On Friday I woke up early and rode my bike across town to meet 74 students and my colleague. We loaded up in two coach buses and took off to roam around Siena and San Gimignano for the day. It was about 55F and some of my students showed up without jackets as I still shivered and wore gloves in the early morning. The day went perfect, everyone was on time, no one got lost, and no one asked me about the virus. But I think Friday was the last day that was a possibility.
It was more than a month ago – in the middle of January when I first started really paying attention to what was happening in Wuhan. On the 10th of January, they recorded the first death, but by the 22nd, there were 580 cases and 17 deaths. A few people were talking about it on social media and so it sparked my attention. I searched the hashtags, I started to find videos and leaked messages saying that China was severely censoring information, that the situation was worse than was being told.
It was still just a problem on the other side of the world, but I am a bit particular with things like this, and something didn’t feel right. Then, I saw the lines in China as people started running out of masks. I casually looked online myself to find the prices jacked up – even in Italy. People don’t buy masks like that for the regular flu. I learned that people with family in China were buying them in bulk and shipping them home. I bought a few quietly from a hardware store online that still had them at normal prices. “They’re just good to have for all types of things,” I told myself and Rami so I didn’t seem like too much of a crazy person. “Smoke pollution, anything – they’re just good to have.” I didn’t tell many people because I knew the reaction would be skeptical. Even just bringing it up was usually an opportunity to feel like I should be wearing a tinfoil hat.
Five days later on the 27th, China had 4,581 cases and 106 deaths. I saw leaked videos of chaotic hospitals, people in full suits bringing body bags out of apartments, fumigating entire outdoor areas, people crying, stores being emptied. I tried to find the source for everything but the censorship is difficult. Weeding through the fake news takes time and creates so much doubt for what is true and what is false. Occasionally it was mentioned on the news as the stories grew, but it was still far away. I kept watching. Occasionally I’d bring it up with someone else from here or home. “BUT THE FLU IS WORSE,” everyone would say. But something still didn’t feel right. I bought more vitamin c and fruit, started taking more vitamins and minerals.
First, they said it wasn’t transmissible through humans. Then they said it was. Then they said masks helped, then we heard rumors it can also infect through the eyes. Then there were reports it was also able to spread through the air, and that it could stay on surfaces, that you can also get reinfected, and that it was something Drs had never seen before. Those that made that known were persecuted, and some have died from the virus. Nothing was making sense.
On the 31st of January, two tourists from China were confirmed. Italy immediately stopped all direct flights from China, but not those that had layovers elsewhere. The two had traveled most of the country – from Milan to Rome, stopping in Tuscany. The authorities tracked down all they thought had been in contact with them. No one tested positive. “I’m confident that the situation will remain contained,” Prime Minister Conte said. But the reports kept upping the incubation period – from five days to 14, to maybe even 24. I asked my work if we could get hand sanitizer for the public areas. It was difficult to find. Then they found that even asymptomatic people could spread the infection.
By February 5th there were 28,266 cases and 565 deaths. I recommended that a friend coming to visit should buy masks for the plane – she couldn’t find any in Boston. Some areas of my job were affected. Racism started in Florence as more and more people learned of the virus and the spread. To give a bit of background, here’s an excerpt on the numbers of Asian tourism in Florence and Italy:
In 2009, 337,000 travelers from China visited Italy. By 2012 they were 547,000 and, in 2015, 807,000. What is even more significant is that by 2020, 1 million 674,000 Mandarin-speaking travelers are expected to visit the country. Milan, Florence, Venice, and Rome currently host nearly 60% of all Chinese tourists and this won’t change in the future.
Anyone living in Florence has noticed the uptick in tour groups, and with the virus in the news, soon videos of abuse were being shot with locals telling tourists from anywhere in Asia to “go home and infect their own country.” In Florence the mayor filmed himself hugging a friend from China in solidarity. Another Chinese-Italian stood out in the public piazzas holding a sign saying he wasn’t a virus and asking for hugs. Everyone was trying to calm the population. Everyone was trying to reduce panic. I quietly followed along. Rami joined my research. We watched the numbers climb as most of the rest of the world pretended this wasn’t a problem – even as virologists said this could be a pandemic. No one wants to believe that, but pretending it’s not happening doesn’t help. In the meantime, the medical teams were prepping, hospitals were starting to get ready to handle an influx of patients. I only hope they’ve done enough because the wave of panic started this weekend.
Two days ago as I got off the bus in San Gimignano, we still only had the two tourists in the hospital in Rome – slowly recovering from the virus. Germany and France had more cases, but then overnight, the first Italian was diagnosed with the virus and died in the following hours. When I woke up on Saturday, there were 60 confirmed cases north of us. Today, that number has jumped to, as of 9 pm Italian time, there are 155 cases and three dead. The phone lines specifically for cases of the virus have been busy non-stop since they were given out a few days ago. Venice’s Carnevale celebrations have been canceled as well as multiple Serie A soccer games. Universities and schools are stopped for a week or more. The areas that have had more than one case are in lockdown for 14 days and they’re arresting people if they don’t abide by these containment policies. If anyone has symptoms in Tuscany, they’re asking no one to go to the hospital, but to call the specific number and a team of medics will come to your house to administer the test and possibly transport those infected in a special ambulance.
There still aren’t any confirmed cases in Tuscany, but with the size of this country, and the facts that we all know, I think it’s only a matter of time.
Today I took a walk out into the hills with Luna and watched the sunset ignite the sky in a flood of orange and yellow and pink and blue as people in Milan ransacked grocery stores as they prepare for the worst. I took deep breaths and ran through the grass and appreciated my body and the freedoms that I have right now, and only hope that this is the worst it will get. But no confirmed cases in Tuscany seems almost impossible. This week will determine a lot. As of right now, Rami is still going to work and I’m still going to work at the school, but keep watching the news, pay attention, seek out the information yourself – don’t wait for the news to tell you, and, most importantly, be prepared.