A little over a week ago, I contacted an Italian friend of mine, Lisa Lígabue, to check in on her, her boyfriend Tommi, and their families. It was 3:45 a.m. on March 12, 2020. I'd been reading intently about coronavirus (COVID-19) all day and night. I will remember that day for being different. It seemed to be the moment that many Americans finally woke up to the seriousness of the crisis we were in. That night President Trump decided to finally address this emergency as a serious matter in an Oval Office address. So I read, and read, and blew right through midnight without noticing.
The most concerning reporting I was reading was from Italy. The tragedy that was unfolding there was surreal. I'd been watching it for several days, and it was getting worse by orders of magnitude on a daily basis, as viral pandemics do. I hoped somehow it wasn't really this bad; I hoped it was a case of gross exaggeration in the media. The more I read, the more it squarely put my friend Lisa on my mind.
Lisa lives in Northern Italy, in Bagnolo in Piano, a commune (municipality) in the Province of Regio Emelia. Her parents live in the next town over, Correggio. We became friends through common friends. I first had the chance to meet Lisa and her boyfriend Tommi during their visit to Washington, DC last summer.
As I watched this Italian story unfolding for a few days I began to wonder how Lisa was doing, and to worry too.
As I was settling into bed, I sent Lisa a quick message on Facebook Messenger to ask how she was. I figured I'd hear back from her and read her response the next morning. But she replied right away with a series of gripping voice messages describing what was happening around her. This article is our discussion. She asked me to please share her and Italy's experience.
"Yes please! Share it with as many people as possible!," she urged. "Other countries cannot do what Italy did . . . underevaluate the problem!"
I have therefore edited our conversation for ease. Please consider it a warning of what may be coming our way, bearing in mind the difference you have the power to make for good or bad. Lisa not only warns us, but pleads with us to take the example of Italy's mistakes to heart and do whatever we can to avoid the same fate.
Me: How are you? I see things aren't going well in Italy. Are you, Tommi, and your families okay?
Lisa: Hi Jim, so we are all good. Thank god. By now, me, Tommy, and my family are doing good.
Yeah, things are not that good though, in Italy, in general.
Yesterday our prime minister announced that . . . so at the begging it was only 10 towns in the north of Italy to be under lock down. Then last week he declared though, northern Italy, also where we are from, declared . . . it’s not called a lockdown, but a “red zone” which means we can only get out to go to work. But two days ago, he extended the “red area” to the whole country. And yesterday he announced that all the shops that are not necessary will close. That means any shop that is not a food shop or a supermarket or a pharmacy.
So, we’re not allowed to get out of the house unless we need to go to work, or in case of health emergencies, or in case of necessity. So, to go to the supermarket and stuff like that. And we need to keep a declaration form in the car, ‘cause if the cops stop us in the middle of the street we need to declare where we are going and why we are going there. Otherwise we get a ticket and you can also go to jail.
So we will be staying at home for the next three weeks. We have been very, very careful even when we are at work. Companies are starting to allow “smart work.” So I will start from today. I’m at home from work, but I will be working. I will alternate with my colleague. Tommy is doing the same.
The problem here in Italy is that the number of sick people is getting higher and higher every day. The problem is that our health system is not suitable to accept that many people at the same time. So we need to prevent the virus from spreading, so that we try to lower the probability of people getting sick, and the hospitals don’t get too crowded. Because beds in intensive therapy are finished, pretty much. And that is the main problem. That if the number of sick people keeps increasing, they will have to start choose who to cure and who to not. So in case of two people get there at the same time, a 25-year-old student and a 60-year-old father, they will probably choose to cure the 25 year-old student, because he has a higher probably to survive and much more years of life left than the 60-year-old father of family. So, this is not what we want, so, we need to prevent that.
In Italy they are rearranging all the hospitals because, for example, the ER in the hometown that my parents live, is closed now because it is not suitable for emergencies like coronavirus. So, they are rearranging all the hospitals.
If you want to help us, please share this Go Fund Me link; we are raising money for the hospital in my hometown: We Help the Intensive Care Unit of Santa Maria.
Coronavirus, inside the intensive care unit
So the video shows, pretty much, that there are these tents outside of the hospital, so that when people think that they might be effected by coronavirus, they go there and they do not go inside the hospital and risk spreading the disease to other people. So they go in these tents in which they will measure fever and all of the symptoms, etc. etc. In case there is a real suspicion of coronavirus, then they will bring them inside the hospital for all the tests.
You can see doctors wearing, all the doctors where these white uniforms with these glasses, and they need to work 12-14 hours a day. They cannot go to the bathroom or they have to change their uniform, and they cannot scratch their face.
And the video says that as soon as they move someone to another hospital, that free bed gets occupied again by someone else, and it never stops. It’s always full of people getting in. And it shows people laid down in the opposite way, like with their belly on the bed . . . I don’t know how to say that in English . . . because they say that sometimes the disease is so bad, that not even the machine is able to allow them breath properly, so they put them in that position so that breathing becomes easier, and with help of the machinery they are able to survive. So this is why you see them laid down in that way.
As for the hospitals in my province, that is the Province of Reggio Emilia, so we have the main hospital, that is the one we are raising funds for in the link that I sent to you. So, that is the main hospital for the province. Then there are other hospitals, and they are rearranging all the activities in all of the hospitals. So, like, for example, my parents live in the town of Correggio — that is the town where I have been living for my whole life — they closed the ER in Correggio, because it is not suitable for an emergency like this one. So, if we need to go to an ER, we have to go to Reggio Emilia which is the big main hospital.
And then one other big hospital is in a town called Guastalla, where there is also a midwifery department, so where kids . . . ummm . . . or mom’s give birth. They closed that area, so now if someone needs to give birth, they need to go to the main hospital in Reggio Emilia, because the hospital in this town of Guastalla, will be completely dedicated to the coronavirus emergency. And in this way they are trying to separate from pregnant people, and that way the midwifery moves to another hospital.
And I don’t know the exact reason why they don’t do tests to suspect sick people. But I think, you know, we have a public health system, so I think it is either because it is very expensive, or because we are running out of it. We exceeded the 10,000th certified cases. We did, I think, around 50,000 tests. I saw that in the U.S. one test costs between $3,700 more or less. Here, they do it for free, because we have a public health system. So they are trying not to exceed the tests.
But we are all fine for now. Hopefully we won’t get sick. I’m not able to see my parents because they live in the town next to me but we are not able to travel from one town to the next. So, I won’t see them for at least three weeks. Thanks for asking.
Me: Hi Lisa! How are things today?
Lisa: We are good! Stayed at home all day, cleaned the whole house like I never did before.
Me: How did you do that under the current restrictions? How are they allowed to move around?
Lisa: Restaurants are only allowed to deliver food. They can work and drive around under the "work" exception. They need to wear masks and gloves, and must stay one and a half meters away from the customer.
Lisa: We're out shopping for groceries right now. There is a line outside for the supermarket so that the market does not become too crowded.
Me: Everyone is overbuying at the grocery stores here, leaving empty shelves. What, if anything, are you seeing there in the news about the U.S. reaction?
Lisa: I saw people rushing to shops to buy guns.
Now all they countries are starting to realize the big problem. Shops are kind of refurnished but there was not a lot of meat and fish. I went shopping to buy food for the next week. So we should be fine until Tuesday.
My family is doing well . . . a little scared for my grandfather (he’s 89 years old). He has having health problems in the last few months.