Coronavirus is a distant thing – until it’s not

In January 2020 we started to hear of the coronavirus, which at that point was confined to Wuhan. One girl turned up at our weekly hill-sprint session with a hoarse voice and a cough, having just been down with a bout of laryngitis. She said that every time she coughed at work, people would look nervously at her, notice that she was Asian (she is of Vietnamese extraction) and edge away slightly, which she found hilarious, rather than offensive. A few people had colds or had recently recovered from them – it was just the time of year – and there were a few humorous comments about coronavirus. At that point it seemed to be a primarily Chinese issue and I don’t think anyone particularly expected it to blow up.  

It was compared to SARS and MERS, both of which I vaguely remembered but I was never aware of either of them being more than newspaper headlines – probably because they were both contained in their respective regions. 

OUTBREAK IN ITALY   

Then the virus started spreading and there were outbreaks in Iran, South Korea and Italy. 14 towns in northern Italy were identified as hotspots, and we were told at work that anyone who had recently been to one of those areas should self-isolate for a week, and anyone who had been to other parts of Italy should self-isolate if they had symptoms.  

Complaints started circulating from Italians in the UK that they were being treated as pariahs, even if they hadn’t been to northern Italy at all recently, let alone to the hotspots. Unlike in China, where the government obfuscated to protect its reputation, the Italian government was monitoring the affected areas very closely and sharing updates regularly with the WHO and the EU, so they thought it was very unfair that they were being judged on misinformation and gossip rather than updates from official sources.

Shortly after that the affected areas in Italy were locked down, followed by the whole north of the country. There were stories of people who, when the news broke of the imminent lockdown, downed their aperitivi and ran from the bar straight to the station to catch the next train down south before trains stopped running. There was also widespread condemnation of such people within Italy – “You are carrying the virus in your lungs to your parents and grandparents!”  

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