ROME — There are 350 different varieties of pasta. If my coronavirus lockdown in Italy lasts much longer, I may try them all.
I’ve been under pseudo house arrest, courtesy of an enemy I cannot see, for longer than most anyone in the United States. On March 12, Italy became the first country to go into complete lockdown, eight days before California became the first state to do so. Monday marked the 26th day in a row in which I haven’t gone more than 100 meters from my Rome apartment.
Each time I venture out, I must have three items with me: a mask, gloves, and a government-issued form listing one of the four reasons I’m allowed to leave: work; returning home from a different town; health; or a necessity, such as the supermarket or post office).
If I’m caught without those things, I face a penalty of between 400 and 3,000 euros ($430-$3,240).
Since Italy began leading the planet in deaths, the world has watched to gauge how well the draconian measures work. My friends and family in the U.S. have watched me to see what lies ahead for them. For now, I am fine and Italy is improving. Yet we are a long way from exhaling without fear of a ventilator.
For Rome to shut down is like Las Vegas losing electricity. Since retiring and moving to Italy in 2014 after 23 years at The Denver Post, I have thrown myself into la dolce vita. Aperitivos at outdoor cafes. Glasses of wine in tony enotecas. Long walks through dimly lit piazzas, gelato in hand.
But today, I see major boulevards without one car. Restaurants with shuttered windows and doors. Piazzas so empty you can hear birds chirping. No longer do I sit on my balcony Sunday morning and hear the church bells peal on the corner.
About the only people around are policemen stopping anyone who shouldn’t be out.
A journalist friend, Eric J. Lyman, did a stand-up report for the Chinese wire service, Xinhua, and talked about being on a movie set several years ago in Cinecitta, Rome’s fabled movie studio. He said in the report, “They had rebuilt part of the city and I remember walking around on it and feeling that it looked like Rome but didn’t feel like it. I have that same sensation now that I’m here.”
The last time I was within a meter of another person was March 8. That’s the last time I saw my girlfriend, who lives 4 miles away. But she may as well be 4,000 miles away. We do nightly Whatsapp video chats, just as we did last May when I was in Tajikistan.
When the lockdown began, we planned to secretly rendezvous in a local park and pose as joggers. That plot failed when all parks in Italy closed.
So I spend my days reading and writing about the virus, reading good books, watching “Better Call Saul” on Netflix and going through every pasta recipe on my shelf.
No one in Italy complains. We are surrounded by death and put faith in the government to strangle this virus. COVID-19 in Italy has become like 9-11 in the United States. Everyone knows someone who died or knows someone who knows someone who died. A friend works with someone who watched her mother die from the other side of a pane of glass.
In response, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has become a calming grandfather. He has gone on TV to instruct the citizenry on what to do, how to beat the virus and what the future may bring. He has been transparent and soothing.
We are finally seeing signs that the government’s measures are working. The percentage of new cases has dropped from 14 percent just two weeks ago to 2.3 Tuesday and has been under double figures 16 straight days. The percentage in the number of deaths dropped nine straight days until Monday, and Tuesday’s jump was only 3.6 percent. It was 11 percent on March 27.
Most important, Friday to Tuesday marked the first times the number in intensive care dropped, from 4,068 to 3,792, alleviating pressure on a hospital system that had been overrun weeks ago.
The lockdown currently is in place until April 13, but it’s expected to extend well into May.
“If we started to loosen the measures,” Conte said last week, “all of our efforts would have been in vain and we would pay a heavy price.”
Hanging over the country, however, is a chorus of doctors and scientists saying Italy’s numbers are in reality much worse. Last week, I interviewed Ruggerdo Da Maria, a research scientist at Gemelli Policlinico, one of four Rome hospitals treating coronavirus patients. He told me, “This data they show I don’t think matters at all.”
A March 31 report out of London’s Imperial College, a top research institute, used a complicated formula to estimate that nearly 10 percent of Italy’s 60 million people could be infected. That’s 6 million instead of 128,000. The official numbers don’t include people who have the virus but have shown no symptoms and those with symptoms who have not been tested.
Italians, of course, are used to upheaval. The Fall of the Roman Empire. World War II. Fascists versus communists. Earthquakes and recessions. The Italian spirit always rises above it all. Last month, that spirit came together in a national wave called “flashmob.” Every day at 6 p.m., people went to their balconies and played instruments or sang. I heard many renditions of “Fratelli d’Italia,” the national anthem, and “Azzurro,” a popular 1968 pop song.
Most were awful but one night I stood on my balcony with neighbors holding candles or cellphone lights. It looked like the stars had descended on Rome. A neighbor below me started a passable rendition of “Volare,” Domenico Modugno’s famous 1958 song of flying through the air on a wave of love. When he finished, the entire neighborhood erupted in applause. I yelled, “BRAVO!”
And a lump formed in my throat.
John Henderson is a freelance travel writer in Rome.
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