On February 25th, I wrote a note to CBD:
Now I am home in the USA. I flew in from Italy today and am about to go to bed and pull the covers over my head for at least one solid day. If I can go for 24 hours without hearing about Coronavirus, I wouldn’t mind.
I was supposed to leave Italy in early March and it was a giant hop-in-the-butt to change my ticket so I could leave earlier. As far as the airlines are concerned: it’s not an ‘official’ emergency yet so my changing the booking was totally at my caprice and three different reps from the same airline offered to change my flight for three different prices: $435; $1300 ( at this point we were going to just buy another one way ticket as it would cost about $350.) and finally $250. Guess which option we went for? N/B By Wednesday, 2/26, some airlines will now change affected tickets for no additional fee.
My choices were: either bug out or ride it out and risk either not getting out due to quarantine or getting out and / or being under quarantine when I returned home. I was completely prepared to have to self-quarantine so I could get back home as I would rather be shut-in in the USA in my own place rather than be quarantined as a guest in a friend’s home in a foreign country.
I arrived in northern Italy Thursday afternoon ready to make some music. Before any arriving passengers left the airport, the Red Cross was there scanning our temperatures to check for Coronavirus. My friends and I had a chuckle and joked that as none of us had been to Wuhan, we had nothing to worry about and if the virus was going to travel, it’d find a way. By Thursday night the Coronavirus was now in Italy, in the town of Codogno, which is about 17 miles from Cremona. Codogno and Cremona are both in the region of Lombardia, but in different provinces. There was also confirmed case of Coronavirus in the town Vo Euganeo, which is in the Veneto region. Vo Euganeo is about a little more than 50 miles from Venice, Italy, and it is about a 116 mile drive to Cremona. As for Italy’s provinces and regions; think of them as the provinces are like our counties and the regions are like our states.
By Friday morning the world was turned upside down. Schools which were to be closed only a couple of days for Carnevale were now closed for two weeks. All schools: from kindergartens to universities would be closed. Carnevale, itself, everywhere in Northern Italy, even outside of the regions of Lombardia & Veneto, was completely cancelled! In Italy, Carnevale is a huge holiday for families, especially children, and many places have historic and traditional celebrations which bring in lots of tourists. To get the idea of how big Carnevale celebrations can be, imagine if we cancelled all 4th of July festivities.
Saturday morning by 9:30, the police were passing though the weekly open-air market in Cremona and ordering surprised vendors to be packed up, swept up, and completely out of the streets by 11am (about two hours before usual). The market in Cremona is lively and fun. It wasn’t this past Saturday. Instead, everyone was on edge, nervous and hushed and a number of vendors and shoppers didn’t even show. Vendors mentioned a rumor that the early shut-down was due to one of the merchants having worked the market in Codogno the day before. These open air markets in this area are big and happen twice weekly: on one weekday and a weekend day. As of 2/26, the markets will be open during the week and closed on the weekends. ( a lot of Italians are now commenting on these reports to ask with a little sarcasm, “So, this virus isn’t contagious on weekdays?”)
My friends were first discussing the idea of getting in the car and driving far away from the Lombardia just after our first show finished on Saturday night. We were quite a distance from the Lombardia and in another region which had no reported cases of the virus, but the messages were pouring in that the entire region of Lombardia had officially ceased all public activity. We knew that once they would get around to closing the bars ( coffee shops), quarantine wouldn’t be far behind although as Cremona is a city, it would be difficult to shut it down entirely. Cremona has a population of about 72K. The town of Codogno is small by comparison with a population of 16K. The towns which experienced outbreak clusters were completely quarantined, but those ten towns had a combined population of 50K.
By Sunday afternoon, we found that we couldn’t go anywhere because not only were all Northern regions cancelling all public activity, Southern regions in Italy were already barring entry to anyone from the Lombardia region. We felt like the ’unclean’ from the times of the Plague. Masses had been cancelled as well. This happened only days before Ash Wednesday, the start of Christendom’s holiest season. All of our live performances had been cancelled, whether they were in the Lombardia or not, even if they were in a different region, more than three hours from any outbreak. Musician friends of ours were reporting that some of their shows on Saturday, the night before had been cancelled, even if in areas untouched by the virus. By Sunday night, everybody was sitting around telling stories to keep entertained and saying that we were reliving Boccaccio’s Decameron, except by then that joke was already wearing thin.
There was still a television broadcast and a radio broadcast for us to make and we could have possibly gone ahead with them. Monday morning, although I was still wondering if it would be worth it to finish out my stay and spend the week recording as well, I was checking out what it would take to change my ticket anyway when one of my friends in Cremona called me to say that a friend she hadn’t seen in ages called her with the news that son just tested positive for the virus. My friend suggested I get out before I am under quarantine or stuck here and surrounded by the virus anyway. Also, officials had by just restricted the bars (coffee shops) by limiting their hours of service from 6 am to 6pm so it was now time to get out of Dodge. N/B: As of Wednesday 2/26, the restrictions on the coffee shops were lifted.
Tuesday, 2/25 before dawn I set out for the airport in Milano. Many in the airport were wearing masks, which had long sold out locally before the weekend finished. I left and got through customs with absolutely no issues. The folks with the face masks? They wore them on the plane. Then on the plane wore them around their necks like necklaces so I do not know why they even bothered to wear them. On landing at JFK, I was ready to be asked a lot of security questions, having just arrived from Coronavirus Central in Italy and the only questions the customs agent asked me were “ Where are you returning from?” and “Is that the only country you visited?” So as of 2:30 pm on 2/25, JFK was still stuck on China and NOT scanning for Coronavirus Italy.
Through all this, my respect for the working press, while it wasn’t very high to begin with, is now completely non-existent. The native Italian reporters couldn’t even get the damn cities and towns and provinces straight! They attribute deaths to the wrong cities and confuse provinces with eponymous cities. This really angered a lot of Italians.
Early on they reported that there was one death from coronavirus in the city of Cremona. Keep reading past the headlines and down past the fold to learn the patient was elderly AND she suffering from multiple serious maladies resulting from a bout with cancer AND was receiving treatments for them. She was from a town about 40 minutes away from Cremona, but when she was taken ill was brought to the hospital IN Cremona because it is known treatment center for cancer. So the press report that one woman from Cremona died of Coronavirus! See how that works? If you scrutinize the reporting for the deaths yes, they have all been elderly, but of seriously compromised health, gravely ill. So far, these weren’t those 95 year old farmers you hear about who are still milking cows and climbing mountains.
It’s weird; there are few details about where people are picking up the virus. They were trying to target a Patient Zero, yet haven’t. They did target a Patient 1, but didn’t inform the general public that he went here, there, or everywhere in the last two weeks so if anyone had contact, they could monitor their health. On Monday it was reported that a soldier who is stationed in Milano, but who lives in Cremona, tested positive. He had been home for 5 days in Cremona. Nothing was reported as to his schedule /whereabouts during his days home. Was he home in bed with the flu? Was he at the market Saturday? Did he drop his kids off at school? Was he at a disco? When did these people come down with the virus? It’s supposed to have a 14 day incubation period, so where were they during the past two weeks? Very little is being reported about timelines as to who got sick when, where they went, etc. You have to hunt for the info. Why make it easy to help anyone? Why not just create general panic? It’s such slipshod reporting.
There was some reporting that the original cases in Codogno were tied to a coffee bar, but that didn’t get wide press. But, why make those details available to the public? Why not scare the stuffing out of everyone and tell them Coronavirus is now in your town, too? To provide info and to keep people from clogging the general emergency numbers, the region made a Coronavirus hotline and in the first days it couldn’t handle the traffic. Since Thursday night, everyone was tied to the news in all forms: telejournals; internet; messages and gossip. As we were trying to sift through the news, I kept thinking, “ How can I believe any of this?”
So why the small towns in the Lombardia and not big cities like Rome or Naples? Lombardia is home to a large Chinese population; they are the 5th largest immigrant group in the region. My friends told me that even in those small towns where the outbreak is, if you go into any bar (coffee shop) there are Chinese immigrants at work. Also, it’s Italy’s highly industrialized region and many companies have business connections with China. So lots of people in the region, native Italians and Chinese immigrants, travel back and forth to China either for business or to visit family. Italy had stopped all direct flights from China in early February, but these restrictions do not stop people from making connecting flights to get where they want to go. Add to all this a 14 day incubation period for the virus …and anything can happen.
When I first told CBD that I was worried about being stuck here, he said, “Hey, can’t be bad to be stuck in Cremona?” Well, on a regular day, Cremona is delightful, especially in the historic district. It’s a little treasure that hardly any tourists know about ( hint: after the virus peters out, visit Cremona!) The surrounding areas are beautiful and it is easy to get to so many places from Cremona. It’s also in the middle of a heartland of agriculture so the food is fresh, pure and amazing. The people are wonderful and It’s easy to see why people would want to immigrate to there. But when everything is paranoia, everything is shut down, every public event is cancelled, people are walking around in surgical masks and crossing to the other side of the street to avoid another human, and all you hear 24-7 is more fear mongering about Coronavirus, you can’t go anywhere because you aren’t permitted to enter any other part of the country and you are watching it become more likely that you’ll be stuck like this for a few weeks and wondering if you or anyone near you will catch the virus and will it be severe, it’s beyond stressful. Oh, and to add to the fear of possibly being stuck inside a quarantine… the penalty for breaking quarantine during the Coronavirus outbreak is 3 months in jail.
We kept reminding ourselves that it’s a virus…that is highly contagious, but doesn’t kill you unless you are already in seriously compromised health. There are specific symptoms, like fever; cough; etc. If the symptoms get too severe, you can go to a hospital and be treated, successfully. Be smart and practice standard, basic hygiene to reduce the odds of catching it. So…another words: it’s a virus.
Then the authorities say, “Don’t panic!“ And then they say, “But you can’t move at all and if you do, we’ll throw your butt in jail for 3 months!” Does these restrictions and quarantine actually help? Who knows? In spite of it, the virus is still getting around. It’s good to see a government actually doing something for its citizenry, but is this extreme? Again, who knows? it would be nice if there was better reporting and less fear-mongering. There are many crazy details just not reported; details sensationalized; and things are changing minute by minute. My biggest fear was that my family back home in the USA would read the crazy news reports and start to worry. I kept my daughter, the most internet-connected person in the family, in the info-loop as soon as I could, to gave her as much truth as I could in case she needed to counter-act the panic inducing news that was coming out of Italy. It was hard to know exactly what the truth was or is. The gossip among the market vendors seemed more reassuring than the official news!
Now you see why I got out?
Michela Musolino is a professional singer specializing in Sicilian folk songs. She performs regularly here and abroad, and you can learn more about her and hear some of her music at her website.
She is also an astute observer of the political and social landscape!