Former Exchange Student Reports from Italy

Andrea Sargentoni says he “underestimated” the virus at first

By Samantha Dietel, Editor in Chief

Italian student Andrea Sargentoni, like many people around the world, underestimated the severity and swift spread of the coronavirus.

Sargentoni was working through his fifth and final year of high school in Ancona, Italy, when his country’s first cases of COVID-19 were reported in late January and early February. The number of coronavirus cases and deaths rapidly escalated to the point that Sargentoni, who spent last year studying at West Bend West High School, now lives under a national lockdown.

Until the Italian government ordered the lockdown in an effort to contain the coronavirus, Sargentoni says that “life was normal and everybody was living his everyday life.” In Sargentoni’s eyes, many Italians were not as concerned about the virus as they should have been.

“I underestimated the virus at first, when it was not as a big issue as it is now,” Sargentoni said. “When our government started to take different measures for it, I started to realize how this virus was real and how it was a huge problem. I think that the quarantine is necessary as well as all the measures taken.”

On Thursday, the COVID-19 death toll in Italy surpassed the number of deaths in China, the country that previously had the most fatalities. As Italy has consistently had the most reported cases and deaths of the pandemic in Europe, the nation has been on lockdown since March 12—which, Sargentoni said, has changed his life dramatically.

‘We have to stay at home’

“We have to stay at home and we cannot go outside (except) for buying food or other indispensable things in the stores,” Sargentoni said. “Almost every public activity is blocked: no sports, no gyms, no theaters, no schools. People work online if it is possible, such as my mother works using her computer at home.”

Sargentoni explained that everything is closed except grocery stores and some private companies. He says that those private companies do have some restrictions, such as that all workers must wear a mask and gloves to help prevent the spread of the virus.

“The authorities do not suggest to go out at all, but we can go out if you want to buy food, if you have to go to work, or if you want to bring your pets out or if you want to walk or run,” Sargentoni said. “For all these activities, despite going to work, you have to stay as close as possible to your house.”

Andrea Sargentoni, center, poses for a photo with his West Bend host family in Rome. They visited the city in July. From left: Melina Schaetz, Sargentoni, Alex Schaetz. Photo courtesy of Sargentoni.

If people disregard the new rules set in place by the Italian government, they are arrested or receive a ticket.

The lockdown was originally set to last until April 3, but Italy’s prime minister Giuseppe Conte announced that it will be extended beyond that date. Sargentoni worries for just how long the nationwide quarantine will last.

“I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about this period,” Sargentoni said. “The government estimates that we may be under lockdown for two to three months. And most importantly I am close with my prayers to all the doctors, all the nurses, all the policemen, and all the soldiers that are fighting this virus (on the front) line. I think that is necessary, too.”

With the lockdown in place, Sargentoni must spend his days at home. To pass the time, he works on online lessons for school, studies, reads, plays video games and cooks.

“My experience under quarantine is very boring,” Sargentoni said. “I think that even if it is boring, we must respect all the rules we have in order to get out from this situation as soon as possible.”

Beyond the quarantine, Sargentoni emphasized how COVID-19 has impacted Italy’s healthcare system. He explained that in hospitals, there are not enough beds for all of the people infected with the virus, nor are there enough nurses and doctors to treat them. This forces the hospital staff to work long hours to help as many patients as they can.

“I think this is a global problem, nobody was ready for such a fast spreading of the disease,” Sargentoni said.

Andrea Sargentoni graduated from West Bend West High School in June. Once he finishes his fifth year of high school in Italy, he hopes to attend a military university. If he is not accepted, he might study philosophy or political science. Photo courtesy of Sargentoni.

Sargentoni also noted that while he does not personally know someone who has tested positive for the virus, there have been cases in his hometown of Ancona, a city on the East coast of Italy.

Sargentoni commended Italy’s initial attempts to quickly test people for the coronavirus. Sargentoni thinks the reason his country had an explosion of reported cases was because health experts were testing people sooner than neighboring countries like Germany and France. He noted that France, though it did not have the same dramatic rise in cases as Italy, had the first reported case and death in Europe.

“Here our news says how in the U.S., infections are increasing so fast, I bet because you are testing people properly and because you are taking the right measures,” Sargentoni said. “The virus spreads very fast and none is ready for it. Every country is potentially a second Italy right now.”

While every page of Italian newspapers are filled with COVID-19 information, Sargentoni says he has heard of false stories coming from Germany, stating that Italy has been having food shortages. Sargentoni says that this is simply not true, that food is still available around the country.

Ultimately, Sargentoni believes that the fight to contain the coronavirus, a disease that leaves fear and death in its wake, is comparable to a war.

“It is like a war, a war where the enemy is a virus, so you cannot go out, you cannot (visit) your friends or your relatives, especially your grandparents,” Sargentoni said. “I hope the pandemic ends as soon as possible (so we can) come back to our normal life.”

(Top image: Andrea Sargentoni poses for a photo during his school trip to Greece in October. Photo courtesy of Sargentoni.)

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