What good could possibly come from a global pandemic? I know we are very early on this journey and the future is beyond prediction. These are unprecedented times with anxiety brewing about jobs and health and life and death and whether people are going to stop hoarding and begin sharing. But what seems clear from this time is that we are inextricably united with our brothers and sisters all over the world. We are in solidarity given this shared experience.
And technology allows us to bridge this divide and peek into our respective worlds.
I reached out to my friends in Trieste because they seem to be a couple weeks ahead of us in grappling with COVID-19. Last Wednesday, March 11, the government announced a country-side shut-down for a country of 60 million people. To us, on the other side of the world, that may have seemed a bit drastic at that moment – but now as we see our country shutting down, we turn to them for insight.
Los Angeles has many friends in Trieste and I sent out emails this week asking questions about what it’s like to be restricted to one’s house and how their hospitals and community mental health system is functioning. I also asked for advice on how to cope and requested stories of hope in the midst of such difficulty. I will divide these responses up over a couple blogs in the coming weeks.
Dr. Alessandra Oretti, who heads up the psychiatric unit at the Ospedale Maggiore (central hospital) says that they are only allowed to leave their houses to go to work, to shop for food, to tend to an elderly family member or for health reasons. She is allowed to go out and walk her dog (whom I had the opportunity to meet when I was in Trieste last year, right at this time).
Dr. Roberto Mezzina, who recently retired after 40 years in the Dipartimento di Salute Mentale in Trieste, is using his time at home to study Spanish, listen to music, play his guitar and double bass, watch television and read. All his travel, related to his new role as European Vice President of the World Federation for Mental Health, has been curtailed. He sent me a short video of him learning “In My Life” on his guitar. We are bound through the universal language of The Beatles.
Federico Sandri, a psychologist in Trieste, spoke of the luxury of time, but how it doesn’t really feel like a luxury. “Yesterday I made the very traditional Bolognese sauce to spend four hours of my house time, then I tidied up the wardrobe,” he writes. “But clearly everything is more difficult when it is not your choice and even doing beautiful things becomes a forcing.”
Agnese Baini, a student I met while in Trieste a year ago says, that she is confined, but grateful that she has a roommate so she is not alone. “My family lives near Codogno, where the first patient has been detected,” she writes. “My parents haven’t left home for one month, since the army occupies the streets.”
Dr. Tommaso Bonavigo, a psychiatrist at the Domio Community Mental Health Center echoed these restrictions and also mentions the things we all think about when we realize how much we enjoy the public spaces in Italy. “What is required,” he said, “is to keep a safe distance from other people; so no group activities, no bars, no restaurants, no aperitivi…” It’s so hard to imagine the lovely plazas and old streets in Trieste without the buzz of people sipping their spritz’ at the end of the day and smoking their cigarettes with friends.
My friend Arturo Cannarozzo, who works for the La Collina Social Cooperative, stays connected with his friends using the Google Meet platform. He described the same restrictions as Alessandra, but said you can go exercise, alone. “I run 10 km every day, “he says, “And now I don’t have any excuses to finish reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.”
I asked my friends if they are going “stir crazy” stuck in their homes. I told them I did not know if there was an Italian word for that. Dr. Renzo Bonn responded, “I think that the Italian corresponding term for “stir crazy” is andare fuori di testa and for now we are a bit tense but surviving.” I looked that up on Google Translate and the translation was “freak out.” That works for me.
When Does this End?
Alegra Carboni, who is a medical student, writes that “the Prime Minister said that schools and universities would remain closed until at least April 3rd. Basically people can’t go anywhere and those who need to move around for reasons of work, health or other extreme circumstances have to show a special permission.” She further states, “there are checkpoints everywhere and police stops almost every car. Policemen can fine you for not respecting the governmental decree. The situation outside is surreal and the city is empty.”
Arturo says, “It is strange, but not so bad, if it will not last longer than the 3rd of April.” Agnese says, “It’s still not clear if you can go out for a walk, but I think you can’t really ask people to stay in a 50 square metre apartment for one month.” (That would be about 500 square feet.)
Federico observes, “We are fine but to preserve our mental health we are trying to imagine that this period will be concluded in few days. Of course, this is not the truth, but this thought is helping us.”
The importance of staying connected
My friend Dr. Renzo Bonn responded to my questions with this greeting: “Dear Kerry, I am very happy to receive this mail from you. To feel so near the friends that are not here is an important medicine. Thank you! We survive, waiting the events, I have to stay completely at home for my age, but it is hard for all. A lot of phone contacts with friends.”
In my next blog I will share more about how people are coping in Italy and what I am learning from them about the importance of maintaining social connections by any means possible.
Note: From Il Piccolo today related to the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of Italy. Updated at 4.36pm on March 16. There are 386 people who tested positive for Coronavirus in Fvg, 82 of whom are hospitalized, of whom 15 are in intensive care. Meanwhile, the death toll has risen to 20 (compared to 17 yesterday), all of them over the age of 80 except one, of 62, but with previous pathologies. (With gratitude to Google Translate.)