Updated: Aug 9, 2020
In April, we spoke to five subjects on ExtraVirgin Food and Travel Podcast about how they were coping during the Covid-19 crisis in their respective countries. Now, nearly 4 months later, we catch up with them to see what has changed (and what hasn't) with the pandemic where they live. Here we talk with Gabriella Sestini and Stefano Ponza in Italy, one of the hardest hit countries in Europe. (Listen to the original podcast here)
Gabriella Sestini and Stefano Ponza were at their weekender in the mountains north of Turin when they call came that the hard-hit Piedmonte region in the north of the country was going into lockdown within 24 hours. They made the decision to stay where they were, in a small village with their two young, school aged children.
"Now we are back in Torino. Since restrictions have eased, we started moving back and forth to see family and a few friends. We finally settled back at the end of May but we are still going to the mountains on week-ends. However, the situation there has changed a lot because after more than two months of lockdown people started coming to enjoy just being out and have walks.
Although it was hard at times not to be able to have freedom of movement or to travel and despite the fact that we had to balance work and homeschooling we were lucky to be isolated together in a beautiful place. We sort of got used to self-isolation -0 coming from our hermitage in the mountains it was really strange to come back to Torino. Everywhere seemed (relatively) crowded. Courts have reopened and Stefano started working from his office. My workplace also officially reopened on the 15th of June. In the workplace we are still very cautious observing all the safety rules and keep the required distancing. In my case I am still able to work from home, but I can get some help with the children.
Summer holidays started in early June and kids will go back to school ONLY mid-September although there are still lots of debates on how to implement health and safety measures.
Since we last spoke the situation has improved a lot. Covid-19 numbers are reassuring, and many hospitals declared their intensive care units Covid-free. However, there is still a high level of uncertainty in the country with small, isolated outbreaks of the virus so PM will most likely extend the state of emergency to allow the Government to intervene rapidly if required. There are many discussions on why the situation has improved, probably for the measures that were implemented, some say that with higher temperatures the virus has mutated to a weaker version, but there is the fear of a possible second wave in Autumn.
In many regions, including Piedmont, masks have to be worn at all times in public and hand sanitizers systems are placed everywhere. Bars and restaurants are open, but obviously with social distancing rules in place. Given that we are in the warm season bars and restaurants are allowed to expand their patio seating into the street. A very nice old tradition that is regaining popularity is outdoor cinema. We just discovered outdoor screening events in the courtyard of the Royal Palace in Torino. In some places they are even introducing drive-in cinemas. All the museums are restarting in compliance with the new safety regulations as well and it’s a great opportunity to visit them right now as there are only locals and not many queues.
One big mistake in handling the crisis was to underestimate the danger of Covid-19 and intervene late. The population and politicians looked with skepticism the warnings of scientists. Closing down businesses and activities seemed exaggerated and despite the news of the critical situation in China and related massive containment measures the problem seemed distant. At the end of February some Italian politicians engaged in public with handshaking and aperitivi mainly in Milan but also in other cities, introducing a popular hashtag #litalianonsiferma or #milanononsiferma (Italy/Milan does not stop) to make the point that the economy should not stop because of the virus. Just weeks later one of these politicians was diagnosed with Covid-19 and hospitals started running out of critical care beds.
Lombardy (one of Europe’s wealthiest and most productive areas) was (and still is) disproportionately hit by Covid-19. Luckily Italy's poorer southern Italian regions, where consequences could have been worse, was less affected. Northern Italy was hit hard right during the flu season and the virus started quickly progressing in neighboring regions. So maybe in the south (where the density is lower) they had more time to react.
Health care is a regional competency in Italy. In Lombardy in particular, authorities focused on building private health care institutions cutting funds to public healthcare. Although this has been a trend also in the rest of Italy. Furthermore, on March, the Lombardy region passed a Council Deliberation establishing urgent measures to ease the burden on hospitals. This included moving Covid-19 patients to unprepared residential care home for the elderly with catastrophic consequences. However, although the public healthcare system was under significant strain, we are still lucky to have one and I think that the crisis has underlined the importance of its role. In general, healthcare professionals lacked protection devices and the alarm raised by general practitioners to allow adequate monitoring and care of positive or suspected Covid-19 patients were unheard. The main cause of this was the lack of resources but also the fact that we moved late and we were caught in a state of emergency. Also, we knew little about the virus (but now people became great experts). After all that happened there are still politicians or movements that criticize scientist and spread fake news. After the antivaccination movement for example there was a big event in Rome with people protesting against face-masks claiming effects on health or other conspiracy theories according to which Covid-19 was created by some dark secret power to control us.
I would be curious to take a serological test to find out whether I have caught the virus asymptomatically and have antibodies. I had no symptoms and had not take many risks so chances are very low.
This emergency in a short time has completely changed our daily lives. It has forced us to review our plans and desires. We had to cope with the separation from friends and family, work difficulties and being restricted to our house. Especially at the beginning of lockdown I had a strong anxiety about not to be able to travel or move as I wanted. I had nightmares of being blocked at the borders or losing my passport. We found comfort in our close family, food and started to appreciate more outdoor activities. I remember the joy of food (and wine) shopping and cooking and going out in the evening to take the rubbish out…! The positive outcome of this situation is that we all learned to use more and better the technology to work, study and most of all be connected with our loved ones but we have also learnt that technology cannot replace personal relations. There were also funny sides to video conferencing with co-workers and clients, or when children were taking remote lessons with their teacher as it was a bit like being in their houses, with kids and pets appearing in the background. It almost became the norm to have kids or barking noises during the calls but it was accepted as everyone was in the same boat. Nobody could go to the hairdresser, barber or esthetician but we tried to be presentable for our calls (at least the upper half of the body).
The crisis has deeply affected the Italian economy and many activities did not reopened or have reopened with strong difficulty. We still cannot say that this pandemic is over so we will have to learn to deal with uncertainty.