In the beginning, Debra Biagini approached the coronavirus much like many of us here and across the country — with a bit of skepticism.
In her mind, it was a kind of flu, and as with H1N1 and other flu-like viruses, we could expect some fatalities. Plus, China, the epicenter of the disease, was thousands of miles away from her home in Italy.
“What effect would that have on our lives?” she wondered.
Then March 9 arrived and the gravity of the illness was clear.
That was the day Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte ordered all businesses to close and residents to remain a meter apart at all times. They could leave their homes only to go to the grocer or pharmacy or walk the dog.
“At that point, I figured you could still manage your life,” Biagini said in a FaceTime chat. “When they decided to close the gyms and health spas, it all became real. It was as the young people say this is going down, this is not a joke anymore.”
I had the pleasure of meeting Biagini late last year during a visit with her father Theodore Roosevelt Britton Jr. of Atlanta. I shared their story in October soon after Biagini discovered through MyHeritage.com, a global family history and DNA website, that the man she believed was her biological father for most of her life wasn’t. Britton was.
Three years before Biagini’s birth in 1958, Britton and her mother, Elizabeth, met at Carver Savings and Loan, where the two worked in Harlem. Most of their time together had been spent at the bank with Ted, happily married, sometimes giving Elizabeth a lift home. When she abruptly left the bank one day, they never saw or talked to each other again.
The year the father who raised her passed, Debra divorced and moved to Rome, Italy, where she runs a successful florist and event design business. Britton, a former U.S. ambassador to Barbados and Grenada, had remarried and was living here in Atlanta. He, too, had received notice from MyHeritage that he had a daughter in Italy. Even though he’d visited over 170 countries in his lifetime, Britton was certain he’d never been romantically involved with anyone in Italy, plus he didn’t know one person with the name Biagini.
It was a sweet story with a happy ending. Not only did Biagini discover her real father, but the entire Britton clan, spread across four states, including New York, where coronavirus cases now number in the thousands, embraced her.
They have been in near-constant virtual contact since the virus hit.
Like other shop owners, Biagini was forced to close Debraflowers more than a week ago and has been holed up since at her home just outside L’Eur south of the city center.
At the beginning of the outbreak, Biagini said she could take walks, but in addition to all the other restrictions, she must limit the time she spends outside, conscious of the fact that her behavior can negatively impact others.
The social distancing, perhaps, has been the most difficult of all this.
“Italians don’t believe in personal space,” she said. “They are known all over the world for the double cheek kiss. You can just imagine the difficulty they are having at the moment.
“On a cultural television program today when by video call the interviewer asked a young person, ‘What is the first thing you want to do when this is over?,’ her answer was ‘Meet my friends for a hug and cappuccino.’”
Even after 30 years in Italy, where coronavirus cases and deaths are now second only to China, Biagini said she marvels at how Italians have remained upbeat, taking to the internet to celebrate birthdays and other special moments.
“It says a lot about how Italians deal with difficult times,” she said. “I can’t imagine people in Manhattan hanging out their windows singing together. We will be singing this song. It was a very emotional moment.”
Very typical of Italians, the kitchen has become even more popular than usual. On the few WhatsApp groups that Biagini is associated with, members are posting photos of elaborate meals that they are preparing for their family. They are also sharing Photoshopped pictures making fun of how fat they all will be when they return to the beach this summer.
The good news is they won’t have to worry about how lean their pocketbooks might become. Conte thought of that, too, putting in place immediate stop payments on things like taxes, gas, electricity and mortgages.
“If you didn’t have enough money in the bank to cover that, you don’t have to worry about getting a notice,” Biagini said.
On a grim note, Biagini said Italian victims of the coronavirus are being taken directly from the morgue to the cemetery.
“I’ve heard that in the northern part of the country, funeral homes are bringing people in every 30 minutes for burial,” she said. “We’re hoping when this is over, there will be a memorial service to cover all the people who have died.”
Meanwhile, Biagini said she hopes we Americans will take this virus more seriously. And as much as she believes in the power of prayer, she’s perplexed when people use the sentiment to be reckless.
Pray but do our part to remain safe. Practice social distancing and wash our hands.
“This virus kills,” she said. “Take it seriously.”
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