My coronavirus quarantine in Italy: Learn from our mistakes

Do not ignore the warnings as we did in Italy

Italy is living through an incomprehensible tragedy, the likes of which the world has never seen. All 60 million of its residents are squirreled away at home, leaving only when necessary for food or medicines, armed with ID cards to show the police when we are inevitably stopped.

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We’ve been asked to stay home and finally, we are listening, but it is too late for many.

I believe America is the most incredible nation to have ever existed but this virus does not care about that. Please learn from our mistakes. Do not ignore the warnings as we did.

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Looking out the windows of my top floor apartment at the crystal blue waters of Lake Como, Italy normally has me marveling at my incredibly good fortune. I am able to live a life across three countries including the United States and Ireland.

Seven years ago, my work gave me the opportunity to establish a base in Italy while allowing me to work from the U.S. regularly.

I took the leap and it was one of the best decisions of my life. Having a large family in Dublin led me to add a base there in the years that followed.

View of Lake Como, Italy, from the author's apartment. Note the lack of people.

Today this breathtaking view from my apartment ties my stomach in knots. The always bustling Piazza Cavour below me, with its outdoor cafes and high-fashion shops, is desolate save for the occasional police car. The lake is utterly still as if even the wind understands our fears and has gone home as well.

As I write this, there are nearly 136,000 official cases worldwide, 15,113 in Italy with 2,651 new cases in just the last 24 hours, and 1,016 deaths.

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This is a nation with some of the best medical facilities in the world that I’d frankly choose at times over what I can get in the states, despite my rather luxurious PPO.

Doctors I’ve spoken with tell of horrors I cannot fathom as the hospitals here in Italy have run out of beds and life-saving equipment. They are forced daily to decide who to try to save and who to let die. No one should ever have to face that choice.

I believe America is the most incredible nation to have ever existed but this virus does not care about that. Please learn from our mistakes. Do not ignore the warnings as we did.

The downward spiral started the afternoon of Friday, February 21, as I was grabbing a piadina with a colleague and saw the news going nuts, as only the Italians can do, over three coronavirus cases just south of Milan that led to the closure of around a dozen small towns. Walking back to the office, we debated about leaving the country but decided it might be riskier to be in an airport.

A view of empty streets in Lake Como, Italy. The army and police are about the only people on the roads (Courtesy of the author)

In the days that followed, my friends and colleagues here decided to stay to help those that are older and more vulnerable.

I did a little math and wrote a blog post on February 28 about how the danger isn’t the mortality rate but rather how contagious the virus is and its high hospitalization rate.

We were all nervous and stunned at how cavalier most people seemed to be.

Just a little over two weeks ago, Piazza Volta, a beautiful square here named after Alessandro Volta, who is credited with inventing the electric battery, was bustling as locals and tourists alike soaked up the sun, sipping an Aperol Spritz, enjoying the beautiful day.

We were all still greeting one another as we always have, cheek-to-cheek right then left.

You could hear the word “coronavirus” floating around from table to table, the main topic of conversation for most, but other than that, very little looked different from any other sunny day.

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Today the hotels are all empty. Almost every restaurant is shut with just a few trying to provide delivery service in a desperate attempt to earn a few euros.

All of the shops are closed, save for those providing the necessities of food and medicine.

One of the many tiny streets in the old town area that is normally bustling with tourists and locals shopping.

We’ve been asked not to visit with one another.

When I get groceries for myself or for those that are too high risk to go themselves, I am armed with surgical gloves and a mask.

We all wait outside, a couple of meters apart, eyeing each other nervously. Only a few are allowed inside at a time.

The employee guarding the door is likewise covered in protective clothing. I hurry through the shop, painfully aware of everything I touch, and naturally, my nose is screaming that I absolutely must scratch it now!

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Upon returning home, I become like Lady Macbeth in the handwashing scene and then painstakingly sanitize every item. Those that are for others get bagged anew.

I am no germaphobe. I am a firm believer in the five-second rule, and as a kid, I set my own broken fingers when they didn’t pass the doctor visit threshold.

This virus can linger for days on surfaces and if I don’t get them clean someone I love, who is older than I, could die. That’s life here today.

As the days pass and we all try to understand how this happened, how what was normal is today, just a wistful memory, a story is emerging that this virus has almost certainly been here in Italy for months.

In late December and January, most everyone with whom I have spoken had a particularly brutal cold that started with a high fever.

I haven’t had a fever of any sort in over 25 years and even I had one in early January for five days.

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For every one of us that was followed by a dry, hacking cough and a painfully tight chest that made just walking up a set of stairs a herculean effort.

Each of us eventually recovered, albeit weaker than before, after four to six weeks. We were the lucky ones.

My friends in the States have asked if this makes me want to give up my home here. It doesn’t.

I can’t imagine not being on this lake with its lush mountains. The warmth and intensity of the Italian culture has become a part of my soul -- just as America will always be.

I believe America is the most incredible nation to have ever existed but this virus does not care about that.

Please learn from our mistakes. Do not ignore the warnings as we did and keep safe those loved ones who will not be able to fight it when it comes.

Lenore Hawkins serves as the Chief Macro Strategist for Tematica Research. With over 20 years of experience in finance, her focus is primarily on macroeconomic influences that create investing headwinds or tailwinds. Lenore co-authored the book "Cocktail Investing" and provides M&A consulting services for companies in Europe looking to expand globally. She holds a degree in Mathematics and Economics from Claremont McKenna College and an MBA in Finance from the Anderson School at UCLA and is member of the Mont Pelerin Society.  

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