Panic attacks, dreams on hold, and depression: 3 Italian women describe what a month under coronavirus lockdown looks like

insider@insider.com (Rhea Mahbubani)
In an unusually empty Piazza Maggiore in Bologna on March 13, 2020, an encounter between a man and a woman is held at the safe distance imposed by Italian authorities as a way to fight the coronavirus outbreak.

Marco Panzetti/NurPhoto via Getty Images

  • Cinzia Bruzzese, of Bologna, Italy, believes that world leaders should have responded to the coronavirus by shutting down things much earlier, "but that didn't happen, so we all have to learn to live with it now." 
  • She and two other Italian women told Business Insider about their "new normal," and how they've coped with being under lockdown for a month.

When the coronavirus first breached Italy, Cinzia Bruzzese and her friends discussed the pandemic and its effects on life as they knew it. 

In the nearly one month since being on lockdown, that chatter has ground to a halt, the Bologna resident said.

"It feels taboo in some sense. It's too depressing," she told Business Insider.

For Bruzzese, that switch flipped in mid-March.  

"I would have one [browser] tab open with an article about churches full of coffins in Bergamo, talking about how their loved ones couldn't even attend their funerals as it was too dangerous, and in another tab I was scrolling through the #quarantineparty on Twitter, reading about people in the US [who] were worried because they had [finished] their quarantine snacks," Bruzzese recalled. "It was just their way of connecting with others over their fear, but it felt really disrespectful.

"I thought, 'You're only joking about it because you don't know what it's like to not feel safe to breathe the air in your own house yet,'" she continued.

Bruzzese is among three Italian women who talked to Business Insider, painting a picture of daily life under a month-long lockdown and offering a look at what may possibly be in store for Americans down the road.  

'Better safe than dead'

Despite cutting down on the time she spends surfing the internet or scrolling through social media, Bruzzese admitted that she can't seem to stop worrying. As people she knows began to contract coronavirus, she was wracked by fear that a family member or her boyfriend would also test positive for COVID-19 and they wouldn't be able to see each other again.

Her extended family lives in Australia, said Bruzzese who is "terrified" that her brothers or their children will expose her elderly father to the coronavirus.

"I lose sleep over it and woke up with a panic attack last week," she said. "It took me a while to work out if I couldn't breathe because I was having a panic attack or if I had the virus and acute pneumonia had set in. I've been trying to explain to my family and friends that asymptomatic people are the people to worry about and that if they don't see Dad for a couple of months it's not the worst thing in the world. Better safe than dead, right?"

A worker sanitizes the Piazza dei Miracoli near to the Tower of Pisa in Pisa, Italy, on March 17 2020.

Laura Lezza/Getty Images

Bruzzese is a graduate student at the Università di Bologna, so, during the day, she immerses herself in online lectures, and quiets her concerns, at least temporarily. Freelance work helps her stay afloat while her professors have taken on almost "parental roles," guiding her and other students through the emotional trauma caused by the pandemic.  

Bologna is located in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna, where more than 18,200 have tested positive and 2,200-plus have died, according to the local news agency Corriere della Sera

As far as old medieval towns go, Bologna is usually spry, bustling with people flitting around to shopping and cultural events, Bruzzese said. Of late, though, there's an eerie stillness cast over it.

"It's like we're all just holding our breaths, waiting," Bruzzese described. "There's been a few shifts from initial nervous energy to an unspoken fear and distrust of others." But now, its nearly 400,000 residents are calm because they've accepted this new reality. "We know we need to be patient, that it's beyond our control," she added.

Italy is being wrecked by the coronavirus

As of Thursday, Italy has reported more than 143,600 cases and at least 18,279 deaths, the highest of any country impacted by COVID-19

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte put the nation of 60 million residents on lockdown on March 10. The strict containment measures, which now also limit internal travel, are aimed at ensuring that people stay at least six feet away from each other, and help reduce the virus' rate of spread, thus "flattening the curve" and decreasing the burden on the already overwhelmed healthcare system

 "We are suffering very much. It's a devastating pain," Conte said on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday.

People who emerge from their homes for work or essential business, including going to grocery stores or pharmacies, must cover their noses and mouths. More than 175,000 people have been fined for violating the country's strict rules, which will remain in effect till at least April 13, although Conte expects to extend the restrictions until an as-yet-undisclosed date.

Bruzzese described life under lockdown as "surreal," adding that "the rest of the world doesn't really understand the scale of what we're going through and only people in Wuhan can relate to it."

A non-intubated COVID-19 patient is transported by nurses inside a biological containment stretcher in the Da Procida Hospital on April 08, 2020 in Salerno, Italy,

Ivan Romano/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Fiorella, who asked to be identified only by her first name, lives in Naples. It is tucked away in the Campania region of southern Italy, which has confirmed nearly 3,270 cases and 221 deaths. Authorities expect the virus to peak in mid-April since they are "behind" northern Italy in terms of the infection's spread, she said.

"In Italy, healthcare is a regional competence," Fiorella said, and southern Italy's resources don't compare to the populous north, where the nation's manufacturing and financial hubs are located.

So officials are working on adding more beds to hospitals' intensive care units and providing frontline medical workers with personal protective equipment so they can adequately respond to the virus, Fiorella said, adding, "We are really hoping that the restrictive measures that have been taken will give us enough time so that our health system doesn't collapse."

But, as NPR reported, Naples, though not as badly stricken by the coronavirus as cities in the north, is struggling with poverty and unemployment. People have taken to lowering "solidarity baskets" filled with food — that read "Those who can, put something in, those who can't, help yourself" — hanging from ropes attached to homes' balconies. 

There's no manual on how to deal with a pandemic

Thinking back to when the coronavirus first erupted on an international scale, Fiorella said Italians made the mistake of thinking that "the phenomenon was more limited" even though the local scientific community was sounding the alarm about COVID-19, saying that it was going to wrack Italy and wreak havoc.

"China actually gave us the time to prepare but I think we didn't — or at least not properly," she said. "There was no plan and no strategy to fight the virus."

Shutting down Lombardy, Italy's coronavirus epicenter with over 53,400 coronavirus patients and 9,722 deaths, was guaranteed to trigger an economic slowdown, which may have caused indecision among officials, Fiorella said, seeing as the nation was already teetering on the verge of a recession.

Bruzzese agreed.

"The biggest hurdle the government had was imposing strict rules while still trying to maintain a liberal democracy and preserve an economy," she said. "It's not like there's a handbook on how to handle these situations, you know? Italians aren't the type of people you can tell what to do anyway and even now there's some people who won't listen to reason and stay inside."

In response, Italians have taken to sticking their heads out of windows or standing on balconies to shame people who they see out on the streets. Videos have also emerged of outraged mayors censuring people who are flouting the rules.

People in Rome, Italy, wait in line for their turn to enter a supermarket on April 7, 2020.

Andrea Pirri/NurPhoto via Getty Images

"The world has seen in China that social distancing works, and we owe it to health workers, people working in supermarkets, everybody who keeps our country going, and in general everybody who doesn't have a choice to stay home," said Fiorella, who is unemployed and whose prospects dried up with the onset of the coronavirus.

On March 16, the Italian government approved an emergency decree worth 25 billion euros — or $28 billion — to bolster its fragile economy, CNBC reported. This is a weighty economic package," Conte said about the decree that has paused loan and mortgage repayments, and will help companies pay employees who are temporarily out of work as everything from schools to restaurants and shops remain shuttered as part of the lockdown.

For her part, Fiorella is living with her mother and sisters, all of whom are public workers — a doctor, a teacher and a retired nurse — whose paychecks are still coming in. But the government has helped, she said, in the form of foodstamps, parental leave, and "financial aid to independent workers, but the situation is really fragile since a lot of people live paycheck to paycheck and rely heavily on undeclared work — we say black work— especially in the south."

An estimated 3.3 million Italians perform off-the-books work for cash, with at least one million of those jobs concentrated in poorer southern regions.

"I think the economic and social consequences are going to be far more devastating than the virus," said Fiorella, amid reports of brewing social unrest and fears of organized crime rearing its head. 

Surrounded by uncertainty, Fiorella finds it beneficial to stick to a routine of waking up at a scheduled time, doing housework, eating a balanced diet, and having some fun in the form of TV shows, learning Spanish, and staying in touch with her family and friends, one of whom is Francesca Pelucchini.

Dreams on pause amid the coronavirus

Pelucchini, who also lives in Bologna, was taking the first steps toward achieving a dream: creating an Airbnb Experience when the outbreak took hold. Her idea involved "taking small groups of people around the markets of Bologna, buying fresh ingredients, and coming back to my place where we would make fresh pasta from scratch to have with homemade ragù and have a nice meal together — with loads of Italian wine, of course," she said.

The 28-year-old had just completed her first round of meetings with the Chamber of Commerce with more slated for the coming months. And then the pandemic arrived on the scene.

"But I am not giving up," said Pelucchini. "Even if we are all suffering in our own way, I think these extreme measures are necessary. Italy will recover as it always has done. This is why we need to keep on dreaming and thinking about the future, even during this time of fear and uncertainty, because the country will need us more than ever once this will all be over."

She, too, keeps herself busy by attending virtual lectures from Università di Bologna, watching old Italian movies from the 1950s and 1960s, and going to the supermarket once a week — which, Pelucchini said, has morphed into a whole new experience due to the coronavirus.

Once the country got past a brief phase of terrified people panic buying and "plundering" supermarkets, shelves have remained fully stocked. So Pelucchini has stuck with a small store that's a 10-minute walk from her house, where a plexiglass division has been erected to help cashiers reduce contact with customers.

"You have to get a number at the entrance and wait in line for your turn to go in," she said. "They let in one person at a time and once you are in, it's a very strange experience. It makes me very anxious because you can feel how tense the atmosphere is: people avoiding each other, [afraid] of touching anything without gloves."

Even so, maintaining a daily and weekly routine helps buoy Pelucchini, who has dealt with depression for the last several years.

"I am trying to remind myself that this is a very uncommon situation and that I can't expect too much from myself," she said. "So I appreciate the good days, and on the bad days, I just embrace the sadness hoping that the next day will be better."

An undertaker wearing a face mask walks ahead of a hearse bringing the coffin of an elderly woman to a funeral service in the closed cemetery of Seriate, near Bergamo, Lombardy, Italy on March 20, 2020.

Piero Cruciatti/AFP via Getty Images

Unlike others in her cohort, Pelucchini doesn't believe it's empathetic to put medical workers on pedestals where they're regarded as heroes. If anything, that's "deceiving," she said, because "they are normal people just like us."

Healthcare workers on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic "don't have superpowers: they get tired, they are scared, they are uncertain of the future, they feel sadness," said Pelucchini. "Being in a high-risk environment, most of them can't live with their families anymore ... They are just like us, feeling everything we are feeling in our homes, but they have to overcome it every day and work in really inhumane conditions, trying to save lives."

Rather than hero worship, Pelucchini looks at their service as a reminder to stay home and practice social distancing.

The prime minister, she said, is "really asking so little of us compared to what these people are doing every day."

By contrast, President Donald Trump, despite being told by experts that a national lockdown will help to halt the coronavirus, has relied on state authorities to issue a patchwork of stay-at-home orders. At present, about 95% of the United States population has been ordered to shelter in place.

Asked what lessons the US can learn from the Italian experience with the coronavirus, Bruzzese didn't mince her words.

"It's too late for the US and most countries — things should have been shut down immediately, complete lockdown with leaders who makes it clear that people need to stay home, no excuses," she said. "But that didn't happen ... so we all have to learn to live with it now."

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