A Roman’s Account of Life Under Coronavirus Lockdown

There aren’t many tourists around at the moment. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP via Getty Images

Italy has been one of the countries hardest hit by the coronavirus; as of Tuesday, it had reported more than 10,000 cases and more than 600 deaths. This week, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte took the radical step of extending emergency measures put in place for the devastated north to the entire country. Flavia, a 74-year-old culture and arts publicist in Rome, gave Intelligencer a firsthand account of what life has been like in the Eternal City, as she tries to find a rational path between cavalier disregard and outright panic.

Everything’s quiet, except for the parks, which are full. People are trying to keep some distance from each other — or the adults are, anyway. Until yesterday evening, teenagers were all out in pubs, and they always crowd together. Now the authorities have tightened the screws, but they’ll have to perform inspections, because the kids don’t care at all about the virus. So far, only old people have died, so it’s easy to think, Well, they were already sick, they were going to die anyway.

Adults have adapted better — although when the new restrictions went into effect, they laid siege to the supermarkets. The government promised that supplies would continue flowing and that trucks would get through. But rationality is scarce. Anyway, I didn’t need to stock up. I always have a full refrigerator, so I’m good for a month.

The only silver lining is that since the restaurants near me are empty in the evening, I can find a parking space pretty quickly when I come home. I’m not crazy about taking public transit. Even though a lot of people are working from home, at rush hour, buses are full. The government asks people to keep a safe distance, but it’s not like they can provide a separate tram for each passenger. The last time I was on one, I let out a sneeze, and three or four people got off.

I’ve heard some people say the virus is a U.S. conspiracy to weaken China, and the cases they have in America are just to make it seem like it’s not targeted. Other people say, Oh, the whole thing is exaggerated, it’s not so bad, nothing’s going to happen. But if 100 people need specialized treatment, and you only have room for five, what are you going to do? We don’t have the structures to deal with a full-blown epidemic. I’ve heard they’re talking about evacuating non-coronavirus patients from ICUs in the north and distributing them around the country.

Romans still feel like it’s not going to come here, although I don’t know why they would think that. It always seems like someone else’s problem. I was in Berlin two weeks ago, and nobody was talking about it or taking any kind of precautions at all. It was as if they thought that a  bug would respect borders.

We’ve closed our office, not out of fear but because with all cultural activities at a halt there’s not much for us to do anyway. We spent a year working on an exhibition that was about to open, then didn’t. We’ve had films that weren’t released, and a festival that was postponed. Until the movie theaters closed, the operators were leaning on distribution companies to give them something to show, but they could only do that for weak films, so nobody went.

Economically, it’s a disaster. All my friends and colleagues are self-employed or have small businesses and they’re all broke. Whatever you’ve managed to collect has to last. I have to go to the bank and ask them to extend our credit line, which will buy us another month. But this may well last longer, and it’s not as if when things start up again, they’re going to pay us the next day. The worst thing is, I have all this obligatory free time but nowhere to go to enjoy it. A few friends were supposed to get together in someone’s apartment, and they canceled. I said, Oh, come on, we’re all healthy; we can’t infect each other. But my friends are kids, and they’re scared.

The emergency measures aren’t sustainable. It feels like we’re suspended in a bubble. People are following the rules for now because they’re obliged. But there’s a certain fatalism in Italy, and it’s making things worse. Italians aren’t especially prone to obedience. If things get better and they see an end point, maybe they can stick to it. But if things continue getting worse, then people will say, It’s not helping anyway, so why bother? You either have a civic spirit or you don’t. Maybe if we did like the Chinese and shot people who were fleeing the red zone, the virus wouldn’t have propagated. But we don’t do that here. Fortunately, this isn’t a dictatorship.

A Roman’s Account of Life Under Coronavirus Lockdown