In Coronavirus Lockdown, the Living Are Trapped With the Dead
The novel coronavirus has ripped through my adopted home, changing every single thing about every single day for all 60 million people who live here.
All across Europe and in Britain, governments are looking at the situation in Italy and admitting the same fate may be in store for them. Americans should do the same. That future is only days or weeks away. This is what it’s like in Italy right now.
ROME—At least 1,809 people have died with the novel coronavirus since it arrived with a vengeance in Italy just three weeks ago, sucking the lifeblood out of one of the most vibrant countries in the world. I say “at least” because I am not yet sure if my elderly neighbor is one of them.
She died a few days ago, it seems, but was only discovered Thursday when men in hazmat suits freaked out the collective condominium by breaking the lock on her door. Her caregiver hadn’t been able to come to check on her because schools have been closed and the caregiver couldn’t afford a babysitter. And since everyone is supposed to stay inside, no one noticed she wasn’t around.
They’ll eventually do an autopsy to see if she died with “il virus,” pronounced il vee-rus in Italian. There was a sense of conflicted relief when whispers that she fell and hit her head circulated around the palazzo.
The story of this woman’s singular tragic death is complicated by the location of the grocery store on the ground floor of my building here in central Rome. People have to stand one meter apart and only 10 people can enter at a time, making the line a long one. The coroner quite rightly didn’t want to alarm anyone waiting to buy vital supplies by wheeling out a corpse covered in protective plastic, so it was decided to do it in the dark of the night after the store closed.
Part of me—the bad part—wondered if such a spectacle would have scared people off, making the long queue slightly shorter. The store has been, for as long as I have lived in this apartment, my pantry. I run down for one meal at a time since my kitchen is small and my fridge is minuscule. It has been a rude awakening to plan ahead. How do I know what my teenage son and I are going to be hungry for tomorrow? But as the coronavirus has spread its lethal wrath from Milan to Rome to the depths of Italy’s boot, we’ve all had time to change our daily lives.
As a result, I’ve got enough toilet paper to build several igloos, tuna to feed an army, and my back balcony looks like an enoteca. But still I go to the store and keep buying because, despite “them” telling “us” they will never close the supermarkets, I can’t take the chance. I certainly never thought they’d first close public events, then schools, then clothing shops, then bookstores, then coffee bars, then churches. Or that I would be blocked from flying into my home country because my life is in Europe. But here we are.
Once inside the small, six-aisle supermarket, common in large European cities, it becomes one of those contests where you try to get as much into your small cart as you can in a short period of time. Inevitably, I’ve brought no list. I frantically check expiration dates, making sure the lettuce is crisp, the carrots are firm “in case” I can’t get back in.
I panic buy things like Diet Coke, which I gave up years ago, which suddenly feels like a comfort food from home. I buy more sugar, more flour, more butter. The clerks tell you to hurry so someone else can come into the store. There are several strips of masking tape on the floor leading to the cash register to mark the one meter safe zone we are required to keep as part of what should really be called anti-social distancing. The strips of tape are everywhere in Rome now, and they are always shocking, sending the subliminal message: “Don't cross the line or everybody dies.”
Everyone is wearing a mask even though we all know they do little good. But if you don’t have one on or at least have a scarf covering half your face, others look at you in fear. A simple cough clears the whole area. On a warm day, everyone is covered up and overdressed and sweating… or is it a fever? Every time I cough in the house, my son yells out, “You’ve got the virus.” Ha ha.
After the grocery trip I work for a while and then try to do another outing or two to break up the day. Hardware stores are among the “essential” shops that remain open during this harsh phase of the lockdown, which will last until at least April 3. I bought some nails, duct tape, and a small hand tool that looked useful, even though I have no idea what it is for.
You can only leave the house for justifiable reasons—supply shopping, health, or work—and you have to carry a government form in case you get stopped by the cops who are out in ever great force and with ever-more protective gear. Even taking out the garbage has become a treat, but rather than carrying as much as I can at one time, I am suddenly happy to make multiple trips.
My son, a high school senior, is settling into his online learning, having commandeered the living room as a makeshift classroom. He is dedicated but terrified that he and his friends won’t get to graduate on time and that those college acceptance letters they worked so hard for won’t be honored if school never goes back into session. I can do little to comfort him; it’s my biggest concern, too. That, and my fear that the memories he should be making with friends during his last year will be eclipsed by the solitude and loneliness of being locked down with his mom.
When the novel coronavirus first broke out of Asia, I was worried for my older son in university in Vancouver, which has a large Chinese student population who, I assumed, had just returned after Christmas break. I sent him masks and links to articles about washing his hands. Now every day he grows more concerned for us here. I don’t really blame him, it’s actually terrifying to think some unseen enemy could invade the house and take over our lives even more than it already has.
These early days of the lockdown will surely be the most important. Eventually we will acclimate to these restrictions, carrying out our new daily tasks like science-fiction zombies wandering a wasteland. The first inclination when things started to close down last weekend was to get around the rules and sneak out. People borrowed dogs to walk because it is one of the accepted reasons to go outside. I strolled around for an hour carrying a shopping bag with a few onions and lemons in it in case I got stopped. But as of Sunday, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases had risen to 24,747 and no one wants to break the rules anymore. Three weeks ago we had just three cases.
When the virus exploded here on Feb. 23, I was shocked when the Italian government locked down 50,000 people in 11 communities where the virus first started spreading. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like. On Thursday, the original red zone cleared an incredible hurdle: not one single new case in that entire ground zero area was recorded.
The lockdown is awful, it’s constricting and it breeds fear and paranoia. But it’s the only way out of this—as long as everyone respects it. One feverish person in a grocery store could light it up again.
Before this horrific plague hit Italy, we were sure it was going to stay “somewhere else.” As it crawled south down the peninsula, we’ve been forced to prepare, almost like people watching the trajectory of a Category V hurricane in the distance. Even though we knew it was coming, we weren’t ready at all.
To be continued.