March 14

On March 5, we flew out of Rome back to LAX. At the Rome Fiumicino airport we were given a form to fill out regarding where we had traveled in the past month and if we were experiencing any symptoms. When getting onto the plane we individually had our temperature screened and recorded. The flight was only 30% full, it was eerie to see so many empty isles. Once arriving in JFK we retrieved our bags and went through customs quickly. They asked no questions about our travels, did not take our temperature and did not wear face masks. We got on our flight to LAX which was close to full. I couldn’t help but worry about the United States and a lack of any preventative or screening measures present. Despite Trump’s claims, I am not confident that it is “under control”. 

 

On March 9, panic continues to spread. Coachella is threatened to be canceled and more cruise ships find themselves unable to dock. Two days ago, Northern Italy was placed on lockdown with all individuals urged to stay inside their homes. Today, all of Italy is shut indoors. All schools are closed with additional restrictions on restaurants, pubs and theaters which now all close at sunset. Earlier confusion and hesitance has given way to full spread panic– the mayor of Bergamo (in Lombardy) announcing their hospitals are on the brink of collapse. Everyday lives are quickly changing to new normals, new expectations and the change is painful. 

 

As testing still lags behind in the US, many speculate as to the restrictions of democracy and capitalism on the nation’s attempt at halting the spread of disease. Many people are expected to ignore health warnings and continue working in order to keep their jobs. The likelihood of people remaining in their homes is slim and the government will have a difficult time imposing the necessary authoritarian measures. Trump continues to deny the severity of the disease in an attempt to alleviate stress but his loose adherence to proven facts make it difficult for his messages to have any positive contribution. 

 

On March 14th, I am back in Riverside. Stores nationwide are out of toilet paper, hand sanitizer and wipes with people stampeding through the opening doors, clearing shelves into their carts. My housemate is sick and has quarantined herself to her room, wearing a face mask whenever going to the kitchen or bathroom. She went to the emergency room to get tested and she fearfully approached the guard outside the door who told her to wait for an escort to a private room. Class instruction has moved online until April 9th with other schools cancelling the entire quarter already. Down in San Diego, Grossmont High School district, San Diego unified and all of El Cajon elementary and middle schools announce their closure until April 10th. Coachella postpones to October; Ultra and Tomorrowland are cancelled amongst multiple artist tours. Disneyland closes its gates despite its exemption from the new california ban on gatherings of more than 250 people. The climate is shifting and this seems to be definitely foreshadowing something larger looming on the horizon. The hopes of this quickly passing through are rapidly depleting and everyone seems to be preparing for the long haul. 

 

We are told it’s the end times and we are told to not panic. The media constantly slews contradictory messages across every platform and it is hard to remember what we all used to talk about before corona. Twitter is covered in hilarious memes. When talking to someone you almost have to be mindful of their “corona politics” with some claiming everyone is overreacting and others anxious to tears. The scariest part of all is the unveiling of the true power of destabilization and human influence. People were scared stores would run out of toilet paper so they stocked up so now the stores ARE out of toilet paper. It’s the self-fulfilling prophecy of group thinking. And it’s terrifying. Reality is completely controlled by humanity’s perception of it due to our sheer volume in comparison to any other entity or item on the planet. Whatever people think is going to happen, is going to happen. And lately, everyone has been prone to panic. 

 

Back in Italy, heartwarming videos overtake the internet of people singing, loudly, from their balconies in a choric unison. They sing anthems and “Volare” playing violins and guitars out windows. A unified people in the time of isolation. Today The Sunday Times publishes a terrifying article in which the intensive care chief of an Italian hospital, Giuseppe Natalini, offers this warning to other countries, “Italy was the first in Europe to pay the price for mistakes it made unwittingly. It got burnt and is now learning the lesson. Anyone who gets burnt a second time is a fool. When this infection explodes, you are facing an apocalyptic situation.”. Hospitals are overcrowded, turning down patients daily and supplies are rapidly depleting. Doctors all over the country have sent their children away as a precaution against unintentionally infecting them. It is alarming to watch what is likely a preview of the very near future here in the United States. 

 

A CNN interview of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announces the first Corona death in the state, Cuomo saying, “This virus has spread much more than we know.” Various articles are published predicting the inability of the Western demoncratic world to contain the epidemic and it’s subsequent inability to recover from the fall out. This is due to Trump’s opposition to making difficult choices that limit individual freedom and favor government infrastructure and protection. Testing is severely limited and costly, confirming capitalism’s prejudge against the lowest class, highest risk peoples. Students forcibly removed from their university housing find themselves with no where else to go and no government assistance to turn to. Every man is fighting for themselves, knowing there will be no saving intervention from those in powerful enough positions to help. The American value of freedom might be it’s greatest enemy in the fight against widespread disease. 

 

In some good news, in the late hours of last night the House passed a coronavirus relief bill. No one is celebrating yet though since the Senate still has to review and pass the bill next week with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warning it will be no easy debate. The bill includes provisions for free coronavirus testing, expanded food security funding, family and sick leave parameters and unemployment insurance. Measures all seem geared toward the coming consequences of an increase in cases. 

Feb. 29

On February 29th, Italy changes to a level 3 travel advisory on both the CDC and the Department of State websites. The program is cancelled and we are given a week to leave Italy. There is confusion about class credits, travel insurance and whether leaving is required or strongly suggested. Our class group chat explodes over night— some are rejoicing and the opportunity to leave while others definitely claim they will stay until forced to leave. It is hard to know what to do and how to feel. I feel tightly wound with the stress of leaving and the worry that I am only transporting myself out of infected Italy and into the area where the next outbreak is likely to occur. I am sad about leaving but heartbroken by the frantic, panicked manner of everyone leaving. We’ve all made amazing friends and now we’re leaving without having closure, without saying goodbye. It’s hard to feel good about leaving under these circumstances. My parents had planned to come visit me next week and my sister is crushed about the cancellation. 

I am in Paris this weekend and it is difficult to get information about the announcement. I try to call my mom but it’s 3am her time and it’s the night before my grandpa’s funeral. It is hard to handle an epidemic in the midst of usual tragedy. Many other students are also outside of Rome for various weekend trips. Some students panic and fly back to the United States immediately, leaving behind all their belongings in their Italian apartments. When we come back from Paris, half our roommates are gone– their sheets nicely folded with their towels laid bare at the foot of their beds. We run into other girls from the program in the lobby and they tell us there’s only about 15 students left, everyone else having left in a fearful hurry. On our last day we walk the city, eating take out noodles in a piazza and hiking to sunset in Trastevere. We meet other American girls from John Cabot University who are abandoning their belongings to backpack through Europe for as long as they can before future border closures. We meet sympathetic Italians who tell us there is no need to worry and we shouldn’t be forced to leave. It’s a tearful night and a nervous step into whatever is coming next. 

 

On a more optimistic note- it seems the universe is pushing us out of Italy for a reason and the signs of a coming storm are evident. It reminds me of all the stories of war in which so many people would have been saved, had they only followed the signs and left sooner, before the drastic tipping point. Hindsight is 20/20 and I now understand their hesitations against leaving. It’s easy to say- “you should’ve paid attention. you should’ve left” but much harder to actually interpret these small signs and successfully predict the course that will follow. We don’t want to give in to fear and paranoia and also don’t want to be the stupid ones who didn’t listen. It is difficult to predict the future and more difficult still to base your present situation off these predictions. But for now, my time in Rome is finished and I am anxious to see how this disease carries out as it inevitably spreads to the United States. 

Feb. 27

On Febuary 25th, I am at the Sistine Chapel and the reverence of the moment is soured slightly by the palpable paranoia in the air. Globally there are 80,239 reported cases with 322 in Italy. Pharmacies are sold out of masks and hand sanitizer with unclear information on when new shipments are scheduled. A friend’s school is canceled indefinitely in Milan. Another friend has school permanently canceled in Florence and they all have until the end of the week to leave Italy. My parents are reconsidering their scheduled trip to come see me in two weeks and my housemates and I worry about being able to get into Paris for our schedule Friday flight. As I push my way through the Sistine Chapel with all the other tourists,  Half the people are wearing face masks and those who aren’t are given cold stares, anger towards the assumed disease carriers. In this humid, crowded room we are all nervous- all suspicious of our neighbor. We look at murals of Jesus preaching to the masses and embracing the sick and hold a reverent silence as we consider our own moral values. I stand and appreciate the irony. 

 

An email informs us the attendance policy no longer stands, we are no longer required to attend, but classes will continue as scheduled. Earlier today, new case rates had slowed but by lunch they were climbing again and now this— a final recognition by the school of the severity. Confirmation of our fears achieved, we all panic, call our parents and refund train tickets. There’s a moment of reflection when a young couple runs by— the man chasing after the woman, they’re both giggling flirtatiously and wearing face masks. I realize how insane this all is, my first trip to Europe being in the midst of an international epidemic- the most invasive that’s been seen in decades. I am falling in love with these people and these cities while being terrified that at any moment, drastic developments could prevent my return to my home country. I’m not half as afraid of catching the disease as I am to being prevented from traveling to the places I’ve waited my entire life to see. Places that could soon be underwater or devoid of all greenery due to climate change. 

 

On Febuary 27th, the school sends out an academic and financial plan for students who want to leave early.  The group divides itself immediately between those who want to stay and those who want to leave. Kids start changing their flights immediately and our Italian class dwindles to 7 students. Half of them are talking about leaving. On my walk to school I teared up at the colorful building with creeping vines, the cuter than a Hallmark card dogs and even the restaurant salespeople. It was all starting to feel nostalgic and I knew without wanting to that it was ending. 

Feb. 23

I arrived in Rome, Italy on January 6, 2020. On January 30, WHO (World Health Organization) declared the Coronavirus to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. At this point there were 7,711 cases in China and 83 international cases across 18 countries. This number was quickly approaching the number of SARS cases from the 2003 outbreak which surpassed 8,000.  As of February 19, the global total of global cases of Coronavirus is 73,332. 

 

This global epidemic has been further amplified by the media, with almost every major network reporting daily on the rising death tolls or quarantined cruise ships. I have received multiple emails from both my University in California and in Rome, alerting me to advise health precautions. It has been both fascinating and terrifying to observe this epidemic and its rippling effects throughout communities. 

 

Each morning I take the tram to school along with many other study abroad students who live in the same residence building. The tram is consistently packed to the brim, with all of us squished completely like anchovies. We try not to touch anything and use hand sanitizer vigilantly afterwards, huddling in a paranoid pack by the tram tracks. We bought face masks (after striking out at 3 sold out pharmacies) and wore them on our flight to Amsterdam and on the morning tram. Many people glared at us, the mask labeling us as the infected while we were attempting to avoid just that. 

 

Then reports were released that the type of face mask we bought were virtually useless in protection and I stopped wearing the mask. It was claustrophobic, sweaty and unnerving to be so aware of my breath. It scared me to think that our future may consist of this face mask necessity, preventing us from even being able to breath fresh air. While in Amsterdam, we received an email alerting us of 2 cases of Coronavirus reported in Rome. People began scooting away from coughing old people on the tram. A kid with a runny nose and a man with a sneeze make everyone shift-eyed and nervous. 

 

We were reassured that it was far less contagious than the flu and our fears were dampened. On February 18, CNN reported that new investigation revealed the Coronavirus to be both 20 percent deadlier and more contagious than the flu. In Hong Kong, the disease reportedly spread through the pipes to infect 2 other individuals. 

 

Asian study abroad students began getting dirty looks– a small scale representation of the worldwide racist sentiment spreading hand in hand with the virus. This partly stems from the media’s manipulation of our primal fears as it frenzies to sell headlines. Our natural instinct is to pull facts that provide a rationale for ‘it couldn’t happen to me’. This often leads to distinctions between “us” and “them”, creating an “other” to critique and demean– in order to raise ourselves above worry. 

 

This intense paranoia is born of rational fears and then raised to something more sinister through the disease’s prevailing presence in the media. It is hard to not be afraid. Pharmacies have plastered signs in the windows announcing they’ve run out of face masks, travel size bottles of hand sanitizer sell for € 4.5 and there are displays dedicated to precautionary products. Everyone is cashing out on the Coronavirus however they can. Italy’s economic growth, however, may decline with increased risk as the disease continues growing and spreading daily. This is no way comparable to China’s economy which has suffered drastically since the outbreak. Originally predicted to grow by 6.0 percent by Oxford Economics, it has since been re-estimated to be 5.4 percent. 

 

This has also opened an interesting conversation about censorship policies in China. Doctor Li Wenliang was the first to report warnings regarding the arises clusters of the new virus. He was then arrested and forced to retract his statements by the Chinese authorities. He later contracted the virus himself and ultimately passed away. There has been a surge of citizens calling for internet freedom on various platforms, with the government officials removing the posts as quickly as they’re being posted. The heavy censorship imposed upon journalists and investigators has said to be a determinative cause in the development of the outbreak. Potentially, concealed information could have helped officials gather answers sooner, aiding in the prevention of the spread of coronavirus. 

 

On February 23 Italy is declared by CNN to have the second biggest coronavirus outbreak outside Asia. At least 132 people have been infected, mainly centered in Northern Italy. Football games are canceled, schools are closed and some Milan week fashion week designers elect to have their shoes indoors, with no spectators. We limit our trips outside the house and wear face masks when we do– slowly pushing each other further and further away. NBC reports that the Iranian mayor has tested positive and the number of cases is souring in South Korea. Tokyo postpones Olympic volunteer training and they are all hoping to not be forced into canceling the games. It would be the first canceling of the Olympics since 1944 when the London games were canceled due to World War II. It seems, unfortunately, a darkly foreshadowing coincidence.