Posted: 27 May 2020 10 min. read

Faces of COVID-19: Perspectives from Italy

Italy has been one of the countries hit hardest by COVID-19. What was that experience really like? We interviewed two sisters Valeria Testa (university student, 22) and Vanessa Testa (childhood education specialist, 29), who live in the small town of Palmiano, located in the Ascoli Piceno province of the Le Marche region. They reflected on the experiences of people living in regional areas, the elderly and university students; noting a common theme of inclusion, belonging and the importance of thinking of others at all levels of the COVID-19 challenge.


Q:  What is the biggest challenge you have personally faced during the COVID-19 crisis? What's been most difficult to navigate?   

Living in a small regional town of 200 people, Valeria and Vanessa reflected on the benefit of being accustomed to living in a remote area, noting “Lockdown, or quarantine hasn’t actually been that big of a change for us, compared to others.” 

The biggest struggle for those working or studying from home has been the slow internet, and the inability of workers to produce goods or deliver services as usual. For the sisters, a significant lifestyle change has been the resurgence of growing and making one’s own food, which is now considered crucial given the magnitude of community transmission of the virus through public gatherings.

Valeria: For me it’s been the disruption to University. Online classes and lessons have been challenging given the poor internet connection in our remote area.

Vanessa: The biggest challenge has been the inability to see my clients, particularly those that have been hit hard by the crisis. 

Q:  What about others in your community, such as those close to you who are elderly or living with chronic health conditions. What is your understanding of their experience? 

Italian society is heavily structured around the family, with three generations of family living under the one roof being the norm. Valeria and Vanessa discuss how the onus and responsibility is on families to provide care to their elderly loved ones, which has caused additional stress on all members. 

Vanessa: Elderly people are feeling stressed because they are too scared to access services. They cannot go out into the piazzas or supermarkets or even to the doctors, for fear of contagion. “Le altre malattie non hanno smesso di esistere” – other diseases have not ceased to exist – and the idea of not being able to contact people has discouraged the ill and elderly to access help. Families often replace professional healthcare providers, provide additional support to their elderly family members when they are living at home. 

Comparatively, there are stories of despair where elderly family members live in aged-care facilities, or in a different region. The sense of isolation and distance has caused stress and tested family bonds.

Valeria:  Restrictions in inter-provincial and regional travel has meant that the elderly, who may often live in a different province or region to their children or grandchildren, are left more isolated from their families. This is particularly the case in nursing homes, which have borne the brunt of infection. There are stories of relatives video calling sick elderly family members on their deathbed, as they are not allowed to visit in person.

Q: What are some of the impacts you’ve observed on children and youth?

Valeria: Given the speed of our transition to lockdown, in many cases, students weren’t even able to go back to University to pick up their textbooks. Due to this, the provision of education has been hampered and has hit those who may not be privileged enough to have a fast internet connection.

Vanessa: In a more positive light, people, particularly young people have gotten a bit of a reality check. “I giovani hanno imparato cosa vuol dire vivere” – young people have learnt what it is to live. They are now more tied to ‘daily life’, rather than seeking distractions from it.

Q: How does this experience contrast with past disasters, e.g. Central Italian earthquakes over the past decade such as Amatrice (2016), L’Aquila (2009), or the global financial crisis?

Vanessa: Economically, industry has never fully stopped. With lockdown, it did – except for only food and pharmaceuticals and health products. It makes you reflect on life - what is truly necessary and what is not. 

Taking action 

Q: What actions have you or others around you taken to overcome challenges during this time? 

Valeria: I’ve been adapting to staying at home. I pass the time on social media, in my vegetable garden, cooking and meditating. I think it’s been easier to do simple things, for those of us used to living in the countryside. We’re used to this lifestyle.

Vanessa: One of the biggest things I’ve noticed is people are willing to help others. It is widely common for the youngest person in households to go out shopping for essentials on behalf of the family. In both city and regional areas, these people will also shop for elderly neighbours who are fearful of leaving their home.

Reflecting on Lessons Learned

Q: Has societal (national, regional, provincial) unity and inclusion been challenged? If so, how?

Being in a country where inclusion is strongest at the provincial and regional level, Valeria and Vanessa reflect that the crisis has in fact, strengthened national unity.

Vanessa:  Singing from balconies and the “andrà tutto bene” movement (everything will be alright) have meant that there is a common experience that Italians are sharing, no matter where they are on the peninsula.

Valeria: The tradition of “il caffè sospeso” (paying for an extra coffee so that someone less fortunate can have one at no cost) is re-emerging, but with a twist. “La spesa sospesa” involves paying ahead for someone else’s groceries.

Vanessa: People are impressed with national leaders communicating with their constituents and opening dialogue. This is particularly the case in Italy where the idea of frequent press conference updates from leaders was very uncommon prior to COVID-19.

In contrast, Valeria and Vanessa also commented that there is a sentiment of frustration and anger towards the European Union, particularly regarding the negative stigma associated with Italy and its requests for more support at the European level to emerge from the crisis. They agreed that the Union is being tested.

Q: What have you learned during this experience? 

Valeria: I’ve learnt to appreciate the little things, and to seize the day. 

Vanessa: “Non siamo padroni di niente” – we are masters of nothing… while we seek to have control and plan for the future, we can never plan for everything.

Q: What lessons should be taken forward, as we move towards a ‘new normal’?

Valeria: We are strong when we come together and support each other at the local and grassroots level. 

Vanessa: Everything is linked. The systems we have created are fragile and delicate, and one change can cause massive effects in other areas.

More about the author

Patrick Testa

Patrick Testa

Senior Consultant, Consulting

Patrick is a Senior Consultant in the Human Capital practice. He has solid experience across large-scale change programs and HR consulting, with experience across strategic communications, learning and talent acquisition. Patrick's change experience spans from design to delivery, ensuring that he is ready and able to drive positive organisational change across the life cycle of any program. He brings with him a breadth of industry and consulting experience across sectors including the public sector, transport and logistics, not for profit and legal sectors. He prides himself on his ability to bring fresh perspectives and a people-centred focus to business challenges.