Warning: this is NOT a fun blog post.
I’m doing my PhD at EMBL Rome, but I’ve lived most of my life in Milan, and I have family, friends and acquaintances a bit everywhere in Northern Italy. I know that many people out there, in Italy, but especially in other European (and non-European) Countries which haven’t been affected as much as we have yet, still don’t believe that the Covid-19 pandemic is a serious issue. Many people still take it lightly, many people still think we are exaggerating, they still go to concerts, parties, pubs, to dinner with their friends, and even to the lab (J’accuse! some very work-obsessed PIs for this).
Well, to these people, I want to say: I get it, because so did we.
When the first cases of Covid-19 arose in the country I didn’t particularly worry. Almost nobody worried. I thought it would turn out just like SARS, and it would disappear fairly quickly. Little did I know…
When the cases started increasing, we still didn’t worry. We should have worried, but we didn’t.
The citizens of Milan did start to worry, though, and the rest of us, I’m ashamed to say, made fun of them. They started wearing masks and gloves on the subway, and they raided the supermarkets. One guy was spotted wearing a gas-mask – and, boy, did we laugh at him! I wish I could apologize to him now, but I’ll do the next best thing, and admit that I was the foolish one.
Oh, by the way, if you’d like to know what pasta type is the most hated by Italians, it’s unanimously “penne lisce” (smooth penne), the only food item left on Milanese supermarket shelves.
A big part of the issue was that we had received conflicting information from doctors and experts, ranging from “We should quarantine everyone coming back from China” to “This is much ado about nothing! It’s just a slightly more severe flu.” The mortality rate was estimated to be around 1%, but the issue was still being minimized because “Anyway, the flu kills more people every year” and “In reality, only old people and people with preexisting conditions die” (I mean, is this even an argument?).
This is when a tiny bell rang in my head, and I thought “Ok, wait a second. 1% mortality rate is not that little. If the infectivity is high, and there are 60 million of us in this funny boot-shaped country, there could potentially be… 600,000 deaths.”.
In reality, we cannot know for sure the mortality rate because most infected people are asymptomatic and, so far, they’ve been testing only people with severe symptoms. What we know for sure though is that the virus spreads quickly and can be transmitted even before the symptoms appear… You see where I’m going with this: it was a time-bomb, ready to explode.
To make an unfortunate short story, even shorter: the situation escalated pretty quickly. It was not even two weeks ago that I was sitting in a pub with my colleagues, sipping a nice cocktail in the Pigneto neighborhood of Rome on a Saturday evening, the three of us very on edge, wondering whether we should be out there at all (no, we shouldn’t have), and able to talk about nothing else but Covid-19 and the fact that they had just decided to lock-down Lombardy, the most affected Northern region of Italy. In the meantime, I was chatting with some friends in Milan, one of whom is a doctor, and I asked her if the situation was really that bad. She replied with a very long voice message: “Yes. There aren’t enough ventilators for everyone in the hospitals. I’ve heard they are starting not to give assisted ventilation to patients who are above 70 and have a co-morbidity” (I dare you to find me an entirely healthy 70-year old). “They can’t save everyone, so they are prioritizing patients with a higher chance of recovery. There is a lot of tension in the hospital, they are having to shut down new wards every day, to redirect them towards treating Coronavirus patients. Many doctors are being redirected towards managing the emergency as well. If we don’t contain the infection, our health care system will collapse.”
It was like a cold shower.
I can’t describe the feeling I got after hearing that message, and yet I can’t shake it away. I have lived in this country for over 20 years, and in all this time, the idea that someone could be denied treatment never crossed my mind. In our public health care scheme, everyone gets treated. No one is poor enough, sick enough or foreign enough, that if they walk through the emergency room, they’ll be turned away. This was new to me, and it shook my certainties to the core. Access to health care is a fundamental right, only until there are enough resources for everyone.
It’s an obvious concept, really, but having seen all my life the medical staff go above and beyond to ensure that even terminally ill patients receive all the possible treatments until the very end, this shocked me, maybe more than it should have.
At this very same time, overworked, sleep-deprived, exhausted and heart-broken doctors and nurses from Lombardy hospitals started reaching out to the outside world, with a synergistic and surreal cry for help: “Please stay at home”. “This is a critical situation, we are working non-stop, we are tired, we don’t have enough staff, beds or equipment to deal with the increasing number of patients. You have to stay at home, it’s the only way.”. Many of them hadn’t gone to their home in weeks, for fear of transmitting the virus to their families, and they had been temporarily stripped of their right to take leaves, even.
At this point, no one in Italy was laughing anymore.
As I said, things escalated quickly, and the next day the whole of Italy was declared red zone and, soon enough, we were all put under house arrest, asked not to go outside if not for necessary reasons, such as going to the supermarket.
Now, we weren’t laughing anymore… but we were being laughed at.
Someone even said we were simply looking for an excuse to take a long siesta, because we’re Italians and, after all, we don’t really like to work. My friends and family up North have been home-bound for three weeks now. I’ve been at home for over a week, and I can already say that yes, it gets very hard at times. Despite my best efforts to stay positive, focus on work, cook nice meals, exercise regularly and Skype daily with friends and family, it gets claustrophobic, especially in a tiny apartment.
But is it worth it?
Yesterday, I texted a few friends from Bergamo, the city mostly affected so far by the pandemic (our very own Wuhan), to see how they and their families were doing. They are fine, luckily. They all caught the virus, together with their families. It took 10 days of bed rest, but they are fine. “My grandparents have a fever now, but we’re keeping them monitored, so overall we’re fine.”, one of them told me. “Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for friends and acquaintances. It’s a real mass slaughter around here. They’ve waited too long to declare us red zone, and the biggest industries are still open. There are no beds left in intensive care. You need to be on the phone for at least an hour to be able to talk with an ambulance, they are occupied at all times. Pharmacies have run out of oxygen because many people are ‘hospitalized’ at home. All we ever hear anymore are ambulances and Church bells announcing the new deaths. I don’t know how long it’s going to last, I’m very worried. It’s a real nightmare.” A less detailed, but similar account, came from my other friend “My family and I are fine now, but the situation here is excruciating. Not a day goes by without a friend losing a loved one. I hope this ends soon, and doesn’t reach any other region. I think things will improve with the new restrictions, let’s hope!”
Funerals are currently forbidden in Italy, indefinitely postponed, together with every other type of gathering. When someone gets sick with Covid-19, the whole family gets quarantined, and in case of death, family members aren’t even allowed one last goodbye. They may not even be able to cry together, if they aren’t quarantined in the same house, let alone be comforted by the embrace of a friend’s hug.
Several days ago, in Bergamo, seventy army trucks had to be employed in order to transfer the bodies of the victims to different cities, because there was simply no room left in Bergamo’s mortuary and crematory.
So, going back to the question: is it worth it? Yes.
We should not allow another Bergamo, or another Wuhan. As cases in Milan keep increasing because not all of the businesses have been closed yet (yes, our precious economy comes first, and it’s worth protecting with our loved-one’s lives), and hospitals there are reaching their maximum capacity, with my heart in pieces I’m joining the choir of those asking you to please, stay at home.
Avoid unnecessary outings, unnecessary gatherings, unnecessary social contacts. Stay a safe distance from one-another. Do not hug, do not kiss, do not touch one another. Don’t let your town become another Bergamo.
If you think this doesn’t really concern you because you are young and most likely won’t be affected personally, think again: if the health care system is saturated with Covid-19 cases, there is nothing left for anyone else.
In many areas of Italy, you can no longer be hospitalized or take any kind of medical examination, unless it’s urgent. Life-threatening urgent. I believe each one of us has a social responsibility towards the most vulnerable categories of society. In this moment, these are the elderly, but also the immuno-compromised, which include for example all of those who are currently undergoing chemotherapy to fight cancer.
It’s important that we all stay at home, because unless we all get tested (and we won’t), there is no way of knowing who’s infected. We are all potential carriers, even if young and healthy. My cousin is in her thirties, she lives in London. She hasn’t been in Italy in six months. She’s at home sick now, displaying the symptoms of the Covid-19 infection. She isn’t happy, it’s quite painful, she has trouble breathing and can’t sleep at night because of it, but she’ll be fine. Just like most of us young and healthy individuals, she knew the pandemic is real, but for some reason she never thought it could reach her. She was fine last week, without a care in the world. Then she had a small intermittent cough, and now she knows she’s sick, but she doesn’t know who she got it from, and who she might have transmitted it to while she was asymptomatic. It’s not her fault, she had to go to work. Well, now her firm is closed, and everyone is staying home. Maybe, it would have been better if they had stayed home sooner. I also have a cough now. It could be anything, but I’m not worried, because I’m already staying at home.
You don’t know if you have caught the virus either. Just stay at home.
It’s my way of making up for this absolutely not fun blog post.
Happy quarantine to all!