Some notes from a trip to Italy

When I arrived in Italy in mid-February, I was greeted by a squad of workers in biohazard suits taking everybody's temperature before allowing them into the terminal building. For once, it seems I was actually cool enough to be let into the club... Once inside, it was business as usual; Italians were aware of the whole coronavirus thing like everybody else, but it was just one of many things to be worried about. One of the headlines on La Repubblica that day as about how Greeks drank 2400 years ago.

By the time we left two weeks later, coronavirus was all there was. Schools and businesses were closed, soccer games canceled. Spots with TV personalities telling us to wash our hands a lot and not touch our faces. Quarantined red zones. A number of countries were denying entry to people coming from Italy and blocking Italian flights; I was not fully convinced we were going to be able to leave. Here's a few thoughts on the experience for anybody who might be interested.

Everything I have seen tells me that what has happened there is going to happen here – indeed, if it hasn't already happened to an extent far beyond what we know. When things happen, they happen quickly; Italy went from fairly normal to being a country under siege over the course of about two days. It can be tempting to see this whole thing as a slow-moving crisis, but the pace can change abruptly.

TV news, as one might imagine, went nuts with it; all coronavirus all the time. Lots of exhortations not to panic, but the whole thing seemed almost designed to bring about just that sort of panic. From what I could see, in a city (Ravenna) that had no cases by the time we left, people were absolutely not panicking. Life was mostly normal, if a bit slower than usual. Restaurants were open; bars were full of people yelling at games on the TV. Everybody talks about the situation all the time, but they are not cowering from it. Until we got to the airport we saw almost nobody wearing masks.

There was talk of a bit of craziness in the grocery stores, but we went a couple of days later and found the shelves full – and a lack of people that made coronavirus almost seem like a nice thing.

As the number of cases grows, the situation will surely become less nice.

One of the reasons people aren't wearing masks may well be that they have become rather difficult to find. Hospitals are running short of them. They are, naturally, made in China, and the whole “made in China” thing isn't working all that well at the moment. If there are more infections, more travel bans, more closed borders, there are going to be more supply-chain disruptions. It's a good time to think about having a personal supply of things you really don't want to run out of.

Italy has been unlucky with this disease, but it may not be as much of an outlier as it seems. Many of those coronavirus cases have been found because Italy has been especially determined to look for them. As of earlier this week, Italy had tested ten times as many people as France, for example.

...and France has tested more people than all of the US has. It is amazing how little effort has gone into checking for coronavirus cases here. There is a real chance — if not a certainty — that there's a lot more coronavirus circulating in the US than we think there is.

Not everything the Italian government has done seems to make sense; a certain amount of it looks mainly driven by the need to be seen Doing Something. But I got the sense that the government fully understands the scale of the problem it is facing, is truly working to address it as well as it can, and is not feeding the country bullshit. The realization that the response in the US does not engender the same sorts of feelings is disquieting at best.

We do live in interesting times.