ROME—Easter Sunday marks 35 long days since Italy locked down over the COVID-19 pandemic. Before that, what has become by now a familiar pattern around the world was already in place. Schools had closed. Social distancing was recommended. People had started wearing face masks. COVID-19 infections were doubling every three days and victims were dying. The lockdown was a desperate attempt to prevent the final nail in the coffin for this, my adopted country. Even under the lockdown, nearly 20,000 people have died.
Now, more than a month later, as Italy begins to consider what the brave new world coexisting with coronavirus looks like, the protective bubble of the lockdown feels like a pretty safe place.
The lockdown was never intended to give people immunity from COVID-19. The purpose is to stop the disease from being transmitted person-to-person. But the coronavirus is not like an Angel of Death that passes by and never returns. As long as it is still out there, it could be passed around again when people begin mingling, making everyone just as vulnerable as they were when this whole ordeal began.
Over the past few weeks, uneasy routines have now become comfortable habits. Going out for essential supplies is no longer an enticing excuse to leave the safety of my apartment. The ordeal to glove up, mask up and then wipe everything down quickly takes the fun out of getting out of the house. And as the days get warmer, there is a genuine fear of taking off a layer and exposing any skin at all.
My daily walk is now timed for when I believe the fewest number of people will be on the streets in order to avoid anyone. My essential supply runs, too, are now roughly the same time of the day—when I do them—to make sure I’m on the same unwritten schedule as other like-minded people. I’m buying for days at a time now, and trying to avoid the grocery store when those people who are still coming in for one or two items shop every day. Those are the people to fear, the ones who play Russian roulette with their health—and everyone else’s. That kind of recklessness has no place in my personal COVID orbit.
So when Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, announced that the lockdown would stay in effect until May 4, I breathed a little sigh of relief. I’m not ready to get back out there—there are still too many cases being logged each hour and there are still around 600 people dying each day.
My fear of unlocking is not because I don’t trust myself. In all likelihood I already had the virus after suffering a grueling fever, cough and sore throat followed by 14 days of self-isolation at the recommendation of the Italian health department COVID hotline. But maybe I didn’t have it, so I fear those “other” people who do and who might want to shake my hand, kiss my cheek, or dare step into my personal space.
Conte hinted at the elusive Phase II of Italy’s approach to the pandemic. As a sort of trial run, he said that bookshops and stationery stores would start opening as of April 14. Shops that sell clothing for children will open, too, essentially laying out the very basic second tier supplies we all need: a new book to read, supplies for the home office, and for those with little kids, the next size up. As desperately as I need printer paper and some new pens and notebooks, I will not be the first in line. I need to understand who else will be in the store and weigh the risks.
If the preliminary phase goes well and coronavirus infections don’t suddenly spike with this slight lifting of the lid of the lockdown, then more things will open. We might soon be able to buy shoes or clothes in person, though word on the street is that it will be by appointment only. Restaurants could start serving again, but tables would likely be outside only and for groups of no more than four. And happy hour? Summer vacation? Does anyone want to get on a plane or crowded train knowing what we now know? Long gone are those images of crowded Italian beaches in the height of summer. It is impossible to fathom social-distanced spaces on the sand, so it might just be easier not to go.
My youngest son turned 18 as schools were closing just as everyone was starting to make plans for graduation, prom, and all that goes with that last month of high school. In all likeliness he will never enter a classroom again until he goes to university, and no amount of optimism will guarantee that he will start in September.
Some parents were hypothesizing that if we can congregate by June, undoubtedly respecting social distancing, we might arrange a senior graduation picture. Rent a soccer pitch to have all of the students stand six feet apart and take it with a drone was one option. His graduating class like no other marks the line of the new generation. Forget Generation Z, these kids are Generation Covid.
Finding the balance between wanting to get back to normal and never repeating what the world is going through is tricky. The impact on the global economy is so staggering that many are wondering if the cost of human life is the price you have to pay to keep things the way they were. Many small businesses will never reopen and livelihoods have been lost even as lives have been sacrificed to the disease. The confusion makes it seem both too late and too soon to unlock.
Isolation under the lockdown has changed each person differently but it has also created a unique sense of something between paranoia and vigilance. Part of me is screaming for the life I had before, that casual freedom to meet friends and drive to the beach or leave the house without thinking about the scary world outside. The other part of me is OK on the sofa for a little while longer until we are really sure it is safe out there.