Life in the Coronavirus Red Zone

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By Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D.

Everything about our life is changing, minute-by-minute, as public health officials try to figure out how to respond to the coronavirus. Some medical doctors believe the worldwide panic is unnecessary and the coronavirus numbers don’t constitute a global crisis. Herbalists are weighing in with best advice for natural treatments. We still don’t know if the virus is spread more by the oral-fecal route or by droplets in the air.

In the meantime, my oldest let us know this morning that her study abroad program in South Africa has been shut down. She’s on her way home. Our second’s college has just shuttered its campus. Public schools in our town have been canceled. Now the entire public library system is closed.

I have a colleague and friend, an American writer and editor, who is in Italy right now, deep in Italy’s coronavirus red zone.

I thought it would be useful to get his boots-on-the-ground report from Italy’s coronavirus red zone.

Here’s his story:

I stayed in the coronavirus red zone

As Italia’s red zone swelled south from Lombardia into Toscana, I resisted the panicked calls and texts from loved ones to flee. Each day I checked flights and considered paths back home, fretting about customs and quarantines, while not taking action.

“Get out of there!” one text said.

A few minutes another arrived: “You’re going to be trapped in Italy.”

Yes, the red zone was coming my way. In fact, I had already been in it: twice. I landed a couple of weeks earlier in Milano and had my temperature checked as I passed through customs. A week later, I took a trek to the Dolomiti Alps in a region that would soon have its newspaper filled with obituaries.

And yes, I wondered if I should heed my loved ones’ advice and leave.

But I didn’t.

Now the whole country is a coronavirus red zone. But I’m still not trapped. Not really. I’m an American and I can make my way to an airport through police stopping points to find one of the very few planes still leaving. It might take a few stops and a few days and hours in customs, but I could “get out” of the red zone.

But I’m staying in Italy. I have realized it is just as safe to be here as in the United States. Seeing the red zone first-hand, I knew it was coming to the U.S. as well. It was going to be everywhere. Reading about the collapsing medical system here I knew well what “home” would face. Think about cities like my home of San Francisco when tens of thousands show up in need of care. Will it be any different?

The U.S. is at the start of this thing. Italy, I hope, is nearing the end.

Stranieri in the red zone

By staying here I am part of the national quarantine. I’m riding out this unprecedented moment, Italia’s “darkest hour,” as Prime Minister Guiseppe Conti has called it, with the Italians. We’re in this coronavirus red zone together. Everywhere else seems to be too.

Coronavirus red zone. Photo of The historic walls that surround the gorgeous Italian city of Lucca in Tuscany. Lucca has a population of 88,000. | Jennifer Margulis

The historic walls that surround the gorgeous Italian city of Lucca in Tuscany are deserted now. Lucca has a population of 88,000.

I have been staying in Lucca. In the center of a city still surrounded by a 4.2 km circle of a wall. La mura as the wall is known, is a Medieval-era feat of scientific engineering self-defense that stands strong today. The inner part of the walls is a limited driving zone. Cars are kept out.

I’m a straniero, a foreigner, much like my Italian grandfather years ago in another time of great crisis when he fled the town where I am living now to come to America.

This town is a pedestrian paradise, home to the Maestro Giacomo Puccini. Opera is performed almost every night of the year. On any given day you can hear half a dozen different languages. The nightly appertivo brings people together to drink, talk, laugh and complain. (As an Italian-American I learned early, we Italians know how to complain! It’s an art form.)

Small local stores are still owned and operated by families, even as the chains grab a foothold in the shops next to them. The walls I mentioned are the community gathering place, full year-round with joggers, bikers, walkers, talkers, sitters, and game players. These walls don’t keep people out. Instead, they gather people together and foster community.

I live in paradise. Which is one of the many reasons why I didn’t want to leave even as the coronavirus red zone inched toward me.

But today every one of these things has been banned by law. “Tutti a casa,” they call it. All at home. It even has a Twitter hashtag #iorestocasa: I remain at home.

The Italian authorities have made compliance mandatory: Break the ban and spend the next three months in jail.

Most of my friends have seen their incomes stop. Completely. Nearly all businesses except the grocery stores are closed. Unlike in America, we have not run out of hand sanitizer or toilet paper. But the economy of a top ten GDP in the world is in ruins.

“We are again driven to our knees,” a friend of mine said.

It is the darkest hour.

The first days of lockdown in Italy, troubled times

The morning after the nationwide quarantine started, I peered out my window at the walls. When the first person walked by I felt some hope. Then another. Soon a jogger.

I laced up my running shoes, planning to go out for some morning exercise.

But I was fearful of polizia descending upon me as I opened my building door and inched out. It didn’t happen. I didn’t see any police officers. Or anyone else. The city was shuttered. Those caffes where the appertivo crowds gathered sat empty, umbrellas closed and tabled locked in piles. No one was enjoying the sun on the piazza. Puccini’s statue in front of his museum welcomed no visitors.

But on the walls, life remained. People were walking, biking, and jogging. They were respectful. Many wore masks. All practiced social distancing. That term wasn’t being used yet. We simply called it “un po ‘di cortesia,” a little bit of courtesy. People waved and smiled at me as I ran. The sun lifted us all. Even though we had been told a pandemic was starting, no one was catching the disease up there.

That was the first day. Things have changed.

Now if we venture out of our houses or apartments in Lucca, we’re required to have a downloaded form that says why and where we’re going. We have to write where we live, who we are are, and our destination.

We have to specify: “I am going to work.” Or “I have to buy groceries.” The police are stopping people and doing random checks. The downloaded forms are required so the police can be sure you are traveling from one destination to the other and back without getting “lost.” There is no giratine (wandering) these days.

Giratine means wandering in Italian. While we are on lockdown due to being in the coronavirus red zone, short necessary trips are allowed in Italy.

Giratine means wandering in Italian. While we are on lockdown due to being in the coronavirus red zone, short necessary trips (to buy food or go to work) are allowed in Italy.

I created a sheet to say I needed wine, so I could drive to a small local wine shop on my scooter, where I filled my bottles for 3 euros. I could buy wine in the city, but it’s hard not to go stir crazy. I welcomed the excuse for a little giratine.

On Facebook the other day an Italian posted a video while walking his dogs. Both had their papers in their mouths. Necessary reason for travel: They marked mi scappa la pipì, which means “I gotta pee really bad!”

More coronavirus deaths in Italy

Despite the quarantine, the number of deaths from coronavirus has continued to rise. Italy reported 368 deaths from the virus in just 24 hours.

The roads are nearly empty but ambulances still race by every hour or so. Their sirens indicating perhaps that another person afflicted by coronavirus headed to the hospital.

We already know the deaths from the coronavirus would happen like a wave with people infected before the quarantine getting sick and others succumbing to the illness even under quarantine. To understand this wave, please read this.

We’ve been told we need the quarantine to stop the wave in the weeks to come, not to change its path today or even tomorrow.

A lockdown gets more locked down

I didn’t think they could do more of a lockdown than we already had in place, but then they did.

They closed the wall in Lucca.

It doesn’t make much sense. But a beautiful Sunday was coming when ordinarily people flock to the walls. And the mayor of our town, Alessandro Tambellini, caught the virus. He’s in the hospital now.

Closing the wall in Lucca brought a new degree of darkness. I heard a woman shouting at a man who walked alone on the wall. Alone. People are posting angry, fearful, urgent messages of panic on social media.

Outside of the quarantine due to the fear of the coronavirus, the wall surrounding Lucca in Tuscany, Italy is a place where the community gathers together. | Jennifer Margulis

The community enjoying the wall, la mura, in Lucca, Italy during normal times.

The spirit of Italia rising

Italians have a wicked sense of humor. Memes, videos, cartoons, endless commentary about the coronavirus red zone, the lockdown, and life, in general, have flooded the internet and group texts. I have been keeping my windows open just to be a bit closer to others. I can hear their laughter and I’m sure they can hear my music.

Yesterday I went into a roped-off bakery where only one person was allowed to enter at time. I smiled broadly and greeted the weary person behind the counter. She pulled her mask down so I could see her smile as she greeted me back. For a moment or two, despite the small line outside, we did what we Italians do. We complained. It was fun.

“Buona giornata!” I called back as I left.

“Altrettanto!” she responded (“Same to you,”) instead of the more normal shorthand, “a lei.”


Red zone provisions.

I reached out to some friends whose income has crashed to a halt in recent days. Every tourist booking they had has been canceled. They responded with complaints and cheer. “We’re screwed but let’s make the most of it!” one said. Another reminded us that one can always make love in a time of pandemic if locked up with the right person. A third (perhaps facetiously) suggested we all learn to meditate.

“We’ll come back better than ever,” yet another friend insisted.

You may have read in the New York Times how under quarantine we’ve been singing together from our balconies. It’s magic. One of my friends is trying to sneak me a guitar into town so I can play along. I’m praying he succeeds.

Last night, another impromptu call made its way around, encouraging everyone to turn off their lights and light a candle in the window for one minute.

I played Buonanotte all’Italia by Ligabue as my candle flame sent out light and love.

I’m beyond fortunate. I didn’t catch the disease on either trip through Lombardi. I haven’t caught it here in Lucca either. Unlike my friends, as long as I have internet and access to a phone, I can continue to earn a living from my home.

But we’re not through this yet.

Italy is still a coronavirus red zone and many people are living in fear.

Our best hope is the quarantine will lift by April 3. Perhaps we can celebrate Easter in re-opened churches. I know one day soon healthy happy people will be walking on the wall, sipping latte macchiato in the outdoor cafés, and going to the opera again. I’m hoping that day is coming soon.

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