My wife and I are U.S.citizens living in Rome, Italy. For the last three weeks we have been in government-mandated COVID-19 lock-down. I note with rising alarm that significant numbers in our home country are not yet convinced of the virus’ mortal threat.
Nothing that I have experienced in either my U.S. military or United Nations careers is comparable.
Nearly 1,000 people died in one 24-hour period two days ago in Italy, while the country passed the grim marker of 10,000 total dead on Sunday. Caskets filled with human remains are stacked like cord wood awaiting military convoy movement to crematoriums. Health care professionals are suffering significant infection rates due to shortages in protective garb. Physicians are performing triage—selecting those who have the best chance for life while regrettably allowing others to die because there aren’t enough ventilators to go around. My advice for all Americans is to take the threat seriously!
Thus far my wife and I have not been infected. In my estimation, that is no accident. We do nothing that might lead to exposure to the virus.
What’s it like in lock-down? We watch the local and international news every morning. The Italian mortality and infection rates are of intense continuing interest. To date, the most dangerous region is in the north. Now the south is reporting more cases. Rome is right smack in the middle. That is worrisome, as we are both seniors and in the most potentially vulnerable demographic. My wife and I both try and remain upbeat. Neither of us wants to worry the other.
If groceries are required, I am the one to do it once a week. Before departure from our apartment my wife masks and gloves me very much like what you might see when a nurse assists a physician prior to entering a surgical theater.
Then, I take a short walk to the neighborhood market ready to stand in line. Current hours of operation are governed by edict—8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. and closed on Sunday. Only a very few persons are permitted to enter at a time. A security guard stands at the entrance—controlling access—while squirting sanitizer in the cupped hands of each person as they enter. Every cashier and everyone stacking shelves inside is masked and gloved. There is one designated entrance and exit—to further control traffic flow.
The often-long line outside is staggered. Waits of an hour or more are not unusual. Those in line pay close attention to keeping as much space as possible between themselves with a one meter minimum. Everyone is intensely aware that the virus can be transmitted by air and touch. Nobody wants to fall victim. We all watch the same news broadcasts. The video footage of military trucks carrying the many recently decreased is haunting.
A visit to the grocery store is only one of three reasons when I am permitted to be in the street. The other two permitted trips are to the local ATM, and of course the pharmacy for necessary medicines. Fines of up to 3,000 Euros (roughly $3,300) can be levied by the police should I be found on the street without state-approved cause. One infected person can spread the disease to many others. These seemingly Draconian measures are necessary and prudent.
All other business establishments are shuttered. There are no open cafes, restaurants, hardware stores, hair salons, or barber shops. The usually bustling city of Rome has taken on the appearance of a dystopian future science fiction movie—a ghost town.
Re-entering our apartment requires some care. I must assume that I may have inadvertently picked-up the virus while outside. 1. Use hand sanitizer on my gloves before removing them. 2. Trash the gloves. 3. Disinfect my hands. 4. Remove the mask — all before delivering the groceries to the kitchen — and while avoiding touching my face. I take a shower afterward. Common soap and hot water thankfully kill the virus.
Getting seriously ill reflects only one part of our unease. The place where we would usually go to get well, the hospital, may not be much help. There is a valid concern that medical facilities could become epicenters for the virus’ spread.
At the human level, and even worse, the terminally ill most often die alone with no family or friends in attendance. The hospital wards are too infectious to permit visitors. Nobody wants to die that way. But perish they do and thereafter the bodies are moved straight to refrigerator vans. The morgues in some regions are full. The psychological toll on effected families as well as the general population is profound. Death suddenly seems to be hovering nearby tugging at your elbow.
The lock-down in Italy—the whole of the country—began in early March. The thinking then was that a 3-week lock-down would be enough, but no longer. Based on some reports, we could easily be looking at the whole month of April in self-isolation as well, and perhaps longer if the current protocols in place need more time to be fully effective.
The Italian prime minister was made aware that the pandemic could not be successfully dealt with region by region. The virus does not recognize borders. He instead instituted a national response, which has been proven to be the best possible solution under these unprecedented circumstances. Tragically, the US thus far refuses to learn from the Italian experience—a fully coordinated nation-wide response is clearly needed. The ultimate cost of a failure to recognize this fact will be eventually measured in lives lost and grieving families.
I have recently seen a couple of near fights and shouting matches in grocery lines. The pressure is building. Nerves are beginning to fray. Families that are unaccustomed to 24/7 close quarters in Roman apartments creates a no doubt challenging situation. Many of these people have lived week by week on the tourist trade. The tourists are gone. The economy is in tatters. Several are wondering when they will see another paycheck.
In my former professions, the best course forward often demanded some sort of action. This unprecedented circumstance is the near mirror opposite. Remaining at home, while limiting all outside human-to-human contact is the safest and therefore best path to follow.
Every evening at 6 p.m. our neighbors living around the local piazza look out their windows or stand on their balconies to either listen or sing songs to one another. Morale, at least in our small enclave, remains surprisingly good and despite the uniformly bad news. But underneath it all, I sense some foreboding: a largely unexpressed fear of the next sun rise. Nobody knows what tomorrow might bring.
Robert Bruce Adolph is a retired US Army Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel and UN Chief Security Advisor. He has recently published a startling new book entitled “Surviving the United Nations: The Unexpected Challenge.”