First Person

I’m not under quarantine. Am I?

March 12, 2020
Tourists at a cafe's terrace on Via Orefici in central Milan on March 8, 2020, after millions of people were placed under forced quarantine in northern Italy. Photo by Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images

Yesterday morning I woke up, realized I was low on espresso, and went to the supermarket down the street to stock up. As I drank my coffee on the balcony of my apartment, in Milan, I listened to trams rumble by on the street below. In the park near my house, parents were riding bikes with their kids, dogs and their owners were out on walks, and old gentlemen were smiling as they strolled in the sun. Yet according to much of the international press, I’m one of sixty million people under excruciating quarantine in an attempt stop the spread of the coronavirus. 

“Italy expands its quarantine to the entire country,” a headline declares. “Confusion and panic buying as Italy quarantines entire population,” reads another. It’s true that for the past two weeks, the government here has adopted increasingly restrictive measures for Lombardy, the northern region that is at the heart of the European outbreak; on Monday the entire country was declared a “protected zone;” and on Wednesday, most stores and restaurants were ordered to close. But official decrees don’t mention a quarantena; only people who have tested positive for COVID-19 are “absolutely prohibited” from leaving their homes. Other residents have been instructed to leave the house only for work, healthcare, and “basic necessities” such as grocery shopping. Nobody in Milan is locked up in a festering city.

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Police officers are doing checks at train stations and airports to make sure that anyone who travels has a valid reason. As a journalist, I’m allowed to move about freely to report on the situation, so I’ve been visiting different neighborhoods, trying to gauge the level of activity. Many people, I’ve found, are trying to respect the government’s pleas to stay home as much as possible, but there are factories humming. On Sunday, I texted a friend who works for a manufacturing company: “Are you going to the office?”

“Tomorrow?” he replied. “Of course.” Manufacturing continues still.

Over the past few days I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why so many journalists are describing the conditions here with the word “quarantine” even though officials haven’t used that term. The only answer I can imagine is that there isn’t an obvious word to describe such a complicated situation as the one we’re in, especially since that situation is in constant flux—a day ago, I could meet a friend at a café. But something strange happens when you’re inundated with false or misleading information. Eventually, you start to doubt things—even things you know from your personal experience to be true.  

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PER MERRIAM-WEBSTER: “Quarantine, noun. A state of enforced isolation.” There have been official coronavirus quarantines in Italy, I know. A handful of towns where the virus first appeared have since been designated “red zones” and put on full lockdown for two weeks. Curfews were put in place. But that hasn’t happened in the whole of Italy.

I can look out the window to reassure myself. People are out and about. Yesterday, feeling anxious, I went downstairs and unlocked my bike. I’m not worried about getting sick—I am not elderly and do not have any preexisting conditions—but I’ve been avoiding public transportation for weeks so I don’t become an asymptomatic carrier. My bike has allowed me to continue going into my office each day without coming into contact with anyone else. As I pedaled down Corso Sempione, a wide boulevard that bisects the northern part of the city, I saw people sitting on the steps in front of Arco della Pace, a towering stone arch. The normalcy was soothing. I wasn’t under quarantine. Life was different—and would continue to change. But those moments we steal for ourselves have remained the same.


WHEN MILAN first started closing in on itself, about two and a half weeks ago, many of us were shocked. Schools, gyms, and theaters were closed. Religious services were suspended. Pro soccer matches were off limits to the public. Companies that had previously scoffed at the idea of telecommuting were suddenly scrambling to test their remote servers. Bars and restaurants were given a curfew; then the curfew was lifted; now they must shut down. Museums were shuttered, then reopened, then shuttered again. Citizens were plunged into financial precariousness. “Everybody I know is comparing this to the war,” a fifty-two-year-old Italian professor of language and culture told me. She was referring to World War II. But even during the war, she said, people could gather. Most important, they could help each other. Italians don’t know how to isolate themselves. 

Despite the restrictions, I have observed helpers in Italy—like the Methodist minister who offers to visit her elderly congregants because it’s too risky for them to leave the house. I haven’t seen many stories about them in the foreign press. But on Italy’s morning shows, there are reports of teenagers bringing gray-haired neighbors groceries. Health administrators are interviewed about how they’re accommodating more hospital beds and acquiring more ventilators, as the number of confirmed cases grows. Newspapers cover the doctors and nurses working back-to-back shifts. The articles detail heroic efforts to save “Patient 1,” a thirty-eight-year-old man who was the first known person in the country to be infected with the coronavirus. If he dies, it could send people into a panic: he’s the rare case of a young person in mortal danger. On Monday, he was taken off intubation and started breathing normally. Italians rejoiced. Yesterday, however, the count of positive cases exceeded ten thousand nationwide.   

“I hope things are okay there,” a colleague in the States wrote me today. “It seems very intense from afar.” For many of my concittadini, my fellow citizens, it is intense. I find myself thinking about women stuck at home all day with abusive partners. I worry about my single friends, living alone, who have struggled with depression and anxiety. I text them and ask if they need to get out of the house. We can go for a jog in the park or hang out, make tea, and talk through our problems. We can do it while maintaining a safe distance of one meter. We can do it because we’re not truly under quarantine—at least not yet. 

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Janna Brancolini is an American journalist based in Milan. Her work appears regularly in Bloomberg Law and has been featured in the Los Angeles Times and International Policy Digest.