Opinion: Change your behavior now to prevent spread of COVID-19, implores Berkeley native quarantined in Italy

The outbreak of COVID-19 is now a global pandemic. People should take it seriously, yet also be wary of alarmist panic.

I am a Berkeley girl quarantined in Italy. Although the measures taken here are drastic, the coronavirus outbreak is not isolated in a distant paradise land of pizza and opera, but rather pressing on, inching closer to home each day.

Before moving to Italy, I lived my entire life in Berkeley. I am an alumna of Oxford Elementary, MLK Middle School, Berkeley High School and UC Berkeley. My Dansko clogs, Birkenstocks and mom jeans all came with me when I decided to take advantage of my Italian citizenship and explore life abroad to complete a master’s in human rights, migration and development at the University of Bologna.

I moved a year ago with the specific goal to travel and create a strong international community. I travel by train for class, by plane for work, and by bus for everything else. An average week consists of dinner parties, aperitifs, concerts, art shows, lectures, coffee dates, teaching English in the local prison, museum visits, hikes, cultural festivals and picnics. There are always new adventures to other parts of Italy, to visit friend’s hometowns, explore hidden natural gems or see other expats.

Then, coronavirus landed. What started as an occasional dinner conversation turned, in a matter of weeks, to the most severe clampdown on personal freedoms in a European country since World War II. The quarantine is less dramatic than the American media outlets are portraying, yet simultaneously extremely serious and multifaceted. The series of unprecedented emergency measures published by the Italian government requires us to stay inside our homes. We cannot leave without a legally permissible reason like urgent work or grocery shopping and we are prohibited from gathering in groups. Parks, museums, cafes, restaurants and stores have been closed. Regulations are being implemented inconsistently dependent on regional autonomy. So, while I can still leave the house to take a short walk (with a permission document), friends in Milan are being stopped by police for trying to exercise that small freedom. For a country in which social lives are vibrant and present, where walks into the center of town are a normal daily activity, where public transportation is safe and works, this is a huge change. These measures, of course, pale in comparison to warfare and other horrors around the world but, as most people reading this and myself have spent most if not all their lives in the Global North, these events are unique and shocking.

While I write to give a greater understanding of my situation for friends and family back home, so many others are facing actual danger or harsher consequences. Some are just attempting like me to suddenly have to conceptualize a month at home while the sun is just beginning to peek out from behind the winter clouds. But I also have had many friends lose their jobs and fear deeply for their vulnerable elders or family with underlying health problems. Inmates in prisons are rioting because they are unable to see their loved ones. Six have died. Parents working from home are struggling to find or pay for child care for kids whose schools have been closed. Others are unsure of when or how they will graduate from high school or university. Students who have been looking forward for years to a ceremony to celebrate their academic success, must defend their dissertations and graduate online. Funerals and weddings are canceled. Celebrations, birthdays and all other types of small and often forgettable privileges in life for 60 million people have been taken by this virus.

Yet more serious effects are still on the horizon. Small businesses are in crisis, stores and restaurants must close, and Italy’s already weak economy has a bleak forecast for the coming months. This comes as many are just getting back on their feet after the 2008 recession.

These new restrictive decrees were a response to the fact that, besides China, Italy has the most coronavirus cases with 15,113 confirmed and 1,016 deaths as of March 12. Coronavirus is not just a flu. Many need to be hospitalized for weeks in the ICU, yes especially the elderly and those with underlying health problems, but we have also seen those in their 30s and as young as 18 seek treatment. There’s a 14-day incubation period and we still have not reached the peak of cases. Even with these drastic measures, Italian hospitals are at capacity. In northern Italy, patients are being put in hallways because there’s so little space. The government is considering converting warehouses into hospitals, and doctors, nurses and other medical staff are working nonstop. We do not have enough respirators for those most affected. Doctors are having to decide who out of the dozens of serious cases should be prioritized for a chance to live. The quarantine is drastic, but if Italy had not done everything in its power to stop the spread of the virus, this situation would have only gotten worse and the entire healthcare system would have completely collapsed.

Although coronavirus has put enormous stress on the country both financially and socially, unlike in the U.S., public health in Italy is viewed as a civic right and responsibility. What is often not in the headlines is that the high rate of cases is a result of Italy’s transparent reporting. Over 40,000 have been tested thanks to the accessible, universal Italian healthcare system. Although I feel the uncomfortable intrusion of the government, I have been humbled and inspired by the unity of the Italian people to sacrifice their freedom and economic growth for the protection of the most vulnerable in society. Italy’s restrictions, while harsh, have reflected a strong democracy as these laws are overall in alignment with the people’s will.

This quarantine foreshadows what is likely to become a more frequent part of life as climate change and other destabilizers will soon threaten us all in the same way that coronavirus has mutated Italy. Please do not view Italy, China or Iran as special cases. Germany, Japan and even home in the Bay Area are all experiencing outbreaks like that of Italy’s a few weeks ago. This is a global pandemic and I encourage you to take it seriously, yet also be wary of alarmist panic. Supermarkets do not need to be emptied and medical masks do not need to be bought. Wash your hands, reduce time in public spaces, stay home if you have any sort of fever and stop unnecessary travel.


This is not a post for the government or for administration, this is a plea from a Berkeley girl to all my fellow citizens in the Bay Area to act preemptively and change your behavior. It is everyone’s responsibility to mitigate the harm of this indiscriminate virus.

Sahar Priano is a Berkeley native now living in Bologna, Italy getting her masters degree.