‘I come from the future and I cannot do anything’: An Italian watches her town’s apocalyptic demise from afar

On Spec Podcast
Mar 19, 2020 · 8 min read

Francesca Rosa

Francesca Rosa is an Italian living in Istanbul. Fluent in five languages, in 2015 she abandoned her corporate career to become a professional chef from Le Cordon Bleu. A cross-cultural gastronomic entrepreneur, she currently manages dinners for diplomatic circles and art events and collaborates with various NGOs. Francesca is the co-author of the foodoir anthology and cookbook Expat Sofra: Culinary Tales of Foreign Women in Turkey. (Alfa 2019). You can find her on Twitter: @frarosagungen

“Fra, I am out in the garden for my daily five minutes of fresh air. Bergamo looks like the set of an apocalyptic movie. It is so surreal,” Loretta, with a shaky voice, leaves a voice message on our Ibiza 2019 Whatsapp group.

The last time I saw Loretta and my Italian besties of 25 years from my small village of Caloziocorte was Ibiza, where we all met to celebrate our joint 40th birthday.

Lecco, Italy, it’s streets emptied during the outbreak. Video by Giacomo Albo

Sadly, jokes about Spanish movida and memes of toy boys are no longer subjects we discuss in our group conversation. Instead, photos of empty streets of Bergamo and Lecco, where I grew up, are exchanged. All shops are shut, bars and restaurants closed, no one taking their dog out. Bergamo’s renaissance architecture, bare in its splendor, is standing there alone, not to be admired by a soul.

Then, my other friend Cristina Carrara sends me a video of the church where I attended masses when I was a teenager — the benches have been taken away to accommodate coffins, so many of them, like cars double parked on the three sides of the holy parameter. In Bergamo with a population of about 120,000, 600 people have died since March 1. A burial every 30 minutes, but funerals are not allowed. Cristina’s relatives are from Val Seriana, one of the most hard hit areas in Lombardy, and 10 of them are sick with Covid-19. She cries over the phone about her father, only 62, because the nurse cannot do much. His fever does not go down. Her cousin, 44, is extremely ill, and her uncles did not survive.

Italians lit candles in vigils for those who died.

Everyone has lost friends or relatives. Loretta counts nine. “People fall like leaves,” she stutters. Giampiera, my father’s receptionist, doesn’t have a mother-in-law anymore; Isabella, my former classmate, misses her uncle; Giovanna, my family friend, is close to a neighbor who can leave this earth at any moment.

The worst is the knowledge that once you enter the hospital, you will be alone. No one is allowed in, except for the doctors and nurses. The floor receptionists, if they have time, call the patients’ families once in the evening to let them know, and it is not always good news. Patients are checked in and die or recover in the same clothes they wore the day the ambulance brought them in. There is no one to hold their hand. Who cares about clean pajamas? Yes, old people die, but not only them.

Sara, who lives with her husband, their two year old child, and their dog, try to lift the neighborhood’s spirits by playing music from their balconies during the lockdown. Video: Sara

“These days, the most dramatic cases are men or women between 40 and 45, the same ones that last weekend did not take seriously the warnings of not assembling and staying at home,” complains Loretta. Some went skiing and others went for an aperitivo, figuring that nothing would happen to them.

This is indeed human nature — we feel invincible until despair touches us. But this time, this attitude won’t save us. On the contrary, it will only bring us to the abyss.

Myself … I woke up, in Istanbul, to the tragedy northern Italians are facing only after reading the text from my uncle Dr. Carletto,* a doctor working on the frontline of the coronavirus in a hospital. On March 5th, he wrote to the family from his hospital: “Guys, let’s get ready. This is a disaster. We can no longer take people above 80 years old to the Intensive Care Unit, we can only accompany them with morphine.”

Lombardy is the richest region of Italy, producing more than 40 percent of the GDP, with the most advanced healthcare system, totally free for everyone. A gem of a system. Yet, hospitals are collapsing because there is no more space in Intensive Care, nor in the ER. No matter how old you are and how sick, “There is not a crack available in the entire hospital,” my uncle says. He works 12-hour shifts, like his fellow doctors, nurses and health workers, the new heroes of these critical times. He is a radiologist and his team has learned to recognize Covid-19 by a glimpse on the CT scans. The test is not available but not even necessary because the lungs say it all.

His messages are matter of fact but with a sense of impotence. “We hospitalize patients with fever (but) without other major problems. However, some of them go into respiratory arrest and pass away within one or two days, while others, apparently in the same condition, get better. We do not understand what are the distinguishing factors for the prognosis. The drugs that might help, although not yet validated, are nowhere to be found.”

Masks, goggles and alcohol, necessary items for this pandemic … all unavailable, as the European free market abandons Italy and imports are blocked.

At emergency rooms, ambulances are queuing, waiting for one bed to free up. Unfortunately, it takes less time for death than recovery. My uncle is battling in the field, he is at war. His colleagues have tested positive and he might be next but he keeps working.

“What is widely considered normality no longer exists. Our life became surreal,” Loretta repeats. Citizens cannot go out, not even for a walk. They are allowed to go to their closest supermarket and pharmacies only, strictly inside their town council. They need to sign a self-declaration to handover to police outside for going out to buy antibiotics. They cannot claim they are going to buy stationery supplies for their kids because these are not considered basic essentials. Customers queue outside supermarkets at one meter distance. Only five people are allowed inside Conad Market in Calolziocorte, one shopping cart per person, per family, explains my friend Sara, who works in the supermarket. The cashier stands up and lets you pay at a distance. When the customer is gone, the cashier sits again and calls out for the next person in line. The streets are patrolled by police. False declarations and pedestrians are fined EU 600 and charged with contributing to an epidemic, a crime.

“The girls ask to see their grandparents, but we cannot go to them, even if they live next door. We are baking, cooking, making slime and playing board games. The pleasure of the little things in life kicks in,” my friend Loretta says.

For Loretta, the ambulance sirens are the reminder of another corona case. She lives 1.5 kilometers from Bergamo Hospital and last night she counted 15 sirens in 20 minutes. “It is nerve-racking,” she says with a sigh.

Families have been locked in between their four walls for ten days. The toll on their mental health is immense. Anxiety and frustration provoke unpleasant behavior with the people you love most. Mothers and fathers raise their voices because the kids are not listening, or because they want to run around a small living room. Lucky are the ones who own a backyard.

My friends, they are afraid they will infect their parents and grandparents, or immune deficient youngsters, or the neighbor with leukemia or the sister-in-law with Lyme disease. Covid-19 might be asymptomatic for some and deadly to others. We have the moral obligation to fight together and protect everyone by staying imprisoned, because we owe it to the family members who grew and fed us, to the doctors and nurses who are jeopardizing their health to save lives, to the supermarket employees that everyday go to work without a mask to supply us with food and toilet paper, to the factories that are still open because salaries have to be paid.

My friends are courageous and exemplary in their solidarity. They are not acting selfishly and stay locked in their apartments because they are saving lives by doing so. The entire world has witnessed the goodwill of the Italian people singing a cappella, the national anthem from their balconies or sharing drawings of kids saying #tuttoandràbene (everything will be fine). I cry when I see my compatriots stick together and show affection and warmth to each other from their terraces. From north to south, my country is showing solidarity and strength to the world. I am proud of my people and I honor them.

I feel like I come from the future and I cannot do anything. But can I stop the war here in Turkey where I live? Now, before it happens? Before it is too late? Is advocating for social distancing and self-isolation enough? I tried but can’t stop it like the Greek mythology figure Cassandra who no one believed. I see it coming but people do not believe me. I first cancelled a dinner with an Italian businessman living in Istanbul on February 27. At the time I sounded paranoid and alarmist to most. For weeks I only had seen memes of panty lines and diapers on Chinese faces, sent by Italians, making fun. Now, myself and the Italians are all aware and united, we are prepared to fight this together in Turkey and support each other. Around me, some expats and Turkish people react as if they are nearly immune to Covid-19 and do not understand. One death count is not scary at all and life can go on. Thankfully, mindsets are starting to shift and I am very glad about the measures taken by the Turkish government this week. Unfortunately, I see people pouring onto the streets and parks. Beware, it will have consequences.

So I beg you, citizens of the world, stay at home and slow down the contagion. The earlier we do it, the less casualties there will be. If we isolate ourselves in time, hospitals will have the resources to accommodate patients, intubate and ventilate them. This is not a flu, and there are no drugs to cure it yet. A ventilator helps your lungs but does not necessarily save your life. By staying at your house and not having a social life, you save lives, maybe even your own.

*Dr. Carletto’s name was changed to protect his job and identity.

In Reporter’s Notebook, On Spec correspondents and guest bloggers share the backstory of the work they do, what is going on behind the scenes and what impression it left on them. If you’d like to contribute, contact us at onspecpodcast at gmail.com. Guest bloggers freely express their opinion.

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