmost concern for families and their suffering both emotionally and financially, his concern for the country and its economy.

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Initially on that first weekend in late February, all schools, universities, museums, and galleries were closed. Schools and universities immediately commenced with on-line lessons which have continued until now. Subsequently bars and restaurants were also shut down, effectively closing the tourist industry. Throughout the lockdown supermarkets and food stores have remained open and it was only in the initial stages that there was panic buying of hand sanitisers, disinfectant, and gloves. Sunday trading was cancelled as the government said that shop owners also needed a day off. Initially open-air fresh food markets remained open but by late March they were also closed when it was no longer possible to travel anywhere between the council areas.

People observed social distancing, waiting outside the shop as only one or two people could go in at a time, depending on how many are serving. There is an air of calm and little conversation, unusual for the voluble Italian. May 18th saw the first loosening of lockdown restrictions and we used the opportunity to go to our nearby market town of Pavullo nel Frignano to do a big supermarket shop. We had managed quite well as having the B&B we already had a good supply of dry and frozen goods. By this time, we had run down most of our supplies and the most difficult was to find reasonably priced tins of cat food for our two fussy cats! Fortunately, we also had an ample supply of wine and beer.

Northern Italy has excellent health services, but the magnitude of numbers of presenting ill at the hospitals overwhelmed the system. To date Italy has had 33,229 deaths with 4,100 in Emilia Romagna of which, sadly, 8 occurred in Polinago. As at Friday 29 May there were 516 new positive cases and still 475 in intensive care.

I believe that those who are having a more difficult time are those living larger cities in apartments with either only a small balcony or no balcony and with children. For many Italians not being able to see their close relatives has been the most difficult part of the lockdown. When the extreme lockdown came into effect in mid-March, there were riots in several prisons, including Modena. These occurred after prisoners had been advised that for the duration, they would be unable to receive family visits. Also, the inability to hold funerals has also been difficult for many.

We count ourselves as fortunate to be living here in Polinago; with a large garden where we are can move around outside even though we could not visit anyone or have visitors. We have been busy working around the house. In this time my husband has tiled two garage floors, and then built a small terrace in garden where it is possible to sit and have unobstructed views to Mt Cimone which is the highest mountain here in the Appenines and currently he is building steps and path to access this spot. I’m spending a lot of time cooking and baking endless cakes and biscuits, so we have put on some weight!

From the 3 June we will be able to travel between regions and all going well, from 15 June borders with other European Union countries will re-open. We don’t know when flights from Australia will be flying again into Europe. Obviously like all other accommodation services throughout Italy, Europe, and the UK we have had many cancellations. We hope that gradually we will see more guests as more and more places in Europe come out of lockdown.

In writing and reflecting on the events of the past 13 weeks I realise that while we just got on with things and tried not to worry or think too far into the future because of the many unknowns, there have been several positive effects. One has been the use of technology. We have had many face time gatherings with our children in different states of Australia and in Geneva. When the nursing home in Perth where my mother lives, went into lockdown, it initiated weekly facetime chats for families. Whenever we had an opportunity to speak or see someone in passing, everyone was, uncomplaining and keen to ask how we were we have observed a resilience in the people and understand how important family is for them. While economically most people are suffering there are very few reports of ugly situations and Italian flags are draped from balconies and outside homes everywhere. Everyone is busy supporting their country and proud of how they are dealing with the situation. Sentiments we fully share with them.

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We look forward to opening our doors and we wish all of you good health and hope you and your loved ones remain safe and well. One day when this is all over, we may all be able to travel freely once again and enjoy the many different and exotic places to visit. Perhaps we may see you here in Polinago.

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