Last Friday at noon, I am the second of Italian professor Giorgio Provolo’s three video calls. Amidst the nationwide lockdown, Dr. Provolo has grown used to the medium, with all of his lectures and meetings moved to the format. Having gone through his 14 days of isolation, in which time he was bed-ridden with a fever (“No other symptoms, luckily” he said with a smile), he seemed surprisingly calm in the context of the broader pandemic.
Teaching at Milan University, Dr. Provolo is a lecturer in the Department of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and was among the first in Italy to feel the effects of the virus. On February 20, he was one of 60 attendees at a conference in Udine in north-east Italy. At the time, the disease was largely confined to Asia, and Provolo said awareness of the spread to Europe had yet to arise. “There was no knowledge of [serious] infection in Italy. We enjoyed the conference without any worries. We stayed in contact, we were all together, talking, coffee breaks. We didn’t notice any problems.”
After returning home, it wasn’t until the following Saturday Provolo received a phone call – after a number of colleagues had come down with a fever (Provolo included), tests had been carried out, yielding positive results for the coronavirus infection. A healthcare service was the next call, asking him about symptoms, and instructing him to remain in quarantine.
“14 days from the last day of the conference, we had to stay without contact from other people. Closed at home. Some others from different universities had severe reactions, with some still in hospital now.” Recounting this, Provolo seemed aware of his own luck, and the variation in reactions to the infection. “Most of the people that have been checked for the virus have been positive. At that conference, there seemed to be a real spreading. Most of the people who went have been touched by the virus.”
Curious as to why Provolo hadn’t been screened for the virus, he sighed, leaned back in his chair and offered an explanation: “In my area, there was a rapid increase in infection. There were so many people that were asking and being subjected to tests. They had no capabilities to test. They also would have had to come to my house to take a sample, moving in a protected way with masks, coming into my house – it would’ve been complicated, taken time and a very big effort. What they told us was that if we weren’t very ill, we should just stay at home and take pills for the fever.”
Expecting this to be the primary time of difficulty for the professor, I asked if the isolation had been difficult psychologically. Surprisingly relaxed, he responded: “Not really.” – to which we both laughed. Expanding on the point: “I have to say the connection is quite good – you can talk by phone, the internet, I can still work. When I had the fever, I couldn’t do anything because I was just sleeping during the day but when I felt better, there was no real restriction for me in the work that I usually do. I had several meetings with colleagues. Of course, there is some restriction in movement but for me, there weren’t many depressive consequences.”
Even Provolo’s description of Milan seemed relatively quiet. He noted the first two days of lockdown saw grocery shops sold out, with panic to grab supplies (as has been seen in Ireland), but once shoppers saw the stores restocked, this anxiety ebbed away. With that said, tourism had all but vanished upon the shutting down of hotels, with the previous day to our interview seeing only “essential” shops remaining open (of which Provolo named groceries, pharmacies and cigarette shops, with a smile).
Behind the veneer
Provolo had obviously adapted quite well to the situation. Food, he said, wasn’t an issue. His health had recovered. He had conducted three lectures for his university already, with ‘classrooms’ of over a hundred students, to which he quoted a positive response. I asked if there were concerns for him, now that he had seemingly gone through the virus and come out the other side: “Of course.” He paused for a moment, and took a breath before repeating “Of course, there are worries – it would be stupid not to have them. My parents, they’re very old. My father is 99, and my mother 95. They are very at-risk. If they get an infection, they wouldn’t survive. However, they are always at home – there is one person in contact with them, which reduces the risk.”
Provolo’s academic and analytical tone had dropped, and the personal elements of the pandemic came to the fore. In every way a success story of the outbreak, a survivor who was coping well within enormous stress, there was an anxiety; an uncertainty. He remained positive, and discussed his and his universities prediction of the next few months:
“We’re hoping the situation won’t last forever. We have online lessons until the beginning of April, and then there is Easter,” he says “We expect if everything goes well, to start lessons again in university after the beginning of May,” he continues. “So also examinations would be present. That is what we hope for – we obviously don’t know but… We expect the maximum of infections in two weeks, and then one month after than for it to be less, and then one month after that to be under control.”
Economics was a different matter. Qualifying that it would largely be based on how long shops remained closed (a month, he felt, was recoverable but any longer and…). Regardless, the ramifications would be felt for the foreseeable future: “Generally it will take a long time before people are confident to come back to a country that has been closed like Italy. I suspect, at least for a year to recover from this escalation from an economic point of view, but that’s just my feeling.”
But why was Italy the European epicentre? Why had the virus struck there first, and not others? Would they follow suit, and what could be garnered from this example? “I don’t understand how much other countries have been infected. If you see now, all the countries are spreading the infection around. I think Italy was a week or ten days before the others. I don’t know the reason for that. Nobody is giving a real answer to this question.”
Talking of his colleagues in Lisbon, he started naming countries that were following Italy’s decision to shut universities and take increasingly drastic precautions: Spain, France, Germany, Ireland… Provolo’s demeanour had returned to the analytical, and he seemed confident the crisis would, eventually, be averted. Through this veneer, however, there had been moments of worry – very real, human anxieties that wouldn’t make it into academic papers, but would be remembered by all present.