From Apertivo to lockdown: students describe the Italian coronavirus outbreak

Irish students on Erasmus in Italy share testimonials about COVID-19’s progression from rumour to outbreak to nationwide quarantine

Although one’s Erasmus is meant to be a year of life-changing experiences and unexpected adventures, for students studying in Italy, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has taken this way too far.  “I think one of my big takeaways from the lockdown is how suddenly life can change,” said Tilly Lyons, a third-year Trinity student. “One moment you’re worried about where to go for aperitivo and university assignments, and in the space of a few days you’re living under what feels like martial law.”

Tilly was on her European Studies-mandated Erasmus year in Rome when Italy’s first coronavirus cases appeared. Consisting of isolated instances of quickly-quarantined tourists, it seemed for a while that the Italian state had the situation well under control. “There was even celebration in Rome as doctors in the Spallanzani hospital isolated the virus,” she recalled. “The President praised the success of Italian medical advancements.” Although Italians were generally aware of the outbreak in Wuhan, China, there was little in the way of public fear that a domestic outbreak would follow. “From what I’ve learned so far in my time in Rome is that Italians can be hypochondriacs, blaming illnesses on not wearing a scarf and being struck by a ‘shot of wind,’” Tilly continued. “So the fact they weren’t panicking about the virus was reassuring to me.”

Ailbhe Kelly, a Trinity student on Erasmus in Milan, agreed. “Very few people in Italy were talking about it until mid-to-late February,” she said. “I became concerned when there had been a significant rise in cases and all universities in Lombardy were closed.” Over the course of a single weekend, the number of known cases in Italy had jumped from just three to over 150. In reaction to the outbreak’s sudden spread, eleven municipalities containing 50,000 people in Lombardy’s Lodi province, which borders Milan, were put under quarantine on February 21, 2020.

“There have been jokes that our grandparents’ crisis was going to war but all we’ve been asked to do is stay in bed”

The rest of the country reacted to the Lombardy outbreak with uncertainty. “I was in Siena when the outbreak hit and the train back was a totally different experience to the train up there,” Tilly said. Passengers “were sitting as far apart as possible,” and “Trenitalia [Italy’s primary train operator] was disinfecting the doors every few stops.” A woman sitting nearby Tilly spent the train trip on the phone, loudly theorizing that the outbreak was a right-wing excuse to close borders. But as Tilly recounted, the precautionary measures taken by the rail service “instilled me with a lot of confidence that the government was on top of it.”

Danielle Comerford, a Maynooth student on Erasmus in Trento, a city in the Italian Alps, expressed a similar sentiment. “Everybody was definitely a little on edge because it’s such an unknown thing; but at the beginning, especially before the quarantine, life was pretty normal,” she said. “We all did large shops just in case but the only thing the shop ran out of was pasta… which is so typical of Italians,” she added.

Tilly also reported a pasta-specific supermarket shortage, with one noticeable exception. “One thing that made me laugh was that even with a potential pandemic on the horizon, there were still particular brands and types of pasta the Italians just wouldn’t buy,” she said, recalling otherwise “completely empty shelves that still had a good 10-15 bags of penne lisce.”

Occasional bouts of disaster-prepping aside, Tilly concluded from her vantage point of Rome that at the time the outbreak remained “still very much a northern problem.” Symptomatic of Italy’s larger “North-South divide,” she described how “signs went up on hotels in the south saying ‘Vietato ai settentrionali’ (Northerners forbidden)” and noted that one Neapolitan “joked that for once the north can’t blame the south for its problems.” The extent to which the coronavirus would evolve into an all-Italy problem was not yet apparent.

The situation within Lombardy itself felt more dire. “Me and my friends were shocked by how quickly the situation seemed to spiral,” Ailbhe recalled. “When the universities closed, swimming pools, gyms, and nightclubs also closed. All of my Erasmus friends immediately returned home and my Italian friends returned to their homes outside of the city.” Milan, an urban area of more than five million people, had emptied out—empty metro stations, empty supermarket shelves, and an empty square in front of the Duomo.

Ailbhe ultimately opted to return home when Lombardy extended its university closures for a third week, which was fortunate timing, as “only two days later they announced the lockdown of the region.” On March 8, 2020, Italian Prime Minister Conte announced that the existing 50,000-person quarantine would be extended to cover the whole of Lombardy as well as parts of the Veneto and Emilia-Romagna regions—all told, an area encompassing over 16 million people. The quarantine closed many public spaces, imposed a one-meter requirement of social distancing, and restricted travel in or out or the region except in cases of “proven work needs, emergencies, or health reasons” under threat of three months’ jail time. People across the newly declared ‘red zone’ rushed for the last trains out – a move which likely served to accelerate the virus’s spread south.

“When she reached out to Trinity to ask about the implications on her academics of voluntarily returning to Dublin, she received only a warning ‘not to come into Trinity College’ if she did so.”

“Many people I spoke to on Monday in Rome told me there was very little chance of them implementing a similar lockdown in the rest of the country,” said Tilly. But she knew that the number of coronavirus cases in the south, though far fewer, were growing at a similar rate to those in the north. An extension of the lockdown seemed only a matter of time.

Wanting to avoid the possibility of becoming trapped in Italy, Tilly booked a flight home for the next day. This turned out to be a prophetic move, as the lockdown was extended to cover the whole country that very evening. For a moment, there was some uncertainty about whether she would be able to escape the ensuing lockdown. Luckily, as a foreign citizen, Tilly was able to board one of the last flights out of Rome, though not before braving a security line where each person had to remain coughing-distance apart; she could finally relax on her flight back to Dublin on a plane where every other seat was blocked off in the name of social distancing.

Not every Irish student in Italy made it out of the lockdown. Danielle was on a side trip to Bratislava, Slovakia with two friends when the Lombardy quarantine began. Having decided to travel when her Erasmus host university closed for the week, Danielle rushed back to campus in Trento on the morning of March 9th without her travel companions. “I had a feeling the region was going to be quarantined,” she explained, and wanted to have access to her belongings in Trento before that happened. Danielle’s return came just in time as the whole-country lockdown was announced just hours after she arrived back in Trento.

Danielle’s friends were not able to make it back to Italy from Slovakia, and have since made it home to Ireland. While Danielle as an Irish citizen is technically allowed to leave the Italian lockdown, with flights out of Italy cancelled and borders with surrounding countries closed, returning home herself is not possible for the foreseeable future. “In a way it would be nice to be at home because it’s comforting in this kind of situation,” she said, “but I also love this country and I came here because I wanted to be here and I still do.” At least until the scheduled lifting of the lockdown on April 3, Danielle is in Trento to stay.

The Italian lockdown now surpasses the Wuhan lockdown in terms of the sheer number of affected individuals. And though not quite as strict as the Chinese government, Italy has imposed a stringent set of rules upon its citizenry. “Before Tuesday, the lockdowns here and in Lombardy and Veneto as well were a little more relaxed,” Danielle said. “Bars were allowed to stay open from 6 am to 6 pm so long as people could stay at least a meter apart.”

Over the course of the past week, however, the quarantine has grown progressively stricter, with people allowed to travel only to go to the pharmacy or supermarket, on urgent work business, or to return home. “There are police out to make sure people have not left their homes without a good motivation,” Danielle reported. Though she qualified that the extent to which penalties for noncompliance will be enforced is still up in the air, the Italian government does not seem inclined to treat trespassers lightly. If a person repeatedly breaks the quarantine, “you can be fined, put in prison up to three months or, in the case of showing symptoms of the virus, I have been told the offence can be the same as manslaughter—so 5+ years in prison,” Danielle says.

According to Tilly and Ailbhe, word from Italian friends stuck inside the lockdown conveys worry, anxiety, and boredom in equal measures. “There have been jokes that our grandparents’ crisis was going to war but all we’ve been asked to do is stay in bed,” said Tilly. Yet Italians thus far seem to be treating quarantine, inglorious as it is, with the same sort of civic duty that war incited in previous generations.

“Everybody – my friends and housemates – seems very concerned with doing their part to limit the spread by respecting the rules and following sanitary protocols,” Danielle reported. Considering the sacrifices that doctors and nurses across the country have made to combat the virus, she opined that, “I don’t have a lot of respect for anybody complaining about or disrespecting the quarantine when it seems the absolute least we can do to help the situation.”

“ I think the sense of community that has come out in Italy recently is really inspiring; they don’t share the belief that it’s a given for the old and immunocompromised to die if they get sick.”

With the situation evolving so rapidly, universities like Trinity were forced to walk a difficult line between over- and under- reacting to the outbreak in regards to students on Erasmus. According to Ailbhe, as the outbreak’s spread was “escalating in the north,” the Senior Tutor sent out a letter to all Erasmus students in Italy “asking us to update the college on our situations and locations.” While she clarified that “at no point was I requested to return home,” Ailbhe explained that they were “advised to follow the advice of our host universities and to follow the online learning process.” Ultimately, the choice of whether to leave or stay was left up to the individual student, which both Ailbhe and Tilly appeared to appreciate.

However, for at least Tilly, a greater amount of communication from Trinity would not have been unwelcome. “Being on Erasmus in Italy felt like being in limbo,” said Tilly. “No one expects them to offer us a cure for coronavirus but we just want to feel like we haven’t been forgotten abroad.” She reported that Trinity’s first Erasmus-specific communications on COVID-19 came “a week after the outbreak began” in Italy, which was a few days after the first COVID-19 emails were sent to students on campus in Dublin. When she reached out to Trinity to ask about the implications on her academics of voluntarily returning to Dublin, she received only a warning “not to come into Trinity College” if she did so. “I felt as though I didn’t receive reassurance from the college about my situation,” she concluded.

One overarching question is whether or not Italy could have done more to prevent the outbreak from reaching the level of severity that it has, and, subsequently, whether countries like Ireland can avoid any such similar missteps. “I keep hearing people say the Italians were not proactive in trying to prevent the virus, but I think it is more a case of them having been extremely unlucky with how things have played out,” Tilly opined. Ailbhe seemed to agree, stating that “the Italian government have taken serious measures to try to slow the spread as much as possible” but adding that “it seems that the delay in finding ‘patient zero’ at the beginning was a major issue.”

The measures that Ireland just took on March 12th- temporarily closing schools and universities and recommending restrictions on public gatherings – are, though far less extensive than Italy’s lockdown, a significant step towards slowing the virus’s spread in Ireland. However, a significant portion of this effort relies on people in Ireland taking the threat seriously. “I would advise people to chill out, stay home and take precautions- especially if you are sick or in an infected area- and just comply with the regulations which are being put in place,” Danielle said. “It’s frustrating but it’s for a very, very good reason… Nobody benefits from the spread of the virus, and it’s all of our responsibility to manage it.”

Tilly echoed this sentiment. “What I’ve learned from the past few weeks in Italy is that the virus is not an individual problem,” she said. “Saying ‘I’m young, I won’t die’ is not the answer. I think the sense of community that has come out in Italy recently is really inspiring; they don’t share the belief that it’s a given for the old and immunocompromised to die if they get sick.” Yet even this sense of communal compassion hasn’t prevented a severe overburdening of Italy’s health services, where in many cases doctors are forced by a lack of resources to make the horrible Sophie’s choice about which patients will live or die. “Ireland has had time to learn from Italy’s example and not wait until we are in crisis to implement preventative measures,” she said. “Acting too soon will never lead to people dying, but acting when it’s already too late is disastrous.”