Thursday, 19 March 2020

Life in Italy in the Age of the Virus

I've been very touched by the number of friends who've messaged or phoned or emailed to see how I'm doing here in Italy in the Age of the Virus, and I would have posted here earlier but I was replying to them.

Well, everyone in Italy is staying at home as advised, which must be hell for the kids (and their parents), although a lot have been doing homeschooling and people are working at home. You can go food shopping and go to the chemists, and go to work if you are in food, manufacturing or distribution. You can walk the dog. Large banks and main post offices are open but everything else is shut. So no cafés, bars, cinemas, clothes shops, hairdressers, libraries, cemeteries, offices, leisure centres and so forth.

Fortunately I don't get easily bored and have plenty to keep me amused at home. There seems to be very little incidence of the virus here in the Province of Imperia and let's hope it stays that way.
However, with no new clothes and no haircuts, we're all going to end up looking like dishevelled Flintstones before long! I also suspect, with so little to amuse people at home, that there'll be a lot of December babies this year!

I don't like this word "lockdown" bandied about by the English-speaking press. Here in Italy, self-isolation and business closure is mainly voluntary. And people are doing it through a sense of community and to protect the most vulnerable. It's always the way: legislate all you like and people will do what they can to avoid paying their taxes or complying with the law; suggest a community approach and people jump to it.

I am delighted that people here are checking up on their elderly, disabled or sick neighbours by phone or entryphone without needing to be asked, doing shopping for them or walking their dogs, to minimise the risk they are exposed to. If this situation arises in your country too, please don't hesitate to make sure that people around you who would otherwise be very isolated get what they need: practical help and daily contact.

I'm also delighted that a company here on the coast that makes sails, for which there's no demand right now, has voluntarily turned its machines to making surgical masks instead.

But there are negatives. Many years ago I used to work in the British ministries, mainly on sickness policy as it happens. Making public policy involves taking as many factors as you can into account and weighing them carefully. There's usually no perfect balance or answer, and the overarching policies of the government you have will sway the approach. The long-term effects of this isolation policy on economic life, and on public health and social coherence could potentially be worse than the problem being dealt with. Staying at home is all very well in order to avoid infection, but getting less exercise increases obesity, already a major problem; social isolation greatly increases mental health problems and there has already been a rise in incidents of domestic violence here. Economic failure increases diseases associated with lower income, and suicide. So let's hope this drastic policy to protect the most vulnerable does work. This is the humane approach, the moral one, even though it is at the expense of the economy. However, the package of financial measures to help busineses and working people who are not operating is quite impressive. The next few days are critical and will show if the virus is being beaten or if failure means the government changes tack and we have to learn to live with the bug.

If I were to give one piece of important advice to individuals it's to take heed only of what reputable medical organisations are suggesting you do. Do NOT take advice from amateurs on social media, stuff in the papers (especially tabloids and magazines), or suggestions from leaders of dictatorial or dubious regimes (and that includes Britain and the USA). The World Health Organisation, the relevant health ministry or reputable medical and scientific journals should be your only source of advice.

Another piece of advice is to watch out for scams such as people offering to disinfect your home, people selling you face masks (most are of little use against viruses) or quacks offering remedies. I suspect people will soon be offering to do your shopping, take your cash ... and vanish. Never underestimate the dishonesty of some people who profit from situations like this. If you don't know them, don't trust them.

Also, learn to interpret statistics. An 8% death rate among diagnosed cases in hospital does not mean that that's the overall death rate, because you haven't taken all the other cases, including undiagnosed ones, into account. The fatality rate is much lower - still not a good rate, but don't spook yourself by misunderstanding figures that show only part of a picture.

It's weird times we're living in but human kindness and consideration are all it takes. You might even enjoy living at home for a bit. Here I can see families clearing years of accumulated junk in their garages, painting the house, spring cleaning, practising music and doing online courses. I've always loved working from home myself. Of course, if you don't live full time in your preferred gender then now could be a wonderful opportunity. I can tell you that my nails have never looked prettier! Enjoy the weirdness, friends, keep yourselves well by following good advice, and look out for one another and the more needy.

Sue x


  1. "...but human kindness and consideration..."

    Yes, that sounds a good place. I hope you are safe and well. Ignoring the media may well do us all a lot of good.

    1. I'm OK, thanks. On a purely selfish basis, I find the situation merely mildly frustrating. Globally, though, I worry for people who aren't used to home time, or restrictions, or who are losing jobs or business. I am fearful that this policy might not work and leave a dire financial situation for millions with the virus still on the rampage and democratic politicians and scientists discredited. It's a hell of a gamble. But always try to be kind, that's my policy. Best wishes to you and yours in these awkward times. Sue x