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My quarantine during COVID-19 pandemic: A personal insight from the very red zone in Italy

I am writing from Italy, where I am spending my quarantine… but I do not remember how many days I have spent in lockdown so far, maybe because it is a lot.

In this blog, originally published on Inspire the Mind on 8 April 2020, Valentina Zonca, Psychological Medicine Research Student at King's College London, details her experience of quarantine from Lombardy in Italy.

As those of you who have read my previous blog on how to prevent adolescent depression will remember, I am a researcher at King’s College London during my second year of PhD, working across Italy and the UK. 

And in Italy I live and work in Lombardy, in the very red zone.

For me, being a researcher means spending hours working in the lab with state-of-the-art equipment as well as constantly discussing and exchanging of ideas with my colleagues and supervisors. 

Thus, the lockdown in Italy has affected me and my work a lot.

It was the 20th of February when the first young man was hospitalized for COVID-19 related pneumonia in Codogno, a small city in the north of Italy less than a hundred km from where I live. 

Then, I clearly remember the last time I was with my friends: on Friday 21st, one of my dearest friends told us that she was expecting a baby boy. At the time we had no clue of what it was going to happen to us all, only few days later.

In the meantime, the number of the Italian positive cases was increasing, and on Sunday evening, 23rd of February, my supervisor suggested that we should work from home for the following week, in order to avoid traveling on public transportation and being in crowded places.

“OK, it is just one week” — I thought — “I have some work to catch up on, and this is the right moment to get it properly done”. At the end of the week I was ready to get back to the lab.

At this point everything was odd but still under control in Italy. Schools and universities in Lombardy had been closed for precaution, but restaurants and bars were still open. 

Then something changed: all of a sudden, the number of cases exploded and on the 8th of March, the entire region of Lombardy and other fourteen surrounding cities were declared “red zones” and put into lockdown.

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Duomo Cathedral and Square in Milan is totally empty. Photo source: SkyTg24

Panic spread… the night trains from Milan to the south of Italy were literally mobbed with thousands of people trying to escape from the red zones to get home. Moreover, lots of people emptied shops of groceries and essentials. 

The following day, on the 9th of March, the Italian PM declared quarantine for the entirety of Italy: schools and universities closed everywhere with the advice to “stay home, stay safe” as much as possible.

Again, a couple of days later a new communication: Italy is in complete lockdown, restaurants and pubs must close as well as every shop apart from grocery stores, pharmacies and essential industries.

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Empty shelves in Milan’s grocery stores. Photo source: Il Fatto Quotidiano

And here we are, today Wednesday 8th of April, still in quarantine and holding on. The number of positive cases has increased steadily, together with the deaths, and the hospitals are full, with no more critical-care beds. 

Here is the most updated data (Tuesday 7th of April): 135,586 total cases, 17,127 deaths and 24,392 recovered.

These have been difficult days indeed.

I live in a small town near Bergamo, the city most hit by the virus and with highest number of deaths. The images of the army drafted in to help move corpses have been broadcasted throughout the world. 

Channels are broadcasting news related to COVID-19 every hour. This is exhausting and has a negative impact on our emotions as well as on our mental health.

Speaking for myself, I have deleted the Facebook app from my phone, and I try not to overdose with the news that hammers us constantly. There is no need to be updated 24/7 because it’s likely you will actually get more anxious. 

Moreover, it is essential to avoid fake-news and stop believing false myths.

How do we cope with this heavy burden and all the stress that comes with it?

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An empty St Peter’s Square (Vatican City) during Pope’s blessing Urbi et Orbi. Photo source: La repubblica

During the first two weeks of quarantine I was full of energy. I shifted from being a desperate housewife to a perfect cook. I attended yoga classes, group meetings with colleagues and drink meetups on Skype. I also spent several hours in front of the computer writing, sending emails and reading.

Then something slightly changed… We all realized that things would not come back to reality as soon as we thought. As I mentioned, the number of cases, and sadly deaths, is rapidly growing and I have been really worried for my relatives’ health. We all have also felt overwhelmed and anxious — and this is perfectly normal.

To quarantine means to stay home, always.

You are allowed to go out to buy food and medicines, for going to work (only when smart working is not possible) or for real emergencies. 

Walks seem to no longer be allowed. Policemen even stop you along the streets asking where you are going and why you are not at home — if you cannot provide proof for why you are out or where you live, they press charges against you (fines from 400 to 3,000 euros; COVID-19 positives who violate quarantine can be charged from 3 to 18 months of detention and a 500–5,000 euros fine).

Supermarkets and pharmacies are open, but only a few people can enter at any time, which means queuing outside at least one meter between others in line. 

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A pharmacy in Bergamo. Photo source: Lorenzo Zelaschi

Glass shields appeared everywhere, making human contacts almost impossible. 

Moreover, you can only enter a shop after having your temperature taken.

This is a difficult situation, but it is essential to respect these restrictions for our safety.

However, Italians have figured out some ways to be together even in lockdown.

How?

My country has sung the national anthem as well as iconic Italian songs on the rooftops and balconing, while waving the Italian flag.

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Italian flag on Medolago Albani Palace in Bergamo. Photo source: L’Eco di Bergamo

Even in the north of Italy and in my Bergamo, we are trying to do our best to boost the moral, to stay strong and copy with this nightmare, but we rarely sing from the balcony. 

However, in order to face the urgent need of new critical-care beds, two brand-new field hospitals have been set up in Milan and Bergamo in about 10 days thanks to the incredible work of thousands of volunteers.

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Members of the Alpine Corpse actively involved in the creation of the field hospital in Bergamo. Photo source: Matteo Zanardi

During a pandemic, thanks are due to doctors, nurses, pharmacists and everyone working in the hospitals (and not only); to couriers, grocery shop assistants, policemen, guards and all the workers still doing their job everywhere. 

It is amazing to see that the desire to thank them is spreading from country to country — a positive contagion — like in UK, where people clap for NHS staff and key workers.

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Cremona’s hospital: exhausted nurse collapsed on her desk. Photo source: Francesca Mangiatordi

So, this is my quarantine in Italy so far. I got through difficult times missing my loved ones, my friends and simply my daily routine. I have some good days when I am very focused and calm, but also some (very) bad days, when I feel overwhelmed or just worried and exhausted. 

I am sure everyone feels quite the same. 

Be kind to yourselves, don’t judge the way you are copying with your emotions during these difficult times. 

Don’t be hard to yourself because you are totally allowed to not be able to deal with a quarantine.

Everything will get better, sooner or later.

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Niguarda Hospital, Milan: the rainbow and the quote “Everything will be fine” on this newborn’s nappy. This image become a sign of hope for Italy.

Inspire the Mind is an online blogging community started by the Stress, Psychiatry and Immunology Laboratory (SPI Lab) King's College London, which is led by Professor Carmine Pariante. The blogs hosted on Inspire the Mind aim to use writing and creativity to open up a conversation about wellbeing, to teach and disseminate the science behind mental health and to encourage others to do the same.

If you're interested in writing a blog post, please contact: inspirethemind@kcl.ac.uk

Keep up-to-date on Inspire the Mind's blog posts.

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