In early February as the coronavirus ravaged Wuhan, Roberta Brivio drove around northern Italy and saw the early signs of anxiety. A 74-year-old semi-retired psychologist, Brivio chose her profession after seeing the suffering of people held in Italy’s asylums, and spent 30 years serving in psychiatric wards before taking a step back. She still treated a few people at her office in Melegnano in Lombardy and sometimes went to see patients in towns further south whose obscure names were unknown to most Italians – places like Codogno and Casalpusterlengo.
Visiting a school near Melegnano, she talked to the teachers about the coronavirus outbreak in China and asked whether the locals were worried. The teachers confirmed that the children talked about the virus a lot, an unmistakable sign that their parents were alarmed. Keen to reassure them, Brivio considered giving talks about how panic can easily spread about events which are unlikely to pose a threat. “I thought about organising nights talking about mass-media contagion – when people see something happening in another country and start to be afraid,” she says.
Yet the threat to Brivio’s own region was all too real. When the first coronavirus outbreak appeared in the West, it did so in Italy, in those remote and sleepy towns of the Po Valley: Codogno, Casalpusterlengo and Fombio. On 18th February, a 38-year-old Codogno resident with no apparent links to China went to the local hospital with flu-like symptoms. The likelihood of a coronavirus outbreak in Codogno must have seemed remote: he was given painkillers and sent home. He returned to A&E a second time, two days later, and was admitted to hospital, from which he would not emerge for over a month. On 21st February, the Italian government put Codogno and ten other towns under strict lockdown.
This article appeared in issue 38 of Delayed Gratification magazine. Continue reading on Delayed Gratification’s website, but please note that DG is an independent magazine supported by paying print subscribers only (no ads!). Consider supporting independent journalism by purchasing a subscription if you can. Find more info on DG’s website.