Doctors, novelists and other writers are exploring, as quickly as they can, the pandemic’s impact on a country that was among its earliest victims.
Credit…Merlijn Doomernik/Hollandse Hoog, via Redux
MILAN — On Feb. 29, Paolo Giordano went to a dinner party in Rome. He didn’t shake hands or kiss anyone’s cheek, a serious breach in Italian etiquette.
A week earlier, Covid-19 cases had begun to surge in two of the country’s northern provinces. Giordano, a physicist who became one of Italy’s most prominent writers after the publication of his award-winning debut novel “The Solitude of Prime Numbers,” understood that the epidemic was going to grow exponentially.
“This is the last one,” he told himself. Then he began to write.
On March 26, Giordano’s new book, an essay chronicling his thoughts and angst about the coronavirus outbreak, was published in Italy. “How Contagion Works” is slated for release in the U.S. next week, as an audiobook by Penguin Random House and in paperback and e-book by Bloomsbury. It has been already translated in more than 20 languages and released in Britain.
Italy has been in a nationwide lockdown since March 9, and the coronavirus has already become something of a book genre.
On March 10, Roberto Burioni, a celebrity doctor and author, published “Virus. The Great Challenge,” an examination of how epidemics work, shaping and sometimes outsmarting civilizations. In an interview, he said the book was already in progress and scheduled to go on sale in the fall when he learned about the outbreak in China. He asked his publisher to release it as soon as possible, with two quickly written chapters on coronavirus.
“This book was needed now, not in October,” Burioni said.
Giulio Tremonti, Italy’s former finance minister, updated a book he wrote on globalization and its weaknesses in light of the pandemic. A major publishing house, Garzanti, earlier this week published an anthology of 26 quarantine short stories and essays by writers including Jhumpa Lahiri, an American novelist who also writes in Italian, and the best-selling children’s author Elisabetta Gnone.
Some expect other countries to follow. “Italy is a laboratory. Think of the singalongs from the balconies or the celebrities’ concerts on Zooms — they started here and spread to other countries,” said Andrea Minuz, a film and book critic at the newspaper Il Foglio. “We were the first to have coronavirus books and will export that, too.”
Like many Italians, Giordano is glued to the country’s 6 p.m. civil protection briefings, in which the facts and figures around infections, recoveries and deaths are shared daily. “All we can focus on during this epidemic is numbers,” he writes.
So it makes sense that math, which he sees as a tool to understand an invisible enemy, plays a key role in his new book. “Epidemics are mathematical emergencies,” he writes. Each outbreak, he explains, has at its heart a basic reproduction number, or R0 (pronounced “R-nought”), the number of susceptible individuals that are expected to contract the virus from each infected. When R0 is greater than one, and when most individuals are susceptible, we have an epidemic.
We have the power to change that number by staying home and practicing social distancing, Giordano adds. “Lowering R0 is the mathematical reason behind our self-sacrifice.”
Self-sacrifice, or the idea of putting someone else’s needs ahead of our desires, is also a central theme in the book. In times of contagion, the young and healthy must protect the old and the weak, he writes. “What we do or don’t do is no longer just about us. This is the one thing I wish for us never to forget, even after this is over.”
The quick publication of some of these books has prompted criticism that it’s too early for coronavirus literature or that the authors are exploiting tragedy. Burioni in particular was called out on social media, even though proceeds from his books, like those of Giordano’s and the Garzanti anthology, are going to hospitals and medical research.
But Burioni said that books about the epidemic are needed now. “They provide people with the cultural means to understand something that is uprooting their existence,” he said. Gnone, the children’s author who contributed to the Garzanti anthology, added that “stories have a healing power, for those who read and for those who write.”
The urgency behind Giordano’s book is of a different kind, stemming more from the need to preserve the present than to explain it.
He is afraid of the coronavirus, like everyone else, and of what it can change in our society. He is even more afraid of the opposite, that everything we’re learning will be forgotten, he said in an interview. “Some thoughts need to be written down now, from within the emergency, otherwise they will get lost in the desire to go back to normality as soon as possible.”
Much like Sigmund Freud wrote down his dreams when he woke, before they faded, Giordano sought to document, in real time, his experience of the pandemic. “Once the emergency is over, any temporary awareness will also disappear,” he writes. “I don’t want to lose what the epidemic is revealing about ourselves.”
Updated April 11, 2020
When will this end?
This is a difficult question, because a lot depends on how well the virus is contained. A better question might be: “How will we know when to reopen the country?” In an American Enterprise Institute report, Scott Gottlieb, Caitlin Rivers, Mark B. McClellan, Lauren Silvis and Crystal Watson staked out four goal posts for recovery: Hospitals in the state must be able to safely treat all patients requiring hospitalization, without resorting to crisis standards of care; the state needs to be able to at least test everyone who has symptoms; the state is able to conduct monitoring of confirmed cases and contacts; and there must be a sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days.
How can I help?
Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities. More than 30,000 coronavirus-related GoFundMe fund-raisers have started in the past few weeks. (The sheer number of fund-raisers means more of them are likely to fail to meet their goal, though.)
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
Should I wear a mask?
The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.
How do I get tested?
If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.
How does coronavirus spread?
It seems to spread very easily from person to person, especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces. The pathogen can be carried on tiny respiratory droplets that fall as they are coughed or sneezed out. It may also be transmitted when we touch a contaminated surface and then touch our face.
Is there a vaccine yet?
No. Clinical trials are underway in the United States, China and Europe. But American officials and pharmaceutical executives have said that a vaccine remains at least 12 to 18 months away.
What makes this outbreak so different?
Unlike the flu, there is no known treatment or vaccine, and little is known about this particular virus so far. It seems to be more lethal than the flu, but the numbers are still uncertain. And it hits the elderly and those with underlying conditions — not just those with respiratory diseases — particularly hard.
What if somebody in my family gets sick?
If the family member doesn’t need hospitalization and can be cared for at home, you should help him or her with basic needs and monitor the symptoms, while also keeping as much distance as possible, according to guidelines issued by the C.D.C. If there’s space, the sick family member should stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom. If masks are available, both the sick person and the caregiver should wear them when the caregiver enters the room. Make sure not to share any dishes or other household items and to regularly clean surfaces like counters, doorknobs, toilets and tables. Don’t forget to wash your hands frequently.
Should I stock up on groceries?
Plan two weeks of meals if possible. But people should not hoard food or supplies. Despite the empty shelves, the supply chain remains strong. And remember to wipe the handle of the grocery cart with a disinfecting wipe and wash your hands as soon as you get home.
Can I go to the park?
Yes, but make sure you keep six feet of distance between you and people who don’t live in your home. Even if you just hang out in a park, rather than go for a jog or a walk, getting some fresh air, and hopefully sunshine, is a good idea.
Should I pull my money from the markets?
That’s not a good idea. Even if you’re retired, having a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds so that your money keeps up with inflation, or even grows, makes sense. But retirees may want to think about having enough cash set aside for a year’s worth of living expenses and big payments needed over the next five years.
What should I do with my 401(k)?
Watching your balance go up and down can be scary. You may be wondering if you should decrease your contributions — don’t! If your employer matches any part of your contributions, make sure you’re at least saving as much as you can to get that “free money.”
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