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'You hope against hope that things improve just a little' - Life in Italy under Covid-19 lockdown

08:00 GMT 22/03/2020
Bologna Coronavirus 2020
The epicentre of the world's growing coronavirus crisis, Italy has seen record deaths and had its healthcare systems overwhelmed

Concerned friends, family and colleagues keep asking what it's like living under lockdown in Italy. The short but honest answer is, pretty depressing.

Getting stopped by the Carabinieri while walking the dog on Thursday (at least, I think it was Thursday) was the highlight of my week.

As the officer approached, I was holding a small bag of dog sh*t in one hand and a leash in the other, and yet he still opened with, "What are you doing here?"

I desperately wanted to reply, "Obviously, you're not a golfer." But thought better of it. After all, he may not have been a Big Lebowski fan.

He was a football fan, though. Like most people in Italy. So, when it emerged during my subsequent interrogation that I was a football journalist, we ended up chatting for five minutes about when Serie A might resume.

Had it not been for our shared love of football, I strongly suspect that he'd have fined me for not being in possession of the requisite permission slip for going outdoors.

As it was, I cleverly agreed with him that it would be "scandalous" if the "hunchbacks" (Juventus) were to be awarded this season's Scudetto, so he allowed me and my dog to go about our business (even if, technically, Fionn had already taken care of his).

I was told, though, that our walks should be shortened. The dog's preferred dumping ground may only be 400 metres from the apartment I share with my girlfriend just outside Bologna's city centre, but even that was too far away, according to the officer. We can only go around the block from now on.

The lockdown laws have been tightened significantly over the past week due to the continued rise of cases of coronavirus in Italy – and rightly so.

As two Chinese doctors brought in to help the fight against the spread of Covid-19 so bluntly pointed out in a scathing appraisal of the lax lockdown regulations in Rome, many people are still ignoring the instructions to only venture out for situations of necessity (walking the dog), health reasons, work purposes, or buying the bare essentials.

As recently as last Tuesday, it was possible to see people running in the streets of Bologna, and no, not to beat the queues for toilet roll – there have been no such incidents of bulk-buying of this kind in Italy thus far.

It was a similar story in Bergamo, one of the cities hit hardest by the devastating outbreak of the coronavirus, and Atalanta captain Papu Gomez was among those left outraged by such a blatant disregard for the welfare of others.

"I tell all the runners, or fake runners, who want to still go out and train, stay at home," the Argentine wrote on Instagram. "Enough, enough, enough!

"Every morning we wake up to bad news. People are dying, and you still don’t realise? Everyone at home! Nobody should go out."

If you're lucky enough to live in a country that has yet to feel the full traumatic effects of this virus, you might well be thinking, 'What does Gomez know? He's just a footballer.'

And you'd be correct. Footballers are not experts in this field; then again, many do seem to have a greater grasp of the severity of the situation than some presidents of the United States and Prime Ministers of Great Britain.

Some people may have "had enough of experts" but Gomez, to his credit, is listening to the medics and the scientists, and it's easy to understand why.

The veteran forward was one of the stars of the show as Atalanta routed Valencia 4-1 in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie at San Siro on February 19.

More than 40,000 people travelled down from Bergamo that night and played a pivotal role in roaring their team to a historic victory.

Even as an 'impartial' journalist (it's hard to be impartial when it comes to a fairytale as endearing as Atalanta's), it was a privilege to be present for what should have been remembered as one of the greatest nights in the club's history.

Now, though, just over a month later, it is being referred to as the night "joy created a tragedy".

"It’s probable that there were several major triggers and catalysts for the diffusion of the virus,” immunologist Francesco Le Foche told the Corriere dello Sport on Thursday. "But the Atalanta-Valencia game could very well have been one of them.

"The aggregation of thousands of people, centimetres from each other, engaging in manifestations of euphoria like hugging, shouting, all of that could’ve favoured viral reciprocation.

"With hindsight, it was madness to play with a crowd present, but at the time things weren’t clear enough. It'd be unthinkable now."

Italy certainly made a lot of mistakes early on in its handling of the outbreak, and is now paying a dreadful price. What's even more concerning is that many countries didn't learn anything from those mistakes.

Only last week, 250,000 people from all corners of the United Kingdom and Ireland attended the Cheltenham horse racing festival, while nearly 53,000 people turned up at Anfield to watch Liverpool play Atletico Madrid in the Champions League.

Of course, there is an understandable desire to try to limit the damage being done to every nation's economy, to protect people's ability to earn a living. However, it's clear that everyone needs to be smarter, to try to adapt, to salvage what they can.

I have one friend living in Bologna who runs a language school that is now in danger of going bankrupt. They're losing some €8,000 a week but have invested a significant amount of their budget in a program that will allow them to continue doing some of their lessons online. These may not sound like massive figures but he's desperately doing everything he can to continue paying his employees.

And that is the one positive to all of this: we're seeing so many people in Italy doing whatever they can to look after one another, and look out for one another.

For every person that fled Lombardy when news of the imminent lockdown was released and thus facilitated the spread of the virus southwards, there is another putting his or her life at risk in overwhelmed hospitals and health care facilities up and down the country, including my girlfriend (I'm an asthmatic living in northern Italy yet I'd have been more afraid of her than coronavirus if I'd not hailed her and her incredible colleagues in a personal piece on the lockdown!).

These people are genuine heroes and should be remembered as such when all of this is over. They should be appropriately rewarded.

We should also be grateful for those merely lifting the spirits of others, whether that's by starting sing-songs on balconies, hanging Italian flags outside their windows, pinning their children's drawings to the doors, passing on memes trying to make light of a horrible situation, or even writing stupid articles full of silly references to inconsequential things like movies and football...

None of this is funny, of course; Covid-19 may be invisible but it is a clear and present threat to millions of people across the world. Do not underestimate it. This really does affect us all. So, listen to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Listen to the doctors. Listen to the experts. Listen to Papu. Listen to Gloria Gaynor!

Wash your hands regularly. Maintain social distancing. Only go out if essential. Do not bulk-buy. And do what little you can to stay positive. And help others stay positive.

On every walk with the dog, we pass an apartment block door adorned with a child's painting of a rainbow with the words 'Andrà tutto bene' (Everything's going to be alright) written below. 

It must be so tough for kids being cooped up at home for weeks on end. And perhaps even tougher for the parents!

It must be unbearable for those who don't live with their partners. I know of one couple who go grocery shopping at the same time just so they can see one another, even if it is just for a short while and, agonisingly, from a metre apart.

But it lifts your spirits to see how people are coping, and adapting. And it makes you believe that when all of this is over, maybe we'll have a greater appreciation of the little things in life that are actually so important: a touch, a hug or a kiss.

Honestly, I can't help but smile every time I see that child's painting and I'm immensely grateful for that fact, because while I don't know what it's like where you are right now, believe me, there's not much else to smile about here.

What's life really like under lockdown?

Nearly everything's closed: the bars, the pubs, the gyms, the parks, the pitches and the playgrounds.

You spend all day at home. You don't get to see your friends. You don't get to see your family. You don't stop worrying about your parents.

And then, every evening at 6pm, the Italian state announces the amount of new cases and deaths from coronavirus.

And you hope against hope that the numbers will have dropped, even just a little.

You hope for a sign that the lockdown is working, that the situation is improving, that things are going to be okay.

And your heart sinks when they reveal another unwanted record has been broken; that so many more people have died.

Italy has a world-class healthcare system yet the country's resources have been stretched to breaking point. There are not even enough masks for all of us.

The hard truth is that things are only going to get worse before they get better.

We don't know when this is going to end.

We don't know if we're still going to have jobs when all of this is over.

We don't know if we'll ever get to hug all of our loved ones again.

We don't even know if we'll survive ourselves....

I really regret not making that Big Lebowski reference when I had the chance.