Medical Examiner

A Message From Italy: It’s Going to Get Worse. Much Worse.

A face mask is seen on the ground.
A protective face mask is seen in the metro on March 10 in Milan. Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

Greta Privitera is a journalist who lives in Milan. For weeks, she has seen the effects of the coronavirus in Italy firsthand and written about her experiences for Slate’s Coronavirus Diaries series. Lately, deaths from the coronavirus have been surging in Italy, especially around her region. Thousands are in intensive care. The health system is overrun. Privitera has been talking to her friends in the U.S. and telling her what she’s been seeing. She knows what’s about to happen to them. And it isn’t good.

On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Privitera about how the coronavirus has affected life in Italy, and what we might see in the U.S. very soon. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: I’m sitting in New York and I feel like you are my future.

Greta Privitera: I’m you in 10 days, maybe two weeks. A week ago, I knew people who knew people who were sick. Now, I know people who died. You can see ambulances all the time in Bergamo, a city near Milan—it’s been hit hard by the coronavirus. They had to stop the ambulance sirens because those people were freaking out.

Tell me a little bit about how you’re living now. You have two little kids. Do you live in an apartment or house?

We are lucky because we live in a really old villa with a backyard. The kids are home from school. It’s the fourth week now that we’ve been working from home, and we’re freaking out. It’s hard to work and have the kids always want something or need something, or they are bored or hungry and they fight. It’s very intense. So we are dividing our day: I work in the morning. My husband tries to work in the afternoon and, very often, late nights. Then we try to entertain the kids. And we cook a lot. Everything we can cook, we cook.

I have a 2-year-old daughter and she’s fine. The other daughter, she’s 6. She’s very sensitive if we show her all the details about the coronavirus. We talk like if it’s something not so scary, but she can feel the fear we are experiencing. Two nights ago, she woke up and screamed. She said, “I dreamed that a kid was holding the coronavirus on his hand and they touched you and you got sick.” Sometimes, when she’s playing with her dolls, she says, “Go away, coronavirus, go away.” And I’m like, whoa, you’re experiencing trauma.

What’s your procedure for the basics, like getting groceries? Can you leave? How stringent is the lockdown?

We tried to do online shopping, but Amazon Prime is having lots of problems. You’re going to get food maybe in four days if you’re lucky. So yesterday my husband went grocery shopping and he put on gloves, a mask, and glasses. We cleaned all the packages because new studies say the coronavirus stays on plastic for hours. That’s how we deal with life right now. And it’s kind of depressing sometimes.

It’s interesting you say all this. In the U.S. we’ve seen those videos of people in Italy singing.

Italy is a really outgoing country. If you live in a big building with balconies, the balconies are the way you talk with people. There are people who decided to do something like flash mobs, where at 6 p.m. they will go out and sing a song, or dance. There are people who play instruments, which is cool. But in Bergamo, I was talking to a girl yesterday, her father died a few days ago and she told me, if I hear somebody singing from the balcony, I will go to their house and punch them. Because if there’s a thing I don’t want to hear, it’s people singing. She said that in Bergamo, nobody’s doing this because there are too many people dying.

I want to talk a little bit about what happens when people get sick.

When people get sick, the ambulance comes and picks you up and takes you to the hospital. I feel like if you go to the hospital now, it’s like going to go to hell. And if you end up in intensive care, you’re not going to talk to your family anymore, probably: Patients get a helmet with oxygen on their heads, so they’re not able to speak on the phone.

I read this story about an old woman who felt like she was dying. She had a helmet on and she wanted to say goodbye to her granddaughter. That doctor FaceTimed the granddaughter and the old lady got to say goodbye. And a few hours later she died. There are too many stories like that. Doctors are the link between families and patients. If you are lucky enough to have a good one who is very sensitive, they’ll use FaceTime or Skype or whatever to help you say goodbye or at least say hi to your parents or your family.

So you’re saying a good outcome is the doctor brings you a phone to FaceTime with your family. And then you die alone.

You die very alone. That’s another thing: This virus creates a block of solitude. It creates solitude in our families and the patients. And in the doctors, too, because they’re so busy. They say, we don’t even talk to each other. We are in our masks, gloves, gowns, and we are just working. Most of them, they don’t even go back home. They’re scared to be infected and pass the infection to the family.

You say you’ve known people who died of the coronavirus, too. What happens to them?

When bodies are taken, they cannot have funerals because you cannot have more than two people together. So there are lots of bodies in the churches and the cemetery waiting for their funerals.

I heard a horrible story in Naples—the coronavirus is not as bad there as it is here—there was a guy who did a video on Facebook because his sister died from the coronavirus, he suspected. The funeral home didn’t want to pick her up because they were unprepared—they did not even have the right instruments to treat the body. So the man stayed with the body of the sister for hours, maybe more than a day at home. On the Facebook video, you could see the body of the sister, and he was asking for help. In the end, because of the news generated by that video, a funeral home helped him.

To me, you’re like this messenger from the future. I wonder, if you had to call yourself up back in time before this happened, before you were in lockdown, what would you tell yourself about what’s to come?

I would say, dear Greta, please stay at home. Please give up stuff like going out for a coffee in the morning or going out with friends, because if you want your life back again, you need to give up some behaviors. The virus will behave in Italy as it behaves in other countries. So we have to give up our freedom a little bit, otherwise one day we’ll be sad because our fathers of our friends will die, because our neighbors will die. And we cannot stop that. The only thing we can do to help the doctors and patients is stay home. It’s saving lives, really.

Keep calling me and leaving messages about how you’re coping during this very strange time. Are you going to work? Have you lost a job? Are you one of the retired health care workers who’s been asked to come back to help out your old hospital? Tell me. Give a call at 202-888-2588. You can also tweet at me. I’m @marysdesk.

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