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Coronavirus diary: Northern Ireland woman shares experience of life in Italy during lockdown


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Cordelia Mulholland with husband Ian

Cordelia Mulholland with husband Ian

Cordelia Mulholland with husband Ian

Cordelia Mulholland grew up in Bellaghy, Co Londonderry, at the family home, Ballyscullion Park, which her parents now run as a wedding venue. Her husband, Ian McKinley, is a professional rugby player and his career brought them to Italy eight years ago. He currently plays with Benetton Rugby and the couple live in Treviso. In a diary by turns uplifting and haunting, Cordelia (30) describes how normal life has changed utterly ‑ a situation that could be replicated here.

Sunday, March 8 - Day 1

After a somewhat confused and strange week, the northernmost regions of Italy have now officially been placed under quarantine and we've been told to limit our movements. We should only be in transit in case of an emergency, and if we need to go to work we require forms that are filled in with the information of our employer. Ian needs these to go to and from training at La Ghirada, the training grounds for Benetton Rugby. The team has a scheduled week off but, as they are not being encouraged to leave the country at risk of not being allowed back, a lot of the boys are going to the gym to try and blow off some steam.

We went to our local supermarket to do our weekly shop at around midday and found it to be busier than normal, but without panic and plenty of food on the shelves. We noticed on the way in that there was a table laid out with antiseptic wipes and gel for people to use if they wished and all the staff were wearing latex gloves. Only about 10% of the customers were wearing gloves or masks and they tended to be mainly the elderly.

Later in the day we took our dog for a walk in Casier, which is a beautiful little village with a great walkway along the river. We met some of our friends there and set off on what we thought would be a relatively peaceful walk. To our surprise, hundreds of people had the same idea, we couldn't believe how many people were out with their families and dogs. We sat on the square afterwards at a very busy cafe, watching all the people enjoying a beautifully sunny and mild day. It really felt as if nothing had changed. Little did we know that everything would change quite dramatically in the next few days...

Monday, March 9 - Day 2

Everything seemed to be continuing as normal, except that there seemed to be less cars on the road. I drove to a student's house for a two-hour English lesson while his parents were both at work; his mother owns a beautician's and the father heads a multinational company. There was a lot of anxious chat in our Wives and Girlfriends Whatsapp group - a real mix of girls, half of whom are really worked up and the other half seem to be quite relaxed. There is, however, a general sense of confusion over what we can and can't do.

Later in the day Guiseppe Conte, the Prime Minister, announced that the whole of Italy is now a red zone and under quarantine. By this point schools, universities, museums and cinemas have already been closed for almost three weeks, but now gyms, nightclubs and other venues have been added to the shutdown list until April 3. Restaurants and cafes still remain open and provide a sense of normality in an increasingly surreal situation.

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Doctors fighting to save patients

Doctors fighting to save patients

Getty Images

Doctors fighting to save patients

Tuesday, March 10 - Day 3

Students have started to cancel lessons until after the quarantine is lifted and I completely understand their anxiety. A few have elderly parents/grandparents and one student has a mother with cancer. It is starting to sink in that things are getting serious. We keep hearing of well-known people getting the virus, such as the head of the Democratic Party and the head of the military in Italy.

Wednesday, March 11 - Day 4

I took our dog Mela for a walk around the park this morning and noticed that there was still a lot of traffic on the main road around the town and plenty of people out walking, with or without dogs. When Ian returned from the gym we decided we would head into the centre and have lunch at our usual spot, which is run by a husband and wife and their son.

We hadn't been into the centre for over a week and were curious to see what was going on, if anything. We found the restaurant empty of patrons except a few regulars having an espresso and chatting about current events.

The owner told us that he had barely served anyone in three days and that it was costing them more to stay open; he also lamented that he had heard rumours that the government planned to close all restaurants and cafes going forward. After we finished our lunch we headed to a nearby Gelateria and shared a chocolate gelato while sitting on the steps of the cathedral. How quiet it was in a normally very busy part of Treviso.

In the afternoon I taught a pair of young brothers, who by this stage seemed quite happy at the prospect of English grammar for a couple of hours as they were climbing up the walls with boredom. I made the decision to cancel all future lessons as I had started to feel uneasy at the increasingly quiet Treviso and lack of cars on the road on the way to my students.

Later that evening the Italian President held another press conference to inform the nation that we were currently in the midst of a lockdown and from now on all non-essential work was to be closed except pharmacies, supermarkets and tabaccherie (newsagents).

As well as not driving anywhere unnecessarily, we can no longer leave the house on foot unless we have an emergency or need to get groceries, and if a Polizia stops you and you haven't an adequate reason to be out of the house, they can fine you €200. Fortunately, walking a dog falls under a "necessity" so we are able to take her out the usual four times a day, I think this will prove to be essential for our sanity in this period.

Ian has been informed that they can no longer use the gym and the whole complex at La Ghirada is going to shut until further notice, therefore no more training. We wonder how this will affect the Pro14 championship and the future of the club.

Thursday, March 12 - Day 5

This is the first day of the official lockdown and our day is worlds apart from the previous. We took the dog for a walk in the morning and apart from a few other nervous-looking dog walkers in the park, there were very few people about and much less traffic. Many more people were wearing masks and gloves and there was a general sense of unease. Passers-by looked at each other warily and scurried past with as much distance as the pavement allowed.

We noticed a large queue of shoppers outside our local supermarket and worried that people had commenced panic-buying, but on closer inspection we saw that there were actually very few people inside and that the store had initiated a one-in, one-out system to reduce risk of contact.

We have been really dismayed to see the food and medicine hoarding in Ireland and the UK and are trying to communicate with friends and followers on social media that they should relax and not panic-buy as we are in the thick of it here and the supermarkets are still packed with food. FYI, coronavirus does not increase bowel movements so there is really no need to stockpile loo roll. We are finding social media pretty toxic at the moment; people share posts without realising that they're sharing completely inaccurate and irresponsible information, driving people's paranoia.

Meanwhile, we hear that the Pro14, a European rugby championship that Benetton Rugby plays in, has been suspended indefinitely due to such a prolonged period of no games. This has raised questions as to whether the season will be cancelled entirely and if the boys will be paid for this period of no games or training. The financial repercussions on all levels of all sports are going to be fairly catastrophic due to loss of ticket sales etc. This also applies to all businesses in Italy, big and small, but especially those who rely on tourism.

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Doctors fighting to save patients

Doctors fighting to save patients

AFP via Getty Images

Doctors fighting to save patients

Friday, March 13 - Day 6

This morning we walked Mela and popped in to see one of Ian's teammates and his family to check in on them and talk to someone different! They told us that they are going home indefinitely as they don't know when things will get better and they can't work anyway. They have rented an apartment and plan to self-quarantine the first two weeks they are home to ensure they don't spread the virus in case they unknowingly have it. I will be sad to see them go. They gave us a big box of all their perishable goods so they aren't wasted.

I am jealous that they are going home and conflicted about our situation. I would much rather be at Ballyscullion, where we have the luxury of space to move around and family to spend time with.

However, the last thing either of us want to do is unwittingly carry the virus home and make our friends, family and strangers sick. We also don't want to leave behind our dog, not knowing when we will see her again. The last shop we did was on Sunday, so we decided that we need to pick up a few things to tide us over for another six days or so. We are only allowed to go to the shop alone, so Ian volunteers and before he left he pops across the hall to our elderly neighbours to ask if they need anything. Our grandparents' generation are the most vulnerable and they should stay in the safety of their homes. Helping them out gives us a sense of purpose and takes a weight off their shoulders.

Ian has borrowed a PlayStation4 from a friend and that is keeping him entertained in between dog walks while I do puzzles, read books and journal about our current experience. We also receive a lot of calls and texts from friends and families checking in on us and that lifts our spirits exponentially.

Saturday, March 14 - Day 7

I woke up feeling quite anxious - I spent far too much time yesterday online and all the panic has got to me slightly. It's also the third day of lockdown and hearing that other players and their families have gone home makes me feel a bit homesick. We no longer have the option of going home even if we wanted to as easyJet and Ryanair have cancelled all flights between Ireland and Italy until mid-April at least. Now and again I feel an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia. A 45-minute dog walk makes us feel better as well as doing some YouTube yoga videos and a fitness programme that the team sent over to Ian to keep them in relatively good condition while they are housebound.

At around 4.30pm we hear some music and go out on our balcony to listen to someone playing their clarinet. Unfortunately it started raining almost immediately so we didn't get a chance to catch it on camera. They must have been inspired by all of the cheering videos circling on social media of Italians playing their instruments on their balconies. These videos put a smile on everyone's faces in an increasingly fraught period, as we learned today that in 24 hours 250 Italians died, the most in one day since the crisis began.

We are completely perplexed at the UK Government's reaction to the virus and the idea of "herd immunity". This method gives no protection to the elderly or immune-compromised and from where we sit it seems like the economy is more of a priority than the life of its citizens. It'll be interesting to watch this one unfold and I can imagine it's not going to make relations stronger with Southern Ireland, who have enforced sensible regulations and who now have to try and manage infected people travelling south from Northern Ireland. I suppose this is what has essentially happened in Italy with the rest of Europe, but in defence of Italy, the virus was unprecedented and the UK should learn from our mistakes.

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Doctors fighting to save patients

Doctors fighting to save patients

AP

Doctors fighting to save patients

Sunday, March 15 - Day 8

Today was much more positive, aided by a gloriously sunny day with all the cherry trees and magnolia coming into bloom. There's something comforting about going through this in the approach of spring rather than the depths of winter; it is helping lift people's mood. Well ours, at least. We've also made a real effort to spend less time on our phone - really difficult in this period but essential for our mental health. Meanwhile, our 83-year-old Nonna (grandmother) neighbour is providing the whole floor with gnocchi and tiramisu and I've become pretty epic at Tomb Raider. Not something I ever thought I'd say aged 30!

Monday, March 16 - Day 9

I spoke to a friend from home this morning for an hour, which was the perfect way to start the day.

She expressed her anxiety on being a recently opened small business owner; she doesn't know how she will cope if she has to close, even for a couple of weeks. My heart really goes out to people in this situation, including my parents who have 45 weddings booked in this year at Ballyscullion Park. The average wedding tends to be well over 100 so that may pose problems in the upcoming weeks. I can only imagine how stressed the brides-to-be are!

In an admirable move, Italy has frozen the mortgage repayments of its citizens in an effort to take some of the financial stress off them in an already fraught period. Meanwhile, an Iceland supermarket in Belfast has said it will open from 8-9am every morning exclusively for elderly patrons so they don't have to worry about the pandemonium of panic buying that has poisoned the UK and Ireland in the last week.

It makes me wonder what it is about people back home that causes them to act like this, mindlessly hoarding obscene quantities of food and essentials without a thought of anyone else?

I've seen a few images online of elderly folk looking dismayed at empty Tesco shelves and it breaks my heart. We are almost a week into the lockdown here and the supermarkets are still fully stocked with fresh produce and plenty of loo roll.

This afternoon Ian did an interview for ex-Ulster and Ireland international Andrew Trimble's podcast on what life is like over here. We are still taking advantage of our walks with Mela and did a 4km walk in the sunshine today.

Please ignore all "advice" being circulated on Facebook and WhatsApp groups that doesn't come from the World Health Organisation or other credible sources. Be careful to source check your information before forwarding onto friends and family.

Tuesday, March 17 - Day 10

In defence of Italy: As it stands, Italy currently has 27,980 confirmed cases of the virus and 2,158 deaths, far exceeding South Korea but catching up rapidly with China.

It is really important to look back on how this all started in Italy and how everything was dealt with. I think the Italians have been subjected to a bit of unfair criticism in how they handled the arrival and spread of Covid-19.

1) Elderly population

A defining feature of Italy's demographic is that it has a notably large elderly population, second only to Japan, with 23% being over the age of 65. The quality of life, weather, food and wine are only a few of the many wonderful aspects of living in Italy that contribute to a long and healthy life.

With a virus that proves disproportionately lethal to the older population, the average age of death being 81, and with the oldest population in Europe, it is no surprise that the death rate is so high.

2) School closures three weeks prior to the lockdown

The rapid increase in death for the elderly lends itself to another very Italian phenomenon. A large number or families with two working parents rely heavily on their own parents to look after their children while they are at work. This situation escalated during the three weeks of school closures prior to the lockdown, as parents had to continue working and needed someone to care for their children, not knowing that this very action was putting the lives of their parents under great threat. In Italy it's not unusual to have grandparents living in the same house as the rest of the family. We knew that children rarely contracted the virus but what wasn't widely known was that children and young adults are carriers and mostly asymptomatic. So the infected were spending large amounts of time with grandparents as well as their friends and family, unwittingly passing on the virus to the healthy and vulnerable alike.

3) The amorous & infinitely sociable Italians

Italians are exceptionally tactile and enjoy showering everyone with kisses. They are also extremely sociable and on an average day you will find old men meeting up in groups to sit outside cafes with their friends, smoking and drinking coffee and enjoying an Aperol Spritz at 11am.

You then have the people who finish work and go straight to a bar to meet colleagues for cicchetti (small Venetian snacks) and a glass of Prosecco. The generally dry, sunny weather in the winter also allows people to take part in these sociable activities year round.

For most countries, the threat of impending coronavirus seemed too distant to cause much concern in the beginning.

In Italy it was first dismissed as nothing to worry about as it was across the world in China, then not such a problem because it was in Lombardia (a region on the north west side of Italy).

Subsequently it became somewhat more alarming as someone had died in Treviso and finally, when the lockdown commenced, the streets emptied.

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Self-isolating people take to their balconies

Self-isolating people take to their balconies

Self-isolating people take to their balconies

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