Opinion: Diaries from Italy’s pandemic lockdown

ROME, ITALY - I roll out of bed. I don’t remember what day of lockdown it is, but I know it’s nearing a month and a half. I make my morning cup of coffee, a double espresso - Italian style. I love to hear the little machine whistle and I savor every sip, wishing the caffeine didn’t affect me so much.

Over the brim of my cup, I see a small spider making its way up my plaster white walls. It probably got in on one of the flowering plants I picked while taking out the trash. The white flowers grow right next to the trash bin, which somehow seems like a fitting place. They are my reminder of the beauty outside that I can’t wait to grasp once again.

Since Italy went on lockdown on March 9, life in Rome has completely transformed.

Lines curl around the sides of grocery stores, each person respecting the one-meter (three-feet) distance imposed by the Italian government. Every face is covered in a mask, revealing only the eyes of each person. Some look desperate, others look sad; everyone is struggling with fear and uncertainty of the unknown.

Despite this, people are not hoarding. There are no fights over toilet paper in the store; instead, there are acts of kindness. Strangers buy 30 bags of pasta and leave them on benches in cities for those in need and charitable organizations still work to provide meals for the homeless at least twice a day.

There is a new sense of community. This is the beautiful part of the pandemic. Rather than dividing, the lockdown had spurred unity in the country through flash mobs. Every evening at 6 p.m., Italians hang out their balconies, desperate for human contact and the sense of community that seems built into their Italian DNA. People have flags, others have musical instruments or makeshift ones from kitchen pots and wooden spoons, but they all join in song together. I also take part, singing, lighting candles and wishing “buonasera” (“good evening”) to all the neighbors I never knew I had before.

It’s strange to see the patriotism spread throughout the country. I’ve been here four years and I’ve never seen anything like it. It almost seems like the United States and Georgia, which is one of my Italian fiancé’s favorite parts of the country - the patriotic citizens, U.S. flags flying from every house and the American flag bathing suits swimmers wear each hot Georgia summer.

Now, it’s also here. Italian flags wave in the warm, spring breeze outside windows or from apartment balconies, their national anthem plays from radio stations and can be heard coming from inside homes. People are proud to be Italian and even prouder of the work their doctors and nurses are doing to save lives.

Hospitals are full and patients cannot breathe. Nurses and doctors are unable to hug their children or spouses upon returning home from their long shifts. They are in forced isolation, simply for saving lives. There is good medical news though. After a month of continuously rising numbers, there’s a slow, but steady decrease in new cases and the number of people in ICU.

On TV many nights, Italian military trucks are seen traveling to nearby provinces in single-file lines. They transport dead bodies to be buried with hundreds of others, who have all died with coronavirus as the culprit. There are no funerals, no time for goodbyes from family members and no final moments together.

It reminds me of the sirens I hear throughout the day. I live across from a hospital. Every 20 minutes, I hear another ambulance speed by, the sound getting lost in the distance. Most days I feel quite nauseous, thinking about the pain that affected families and friends feel. It’s a difficult reality and I’m eager for it to end.

Every other day, I walk to work. As a journalist, I’m part of the “protected category,” and thus get to leave my house some days. I walk the 40 minutes to the office, feeling like a fugitive, escaping.

What makes it worse are all the police I pass on my way. Many stand outside, asking each passerby for documentation on where he or she is going. Each of us must carry a printed sheet, full of personal information and why we are out, including our address and the destination’s address. There are three excused reasons to leave the house: work, a medical emergency, or necessities, like grocery shopping.

Italian police enforce the lockdown law ever more. At the beginning, leaving the house without one of the three excusable reasons cost a fine of 200 to 300 euros. Now, the cost is up to 3,000 euros ($3,240).

Rome’s mayor even brags of how they “catch” people, using drones to spot runners on deserted streets. Police go after them and “violators” get the reward of going home with a large fine.

Coronavirus also affects my future. I am to get married in June. The way things are looking for both the United States and Italy, that date will change. But we don’t know when to reschedule. We don’t have enough information on what the future will look like or when international travel will be open again.

On May 4, Italy is scheduled to enter into “phase two” of the lockdown. It is unclear what that entails, but many hope outside exercise and going to work will be allowed for everyone. Italy needs new coronavirus cases to slow to under 1 percent before any decisions can be made. Currently, they are barely under 2 percent.

The world’s reality seems like a terrible nightmare. But I find the silver lining in all the virtual acts of kindness and consideration taking place. They remind me of how simple our lives really are - meant to be lived together and for each other. This is one aspect I hope remains after this pandemic ends.

Melissa Nicole Butz is a journalist in Rome, Italy. Born in Alpharetta, she is a graduate of Etowah High School in Cherokee County, and Kennesaw State University. She has also lived in Wales in the U.K., and Barcelona, Spain while working for print publications, radio and television channels.