It came as no great surprise. In fact, there was almost an air of inevitability about it when the latest government decree was issued late on Monday evening. In an effort to halt the spread of coronavirus, the whole of Italy, from the Alps to Etna, is – to coin the media’s favourite term – under lockdown until 3rd April.
Here in Le Marche the first warning signs came at the end of February when all schools across the region were closed for a week. This affected me straight away as the language school I work for runs its own courses for adults and children, delivers course in companies, and does a lot of work in state schools. Consequently, just under half my timetable was cancelled at about 12 hours’ notice, although I was at least still able to deliver my company courses and individual lessons. Since there were no recorded cases at all in the region at the time, the immediate response to what looked suspiciously like a knee-jerk reaction was one mainly of dismay, especially since the region’s residents were given hardly notice of the closures. Indeed, there was similar dismay in Rome, but there it was because the national government reportedly felt that our regional government had exceeded its powers in issuing its decree unilaterally and some behind-closed-doors political argy-bargy ensued.
Whatever the finer constitutional points of the matter, the upshot was that the decree was lifted early and schools re-opened three days sooner than originally stated – only to be closed again three days later for a further five days, accompanied by general, common sense (if not blindingly obvious) advice about covering your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, and keeping away from anyone infected. This apparent indecision only added to people’s growing concern and provided little reassurance that the regional government actually knew what it was doing. Meanwhile, the number of cases in the north continued to grow.
Before Le Marche’s second five-day closure finished, however, the national government in Rome asserted its authority and on 4th March, with confirmed cases in all 20 regions, it decided to close every school, college and university across the whole country until 15th March. At the same time, it tightened restrictions further in the very worst hit areas in the north of the country – the ‘red zones’ – and added a longer, stricter list of do’s and don’ts for everyone. By this stage, there were a couple of dozen cases in Le Marche and one or two fatalities, all of them in the northernmost province of the region – ie that bordering Emilia-Romagna, one of the areas badly hit by the virus. It was getting closer. In practice, even at this point, though, things had changed very little for us personally.
As he effectively works from home anyway, Mr Blue-Shirt still carried on exactly as normal with his lengthy programme of work on the house. And while all lessons in state schools and group lessons in our own school premises were cancelled, I still carried on with my stripped-back timetable of a fortnight earlier. Only by now, the staff in the toll booths on the motorways were wearing latex gloves, as were increasing numbers of checkout staff in supermarkets. No masks in evidence, though, and no empty shelves, no panic buying. And the only reason queues seemed slightly longer was that people were just starting to stand a little further apart from one another.
Then over the weekend came the big spike both in confirmed cases and fatalities within the red zones, and increased numbers of cases across the rest of the country. The existing containment measures clearly weren’t working, and few people harboured much hope of things returning to normal on 15th March. And so, late yesterday evening, people’s worst expectations were confirmed. With a single flourish of his pen (and a very heavy heart, I suspect), Prime Minister Conte put the whole of the rest of the country – now officially the ‘amber zone’ – into quarantine, complete with a catchy hashtag to capture the essence of the stringent measures that have been put in place: ‘#iorestoacasa – I’m staying at home’.
So here I obediently sit. Instead of preparing lessons for ‘real’ classes, I have spent much of the day getting to grips with my school’s online platform for delivering virtual lessons wherever possible, emailing homework to students, and drawing comfort in this challenging teaching environment from the lovely bunch of people I work with. Beyond the confines of my virtual community, things are quiet; very quiet – even by the standards of the country road we live on. But life is continuing reasonably normally. Mr Blue-Shirt can report that as of today, there are good stocks of loo paper and pasta (and everything else) at the supermarket where Perspex screens have now been added the cash desks to protect checkout staff, and business almost as usual (and certainly as slow as usual) at the post office where people now have to queue outside. Our fridge, freezer and cupboards are full, we have wood for the fire, family and friends at our fingertips, and we are both feeling as fit and healthy as ever.
So day 1 in the amber zone? Strange, and slightly unnerving – but no real hardship as yet.