Friday, March 27, 2020

The new normal: Living with the Coronavirus boogeyman in Lucca

The number of new COVID-19 cases in Italy rose Thursday, and the figures for today are virtually the same as yesterday. In addition, the daily death total increased to 919, the highest yet. This, despite the fact that restrictions in Italy are much more severe than in the United States. To keep us informed of what life there is like, I have another report from Jonell Galloway in Lucca.

Here in Italy, we’re walking, but we’re not going anywhere. We’ve not lost our way; we’re just charting new territory. Today in the region of Lombardy alone, where the coronavirus outbreak started, there were 3,594 new cases — 900 more than yesterday — and 6,153 new ones in all of Italy. Following four days of gradually improving numbers, the rate of infection has risen. After two and half weeks of total shutdown and even longer self-isolation, we’re feeling more and more like prisoners, yet it’s not like prison because we’re confident that we are doing this for the good of all.
A tent outside the hospital in Lucca. Serchioindiretta photo.
The national decrees regarding free movement are revised and made tighter every couple of days. The national government posts these rules online and newspapers try to translate them into a language everyone can understand. Local officials have a right to make additional decrees. Every time we go out, we’re supposed to print out a form called an “autocertificazione,” or “self-certification,” stating the time and purpose of our outing. These forms also change every couple of days, so you can’t keep up with them. The rules of the game keep changing, making it difficult to know what you can and can’t do on any given day, which keeps us reading from morning to night.

Giacomo Puccini reflects on calmer times
outside his home in Lucca.
The Chinese have sent a medical team of 14 to Tuscany to help train locals in coronavirus intervention. They also send masks and other medical supplies on a regular basis. Today, the Russians airlifted 104 military doctors, medics, and virologists along with 100,000 masks, 85,000 protective suits, and 30 ventilators to Bergamo, the hardest hit town. It was impressive to see images of them driving into town in military vehicles. In Lucca, a local shoe factory has converted its operations to manufacture masks. Prisoners all over the country have been rioting because, like everyone else, their visiting rights have been removed. The local prison happens to be across the street from us and is one of the only ones that hasn’t. As of this writing, Italy has lost 37 doctors and 2 dentists to the virus. Sadly, there are no official figures on the number of other medical personnel who have died of coronavirus in Italy.

The streets are surreally empty. The only humans we encounter are the occasional dog-walkers or odd shopper and policemen in their patrol cars. Unusually, everyone seems to follow the rules now, wanting to do what’s right (and knowing that if they don’t, they face stiff fines), but people interpret the decrees differently. For example, the decrees state that we are allowed to go outdoors alone for exercise (but not for group sports), as long as we stay near home. Yesterday I went Nordic walking in my neighborhood and ventured about 300 meters from my house. The police stopped me and asked for my address, then told me to go straight home, saying they didn’t want to see me in the streets again. In their view, we’re only allowed to go 200 meters from home. Okay, right, but that’s not what’s stated in the local newspapers. A lot of information is left open to interpretation and I can only assume it was the police who arbitrarily decided on this distance. So today, I simply walked around the block about a dozen times and the cops drove by without a word.

The churches, which are normally open until 6 p.m., are sometimes open and sometimes closed. The food shops keep shortening their hours and the main supermarket outside town said it was no longer taking online orders, so I assume home delivery is no longer possible.

I make all our meals from scratch, as I have always done, and viewing the circumstances, we think it’s safer that way. In any case, there aren’t really any options since all the restaurants including takeout have been closed for weeks. I find myself cooking a lot of comfort food like pasta and polenta and, being in Tuscany, a lot of meat. Last night, it was bistecca alla fiorentina with Tuscan country-style roast potatoes made with olive oil, rosemary, sage and bay leaves. Since most food is produced locally — kilometer zero, as the Italians like to say — the shelves are still full. And most surprisingly of all, perhaps not, I crave foie gras and quiche. Before this, I swore I was off French food.

There is no more “normal.” Life changes by the day, sometimes by the hour, but it’s a case of “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” We are consumed by news of COVID-19. In my fervent imagination, there is a boogeyman lurking around every corner, waiting to jump out at me whenever I emerge. Coronavirus is a stealthy, invisible enemy. It feels like the walls of this ancient city are crumbling around us and we have only ourselves to fall back on.

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