This is my 11th day of living alone under lockdown in my apartment in Bologna since the Italian government declared a general quarantine to counteract the perilously expanding COVID-19 pandemic. Inquiring about my well-being and sanity, my friends and family in Canada have anxiously messaged me in recent days. Although I appreciate their care and concern, I am not so preoccupied with my health or the circumstances in Italy, the native land of my grandparents and the country I now call home: I am worried about the rest of the world.
The situation in Italy is dramatic and prescient: 47,021 total, exponentially expanding positive cases and 4,032 deaths to date; apocalyptic streets of eerily shuttered, once-lively cities; hospitals overburdened with disease; and communities experiencing loss en mass. I cannot be serious enough: this is the future of your community if you do not act accordingly.
In Italy, we are painfully living out an alternate reality in which a vibrantly liberal state unexpectedly became authoritarian overnight, prohibiting funerals, weddings, birthday parties and the free movement of its citizens. I say painfully not only because of the gravity of the national situation, but also because we have witnessed the world’s leaders fully acknowledge the danger the virus poses after cowardly shying away from decisive, preemptive action and urgent appeals to citizens.
Solidarity now requires maintaining a loving distance.
The closure of international borders — recently enacted in Canada, the United States, Australia, much of Europe, South America, and the Middle East — is an ineffectual political stunt once the virus insidiously circulates within communities, as it has. Complicating the global pandemic is the unfortunate reality that governments alone cannot curb the contagion: the declaration of a state of emergency is futile without full public participation in social distancing.
Although unsettling and unfamiliar, social distancing need not be agonizing: it simply requires a radical re-evaluation of our relationships to others.
I initially thought that living under lockdown would be emotionally devastating — that I would be unable to cope with the repercussions of the government literally outlawing having a social life. I experience feelings of loneliness often, and my past few months in Italy studying history at the University of Bologna have abounded with it perhaps more than any other period of my life. So terrifying and unpalatable were the government’s draconian decrees that I contemplated fleeing Bologna for my home in Toronto in the uncertain days preceding the lockdown.
My life under quarantine, however, has not been exactly unpleasant: I have participated in my graduate courses online, savoured cooking for myself, basked in the Mediterranean sun on my balcony, and texted, called, or video-chatted my friends and family whenever I have felt isolated. I have even left my apartment on two occasions, biking through my residential neighbourhood on the periphery of Bologna to grocery shop and register my lease at the tax office.
Italy’s sensationalized images and statistics evoke dread of impending doom, but there are scenes devoid of terror, realities of resilience and relative normalcy: the middle-aged and elderly folk I have observed strolling leisurely in solitude or conversing across overlooking balconies; the children I see playing sweetly outdoors confined to courtyards; the compassion and care shared amongst friends experiencing this tumultuous time coincidently across cities, countries and oceans.
Although our natural tendency is to coalesce in crisis, solidarity now requires maintaining a loving distance. Minimizing unnecessary contact with others can be an act of care and compassion. Your solitude can be a source of strength and self-reflection through this crisis. Your absence can be the gift of life to thousands of susceptible people and their families.
With COVID-19 encroaching on global communities, I implore you to act calmly and proactively. The public health recommendations of your government are not to be met with indifference. Avoid crowded public transportation and postpone, or convince someone else to postpone, social functions. Cancel upcoming plans for non-essential travel. Self-isolate if you have recently travelled, or if you suspect that you are ill or have had contact with someone that is ill.
Persuade your workplace to transition to remote operations or introduce social distancing policies in your workplace. Refrain from anxiously bulk-buying food in grocery stores teeming with people and excellent conditions for transmission. Assist elders and vulnerable members of your community by offering to run errands on their behalf, if you can do so safely.
If you are unconcerned about your own health, given the mild illness that often results from COVID-19, consider the fact that some down the chain of transmission will almost certainly die, and others will require emergency hospitalization to keep them alive. How would you feel knowing they suffered the excruciating sensation of suffocation as they cling to life on a ventilator?
Medical professionals in Italy now must systematically decide who lives and who dies due to the overwhelming demand for public health resources. Italy, however, has 3.2 hospital beds per 1,000 inhabitants; Canada and the U.K. have 2.5, and the United States has 2.8.
If you value your personal freedoms and health, implement social distancing today, lest your government enact and enforce strict quarantines for months to combat COVID-19’s aggressive expansion. Abstaining from public life now will help your community avoid the tragic circumstances that we find ourselves in here in Italy.
Social distancing doesn’t have to be a chore, nor does it have to be unpleasant: it can be spent with your closest friends or family, physically or virtually; it can be spent in leisure and laziness; it can be spent productively working on neglected personal projects. However you decide to live it, please live it conscientiously — with love and with compassion in your heart.
A version of this article was originally published on Facebook.