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What one Minnesotan learned from living under COVID-19 quarantine in Italy

In Tuscania, the town where I live in Italy, daily life has come to a standstill. 

Tuscania supermarket
A line forms outside a Tuscania supermarket March 16, just after an announcement is made that three cases of the virus have been confirmed in the town.
Photo by Lara Bockenstedt

In Tuscania, the town in central Italy where I live, daily life has come to a standstill for a nationwide quarantine in response to Covid-19. The main streets are empty. No markets. No social outings. Even the sparse back road people access for their daily walks or runs is bare. This shutdown is a big ask for a population that thrives on affection in their social life. And it’s frightening for a country still steeped in issues from the 2008 recession. Over the last month, many Italians have moved from a place of confusion and debate, to one of unity. 

There’s a possibility my home state could only be a few weeks behind Italy in restrictions concerning the coronavirus. Between Feb. 19 and 23, the number of reported cases in Italy jumped from less than five to more than 150. The current number is close to 41,000, including 3,405 deaths. 

So, what do nationwide restrictions to this extent look like? It boils down to the phrase Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte used when he announced the final set of changes on March 10: “Stay home.”

Jobs and businesses that haven’t been categorized as necessary are suspended; only pharmacies, supermarkets and newsstands are open. Police are stopping drivers within the city to ask where they’re heading, and why. Pedestrians and drivers are expected to carry a document called an autocertificazione explaining the outing. 

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In the first days under the restrictions I heard of friends of friends who had been stopped up to four times walking home in Rome. At the same time, other acquaintances managed to travel across regions without question. Individual exercise outside is permitted, but it is also frowned upon, and there’s the possibility you may be sent home anyway. Social gatherings are forbidden.

Instead, people are catching up with friends on video calls, taking online classes or just plain-jane staying home. We’re doing so until April 3, when the restrictions will let up. It’s a surreal situation in which a lot of what is happening around you is heard through word of mouth: That there are this many cases in a city close to you, or that a friend of a friend is in the hospital for the virus. 

It reminds me of those humid August nights in Minnesota when families watch the weather to see where severe storms will go, wondering if it will pass by a friend’s house or farm, or how bad it will get where you are. You might not see more than an angry sky from your window, but it’s easy enough to conjure an idea of what’s to come. 

Some weeks ago, the virus was only prominent in Northern Italy, and friends and family fiercely debated one another over the kitchen table, swaying between a you-only-have-to-wash-your-hands view, and a wariness of coronavirus becoming a global pandemic. 

Italians asked one another: Should we buy masks? Or would that cut the supply for truly vulnerable populations? Did masks even work? Misinformation brewed anxiety. Another prevalent discussion was about xenophobia. It’s important to note when restrictions do let up, Asian businesses in Italy will have been suffering a loss since early February.

On March 4, I was working on an online class in a neighboring city’s university library. The library was half-full when a student came in and whispered to a friend that a professor and a student had tested positive for coronavirus. Within the hour, students were urgently sent home. Later that day, schools and universities nationwide were closed until March 15. It was around then event cancellations started to become more common. 

When news leaked that Lombardy, the region in northern Italy that includes Milan, would become a red zone, many fled by train in the hours before the measure went into effect. Tensions escalated as some residents rushed home to seek the comfort of family, and others criticized the rule-breakers for having potentially brought the virus to other regions. 

Where I live in Tuscania, people still went outside for the occasional errand, unsure what we would find. And from the street, you could see hair stylists wearing face masks and gloves at work. Walkers maintained a 1-meter distance between each other, and everyone stopped greeting each other with kisses. 

It would be easy to paint the picture as one of fear, but Italians began affirming one another’s precautions, and took to social media. The hashtags #iorestoacasa (I’m staying home) and #andratuttobene (All will go well) were born. WhatsApp group chats filled with slapstick memes about the situation, which helped people laugh through all the unknowns.  

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In my boyfriend and his family’s apartment, we watched the prime minister announce the biggest lineup of restrictions on March 10. From that moment, much of the confusion was replaced with solidarity. Finally, communities had an actionable solution, even if it meant taking as little action as possible. 

As asked, most people are staying home, only leaving to buy groceries, gloves and masks. For those over the age of 65, who make up 23% of the population in Italy, and others who are immunocompromised, Italians have been having difficult conversations to convince one another to follow the measures. 

Tuscania is a town in central Italy, some 60 miles northwest of Rome by car.
Photo by Lara Bockenstedt
Tuscania is a town in central Italy, some 60 miles northwest of Rome by car.
You may have seen it on social media: mini-concerts are gracing neighborhood balconies all over Italy as the newly-quarantined arm themselves with tambourines and guitars to sing the national anthem, pop music and folk songs. Other gestures have been communicated on broadcast news, including the recognition of medical workers. These moments are heartening as the world looks to Italy, even as a spike of coronavirus cases made it the center of the outbreak in Europe. 

“Even though I haven’t heard the singing or the clapping,” said my friend Gina Luzzatto, who lives in Rome, “the stuff I see on social media and TV has really put a lump in my throat.” 

Isolation itself probably won’t be a new feeling to Minnesotans, who have long holed up through seasons of blizzards and polar vortexes. But it may be a bit harder to convince yourself to do so as spring arrives. I get it. But as part of the restrictions that are now being implemented across the state, Minnesotans might heed Italians’ efforts to maintain some social interactions with phone calls and video chats. For the people in our lives who have mental health difficulties, live by themselves, or are elderly, these check-ins will be critical. 

Minnesota officials may look at Italy’s response to COVID-19 as a cautionary tale. But Minnesotans who are currently bearing the brunt of the confusion, fear and resignation can know they aren’t alone in what they’re about to go through. In mid-March, the cover of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica featured a political cartoon of a couple looking out from their balcony. 

“We can do it,” the man says to the woman. “And even if we can’t, we’ll do it still,” she responds. 

Lara Bockenstedt is an Eden Prairie, Minnesota, native living in Italy while studying Italian and data analysis.