NPR’s Steve Inskeep talks to David Unger, who teaches foreign policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Italy, about being ordered to stay at home.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
This next conversation helps us to feel the experience of even more extreme quarantines than Americans face up to now. Italy is the European nation hardest hit by coronavirus, and Italy has imposed the strictest measures in Europe amid hundreds of deaths. David Unger told us about it. And he had time to do that because he has kept entirely indoors for many days. Unger is an American who teaches foreign policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Italy.
DAVID UNGER: I’m in a town called Camogli, which is about – little less than 10 miles east of Genoa, on the Mediterranean coast. I’m looking at the sea as we talk.
INSKEEP: Oh, that sounds really beautiful – but must be a very strange place to be right now.
UNGER: Well, I think every place is strange. Every place is a ghost town. There are no people on the streets. There are no people on the beaches. In fact, last week, it was mobbed, and that was part of the problem. That’s when they put down the controls of movement throughout the country because people were coming down from the more affected, colder, urban areas in the North. So for the sake of getting this – all of this – lifted as quickly as possible and, of course, the sake of saving lives, you have to show a piece of paper that says why you’re out of your house. Let’s see. Do I have one lying around here?
Here it is. The undersigned declares that I am aware of the measures of containment for contagion here concerning movement of physical persons outside of the territory. I am leaving the house for one of these four reasons – because I must go to work, because I’m in an urgent situation of necessity, for motive of health or on my way back to my house.
INSKEEP: For motive of health – what does that mean? I’m getting groceries. I’m going out to run or exercise – those sorts of things?
UNGER: Not run or exercise – you’re asked to run indoors. But it’s getting groceries. But one person per household is supposed to do the groceries for everyone, and they only let 5 people into the supermarket at once. Otherwise, you stand outside. Fortunately, someone else has been doing the shopping for us in the building here.
INSKEEP: When the shopper comes back, do you eagerly seek news from the outside world or just try to avoid that person as much as possible because they’ve been out in it?
UNGER: Yeah, the second. We have a system whereby the groceries that we indicated over the Internet that we needed are left in a plastic bag outside the closed door. And then we wait a suitable interval, put on our gloves, unload the groceries, put them away, wash our hands, close the door.
INSKEEP: Meaning you’re practically not going out at all.
UNGER: I have not been out in 11 days.
INSKEEP: I’m just going to pause for a moment to note, for 11 days, then, you’ve been looking out at the beautiful Mediterranean, and you can’t go there or anywhere.
UNGER: I can’t go anywhere. I can stay here, read my books, take pictures, talk on the Internet. That’s what I can do. I mean, I’m here with my wife, which makes it – you know, all the difference in the world from being alone, but…
INSKEEP: What has it been like, the progression of things, over the last several weeks where you are?
UNGER: At first, it was the group of towns in the northern provinces where there had been an outbreak, and it was generally connected back to travelers coming from affected regions in Asia or elsewhere. They blockaded those towns. We’re talking about the beginning of the last week of February that that happened. People were advised to keep social distance from each other. I understand in the U.S., they’re saying six feet. Here, they’re only saying one meter, which is, you know, 3 1/3 feet. And to wash your hands frequently and all the same warnings that you’re given in the United States. Then at 3 o’clock Sunday morning last week, they blockaded a much wider region in the North. And then two days later, Tuesday, they made it nationwide.
The main motive for this is that the health infrastructure, the hospital infrastructure is much stronger in the north than in the south. They feared that if the levels of contagion they were seeing in the north spread to the south, they’d have a complete breakdown of the hospital system. In the worst areas of the north, doctors keep reporting that they’re going to have to do triage on who gets into ICU and intubation if they need it and people who are – have the best chance of surviving, more years left, least underlying conditions and the rest of it – which terrifies, you know, everyone.
So initially, the central parts were moving hospital beds, what equipment they had, ICU equipment they had, making it available to the north, taking patients from the north. But within 36 hours, they realized that this was not regionally contained. It started appearing in every province. And they put in these nationwide controls. So everybody is really focused on later this week, when we will see if all of these aggressive containment measures are showing the effect we wanted, which is flattening the curve, no new cases.
INSKEEP: And that would be the first point at which you might conceivably see some relaxation of the controls or not. Maybe you’d have to wait a little longer.
UNGER: I mean, I was thinking today, how are they going to unwind this? Even if it’s as effective as we want, you have all those people with about three weeks’ convalescence left to them with perhaps a residual contagion for 48 days. But it gives you an idea that with the most fragile and the most vulnerable, they’re not going to take the risk of unwinding this quickly.
INSKEEP: Mind if I ask your age?
INSKEEP: So you’re in the high-risk population.
UNGER: I’m in the high-risk population, exactly.
INSKEEP: So how do you feel about the restrictions you’ve been describing to us?
UNGER: Bring them on, you know? I mean, I want them to do as much as possible to flatten the curve and get us out of this on the other side. I can’t speak for the entire Italian people, especially when I can’t go out and talk to them. But from what I see, I mean, the polls today have 62% behind what the government is doing. And to the extent that there’s pressure, it’s pressure for even greater restrictions. Then also, there’s a kind of optimism. There was this nationwide exercise of everyone going to their windows and waving flashlights and lanterns and singing songs. And, I mean, there are two slogans in Italian – two hashtags. One is #iorestoacasa, which is I am staying home, and the other one is #tuttoandrabene, which is everything will work out, everything will be OK.
INSKEEP: Well, all right. David C. Unger teaches American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe. He is the author of the book “The Emergency State,” and we have found him in a small town outside Genoa, Italy. Thank you very much, sir.
UNGER: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF COLLAPSE REBUILD SONG, “THE MOON IS A RAINY PLACE PT. 1”)
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