Sometimes being a journalist means having to improvise. It was Sunday 23 February when Italy announced draconian measures to stop people leaving or entering 11 towns that had been put under quarantine - 10 in the Lombardy region and one in Veneto. I got up early that day to hike around Lake Albano in Castel Gandolfo, about 40 minutes by train from Rome. I had left home more prepared for the possibility of needing to work – bringing with me a notepad and pen – than I did for the hike.
Sure enough, 20 minutes into the walk the announcement came. I stopped, found a spot by the lake, and wrote the first 600 words that began the Guardian’s coverage of Italy’s coronavirus outbreak. Fortunately, I have a robust smartphone. Sitting by the lake, I had a feeling that life as we knew it had stopped. By the end of that day, three people had died of the virus and 152 were infected.
We knew Covid-19 had made it to Italy in late January, when two Chinese tourists in Rome were confirmed to have contracted it. “No more masks” signs started to appear on the windows of chemists; my neighbour in Rome began disinfecting the banisters of the building’s stairwell and door handles. “You never know,” he said one morning, smoking a cigarette. I chalked most of this up to paranoia, not quite grasping that something that was happening so far away in China could reach Europe.
So when the outbreak suddenly emerged, it caught most of us off guard. As with any major breaking news story, a journalist’s first instinct is to get to the scene quickly. In recent years, I’ve covered an earthquake, an avalanche and the collapse of Genoa’s Morandi bridge. All of those were tragedies that had a profound impact, but they were also ones in which the cause of the events and level of destruction was known and clearly visible. Covering the coronavirus outbreak, especially in the early stages, has been different in the sense that the threat is there, but cannot be seen or properly understood. Coverage needs more caution and planning.
With journalists unable to cross into the quarantined towns, the closest I got to the centre of the outbreak was Milan. That was on 25 February. I was fairly relaxed, worrying most about meeting my deadline. This time I had my computer with me, and filed the story from the foyer of a hotel close to the cathedral. A group of tourists were sitting nearby, coughing repeatedly. Did they have coronavirus? I became hypervigilant for potential symptoms.
Since then, most of my reporting has been done by phone, as the country rapidly shut down.
The death toll and number of people infected kept going up. However, the high number of those recovering, including the two Chinese tourists, was reassuring. Three people I spoke to who had recovered said their symptoms were mild. My first insight into the virus’s real destructiveness only came when I spoke to Costantino Pesatori, the mayor of Castiglione d’Adda, one of the first Lombardy towns under quarantine, on 6 March. The town lost 18 citizens in less than two weeks, one of them a 55-year-old man who had no known underlying health issues. Three of the town’s five doctors were in quarantine, the other two hospitalised with the virus. “We have many people with a fever who are at home and who are unable to be visited by a doctor,” Pesatori said.
Still, at that point, the voices – including some medics – saying “this is no worse than flu” or “millions die of flu” were louder than the voices of people such as Pesatori. The media came under attack. In one post shared on Facebook, coronavirus was described as “a godsend” for journalists who were using it to enjoy a moment in the limelight. Seeing friends who run small businesses in Italy worrying about their livelihoods, I felt guilty. Was I being irresponsible? But the more I wrote, the more I learned about the virus. I thought about family and friends who would be vulnerable to it, those either suffering or recovering from cancer, those with heart issues, diabetes, or high blood pressure. This wasn’t an illness that affected only the elderly or frail. People were dying before their time, regardless of their age.
As we told stories about the victims, the overwhelmed hospitals and how Italy was struggling to bury its dead, the horror of the virus’s impact started to hit home, especially abroad. When a reader emailed thanking us for our “responsible” coverage, I cried. The reader had shared a story about Bergamo, the worst-affected province, with friends in the UK and said it had made an impact in terms of the message sinking in there.
The whole of Italy has been under lockdown for almost three weeks. Every day at 6pm the population solemnly tunes in for the “war bulletin”, when the civil protection authority gives an update on the number of deaths and infected. There was hope on Monday when, for two days in a row, the numbers for both had decreased. All we have now is hope that Italy will soon turn a corner. And when it does, I look forward to finishing the hike around Lake Albano.