Lonely residents grapple with life indoors as coronavirus shuts Italy down

A writer and photographer in Milan have been documenting the pandemic's spread. Now one of them may be sick.

Photograph by Gabriele Galimberti, National Geographic
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When the quarantine began in Milan, on February 23, it "seemed almost like a holiday," says artist Daniele Veronesi, who lives in a converted warehouse with Anna Mostosi, who works in fashion. As the days wear on, "the worries start." The two artists were photographed from the outside by Gabriele Galimberti, who struggled to find willing subjects as Italy battled the pandemic. In the weeks after Milan's lockdown, the rest of the region followed suit, confining tens of millions of people to their homes.

Photograph by Gabriele Galimberti, National Geographic

I have a fever.

It's a low but persistent fever. It increases in the afternoon and shakes me in the morning, with a violence that is not proportionate to the temperature I have. I have the chills, my muscles hurt, and I have a worrying dry cough. And I'm fatigued.

Photographer Gabriele Galimberti and I have worked days and nights over the past few weeks in Milan. Since the COVID-19 epidemic erupted in Italy in late February, we’ve documented each day of the emergency from its epicenter, our region of Lombardy. We’ve visited morgues and hospitals, looking for stories and images that could tell the rest of the world what’s happening here.

We spoke to virologists, hospital press officers, Chinese businessmen, cemetery overseers. We met city employees tasked with disinfecting the streets. To report on the virus without contracting or spreading it, we wore masks when meeting people and stayed at a safe distance. We used hand sanitizers frequently and washed our hands whenever possible. When we decided to focus our work on the effects of social distancing, Gabriele would photograph the subjects from outside their homes, and I would interview them later by phone. This way, we could ensure that no germs were spread while working within the constraints of a country under lockdown. (See National Geographic’s comprehensive coverage on coronavirus.)

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Greta Tanini spends her days taking online classes, and Cristoforo Lippi works on his final project to finish his art degree. They normally live apart but found themselves under lockdown in Tanini's house. "We prefer to remain in isolation rather than taking risks or endangering the health of others," she says.

In just one month, Lombardy became the most affected part of the country. Despite increasingly restrictive measures to halt the spread of the virus, it didn’t stop. Hospitals ran out of intensive care beds and oxygen. Doctors have been infected, and no masks and sanitizers are available. As of March 23, Lombardy has had 3,776 COVID-19 deaths and counting. Four days before that, Italy overtook China as the country with the most COVID-related deaths—3,405.

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Michela Croci and Luca Volta's two children are used to being able to play outdoors. Under quarantine, only a small courtyard is available for Agata and Giovanni to release their pent-up energy. In an effort to maintain normalcy, the family still wakes up early and schedules time for homework and playing. "I invent things every day," Croci says. "We pretend, for example, that the house is a great sea to explore.”

My exhaustion now goes beyond the regular overworked, sleep-deprived feeling. I’m so fatigued that while I was interviewing someone, I felt like my legs were going to give out, and I went into a supermarket to buy some chocolate, thinking I needed sugar.

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Sadiq Marco Oladipupo is a 28-year-old rapper who goes by the name Roy. He was born in Venice to Nigerian parents and moved to Milan two years ago to launch his music career. He spends his days working on new songs alone in his apartment. "I'm scared of what will happen afterwards, when the quarantine will eventually be over," he says. "A lot of people will lose their jobs, and things will get even harder. But I also hope that people can use this time to try to reinvent themselves"

Those are the symptoms of the coronavirus. I know. I've read them at least a hundred times over the past week. Doctors have been explaining the sypmtoms since the crisis began here on February 21. The quarantine in Milan started two days later. I turned 40 that day, and I had not expected to mark it by counting the infected and the dead. But we had to count, and count, and count again, every night. All the while, we feared for our own relatives and friends.

I have to be tested to know for sure if I have the disease. The entire country has been talking about tests for weeks. Should everyone be tested? And if so, why it is not happening? Does the no-testing mean that there are people around who are asymptomatic and infecting others? And how, if we don't test everybody, can we have reliable data on the number of ill, dead, and recovered people?

Those are the big questions. The small one is: What should I do, besides telling Gabriele, who I’ve been working with for weeks, to stay away from me since he is still well? How worried do I need to be?

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The neighborhood where Rebecca Casale lives is a hub of nightlife, with patrons from the local bars pouring out onto sidewalks at all times. Now, it's eerily quiet. She was the only one at home when the lockdown went into effect, forcing her four other roommates to find other accommodation. “I suffer a lot from loneliness," she says. "There is always a lot going on here. Silence and empty spaces make everything surreal.”

There's a number for emergencies, but you’re supposed to call only if you have a high fever. Mine isn't that bad. Besides, the health care system is exhausted—it shouldn’t be clogged with useless requests that take time and energy from those who really need help.

However, last year after a bad car accident, both my lungs collapsed, and I was in sub-intensive care for a long time. Also, I have only one kidney. My vital functions are at higher risk than other people’s. Does this give me more right to call the emergency number, even if my fever isn't high? (These underlying conditions make coronavirus more severe.)

I decide not to. Not out of altruism. Out of realism. Instead, I call an infectious disease specialist, a friend's cousin, who’s a doctor and knows me by name. I list my symptoms and tell him about my lungs. He asks just one question: "Have you been to Bergamo or Brescia?"

Bergamo and Brescia, both within 55 miles of Milan, have the highest number of cases and highest mortality rates. Nobody knows why, but some suspect that safety protocols in hospitals there haven’t been followed. Doctors and nurses started to get infected, and they ended up infecting others at a dramatic pace. The number of deaths is so high that morgues don’t have enough room for all the bodies. Coffins have to be stored in churches and then loaded into army trucks and sent to other regions to be buried.

I tell the doctor that luckily, no, I haven’t been there.

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Diego, an illustrator, and Francesco, a designer, typically work from home. (They asked that their last names not be used.) Even so, under current circumstances the stress is debilitating. They're both living in “in a state of perennial anxiety," Francesco says. "It never passes and even permeates our sleep." They both fear that they'll be out of work soon. "We are independent, and every day it is clearer that for a long time we won’t have anything to do," he says. "We need to reinvent ourselves quickly. No one will help us.”

"Most likely, it’s COVID,” he says. "Low-medium symptomatology. The fever's got 48 hours to go up, or it'll stay as this for a long time. If it increases, I'll prescribe you a treatment over the phone. But I have to tell you, I've had a patient with a severe fever for five days, and I haven’t managed to have an ambulance sent to her place. Call me tonight, or tomorrow. Don't worry—there are plenty of cases like you."

I'm not sure if knowing that makes me feel comfortable, but I'll call him.

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Paolo and Elizabeth Lombardi—both self-proclaimed hypochondriacs—began staying indoors before quarantine became mandatory. Now they leave only for groceries and to walk the dog. Elisabeth fears that the pandemic will last until 2021 but finds a small silver lining in the situation: cleaner air, less traffic.

Every phone call adds to the nightmare we’re living in and to the anxiety of not knowing when we’ll be able to get back to our lives, if ever.

Many Italians have lost family and friends, and many more will in the next weeks. Many have been cured but are still traumatized—and probably will be forever. Many can’t be hospitalized because they aren’t sick enough, and they’re scared, stuck inside their homes. Many, especially those who live alone, will be hurt by such a long solitary confinement. Many will lose their jobs because our economy is collapsing.

And if all this isn’t enough, even if we manage to pretend to get back to some kind of normality one day, the virus of fear will have infected us all. And that, I know, will never go away.

Writer Gea Scancarello poses for a portrait by Gabriele Galimberti after developing a fever. He took the photograph from outside her front door, after dropping off groceries.
Gea Scancarello is a journalist based in Milan. She started as a reporter for daily papers and magazines covering foreign issues and now works mostly on long-term projects focused on socioeconomics and on books. Follow her on Twitter @geascanca and Instagram @bellagea.

Gabriele Galimberti is an documentary photographer whose books include Toy Stories, In Her Kitchen, My Couch Is Your Couch, and The Heavens. His last story for National Geographic was about dinosaur fossil collectors, in the September 2019 issue. He is based in Florence. Follow him on Instagram @gabrielegalimbertiphoto.