ROME- NEW YORK CORONAVIRUS, The Denial of Reality and The Resistance To Change Habits

The Denial of Reality

What the fuck are you doing! I scream at my sister as she is about to put her fingers in the salt bowl on the table in our communal kitchen. We’re in the middle of a Coronavirus outbreak and you put your fingers in the salt bowl where everyone else puts their fingers? We don’t have to be stupid because everyone else is!.

NOTE: (all names have been changed)

I’m at the Academy of Spain in Rome for an art residency. It is carnival and my sister, on her spring break from teaching, has just arrived. Twenty days ago the Italian government suspended all flights to and from China and declared a state of emergency. But it wasn’t until February 21st, when a cluster of coronavirus cases were detected in Lombardy, that I began to feel the state of emergency in my everyday life.

I spend the nights thinking about what items I need before the stores close and make a list of foods that will keep over time. My sister and I spend our mornings hunting and gathering and our evenings going for walks close to the Gianocolo where the academy is located.

Everybody has plans for the holidays. Conversation among my fellow residents in the common kitchen has one theme: the coronavirus. Joe has planned a trip to the North of Italy, which he doesn’t want to cancel. I warn him about getting stuck because of a likely travel restriction. What I’m thinking, but don’t tell him, is that we live in an enclosed community and the actions of any one of us can have consequences for all of us.

My warning to Joe has little effect; he’s more worried about missing a chance to visit monuments as part of the research for his project. You cannot live your life as if nothing else is happening, I want to tell him, we’re in a pandemic.  Amely and Alexander, two other residents, go to the Carnival at Cerdeña and send back photos of people happily mingling. Later, I talk to Alexander, who comments on having been with people from Milan. Michael is trying to decide whether to take his trip to south Italy or cancel. He takes a survey in the kitchen, asking, What would you do if you were me? I’m the only one who advises, no, don’t go. He goes. The other residents are in favor of continuing to live as if everything is normal.

In a few days the people who traveled during the break return; there is no way to know if they brought back the COVID 19 virus. Amely and Alexander return from Cerdeña, safe and sound and happy but stressed because of the potential cancellation of carnival due to the pandemic. Eventually, the Venice carnival is cancelled, but not the carnival in Cerdeña, where travelers from all over Italy fill the streets. I, myself, have to go to Madrid to receive a prize, which i will not receive if i am not there in person to deliver a lecture. Is traveling safe? We are all denying reality to one degree or another.

The question is how one gets the virus, and what one can do to prevent it. I think about everything I put in my mouth and everything I touch. I wash every fork, knife and spoon before using it. I grip the refrigerator handle with a piece of paper. While cooking meals, I wash my hands every time I have to touch foods or utensils that don’t belong to me. I think about how to change my habits. I get a kettle to boil water and a few supplies, so I don’t have to make that many  trips to the communal kitchen, and I cook only when the kitchen is unoccupied or has just one or two other residents there. I wash all food coming from the outside before putting it into the fridge or into my cupboard. But even with these precautions, I realize, it isn’t possible to be safe in this communal situation without each of us, users and cleaners, changing our habits.

I write an email to the director of the Academy requesting a change in sanitation habits of the community areas:

            “Good morning.

            I think we should take extreme measures in cleaning up to prevent coronavirus.

        Yesterday Charles reported on recommendations from doctors that said the virus lives on metal surfaces for more than ten hours (later on I learned that it lives three days) and we need to clean the places where we put our hands. Regardless of the doctor’s advice, it is common sense to disinfect the surfaces we touch

        I suggest that you ask Thomas (the custodian) to clean DAILY with hot water, soap and bleach:

            -the handles on the kitchen cabinets

            -the refrigerator handles

            -the counter tops.

            I put the cutlery in boiling water with bleach or baking soda once a week, but this will have to be done on a daily basis. How do we organize ourselves?  In restaurants and community kitchens they have industrial dishwashers where the water is boiling and that kills viruses on any cutlery, plates and glasses.

            Other issues:

            -Hand Soap, I bought a bar of soap to wash our hands in the sink (please  supply-Kitchen towels, it is not such a big investment and hands are the biggest place of contagion, I suggest a policy of one kitchen towel per person.

            Thank you very much.


The same day, after writing that email, I have a conversation with my colleagues, Alice and Cathy, who are sitting in the garden. When they mention the new procedures in the kitchen, I know our director has read my email and taken action right away. Cathy and Alice feel the new protocols  impinge on their freedom; they are against one towel for each person. You can dry your hands on the communal towel, but I’d rather have my own, I say.

They think I’m being hysterical and don’t seem to have a clue about what is going on. A pandemic is coming, I say, and we need to act immediately if we don’t want to get sick. They tell me I worry because I have health issues (they know I was on a very strict diet ) but they are young and healthy and have no reason to take extreme measures (they strike to kill here!!! the youth supremacy attitude). It’s pointless to explain we’re living in a community, and we all have the obligation to keep each other safe. 

I ignore their confrontational comment about the state of my health and am reminded of the current divisiveness in American politics. Cathy and Alice’s  prioritization of individual freedom over the common good is the position of right populism represented by Donald Trump. Individual sacrifice for the common good is the Democratic position, represented by Bernie Sanders. Cathy and Alice think of themselves as left-leaning liberals, but based on their reactions to a pandemic, they are right wing.

It takes weeks, after the country is in lock down, for Cathy and Alice (and others with similar initial reactions) to accept safety precautions as a communal matter. As some slowly adopt safety practices, others follow. The choice is no longer personal, it’s mandatory.

The Resistance To Change Habits

The conversation with Cathy and Alice takes place on February 28, and on March 11th the order of quarantine is extended by Minister Giuseppe Conte to include the whole country. All non-essential businesses and industries are closed. Movement is restricted to going out for  food, medical care or essential services. Going out for a walk or to the park is forbidden.

The very day the quarantine is mandated, several residents party until 3am. The attitude is: lets party like there’s no tomorrow, because there may not be a tomorrow. My mindset is very different. I feel more centered than ever; I am in emergency mode. I focus on what is happening in order to face it. Having fun, for the group in the kitchen, demands an audience. If they don’t awaken those who haven’t joined them, if pics and videos of drunken dancing aren’t posted and shared, they’re not actually having fun!. They force others to join in as spectators of their own lives. Their shouting and exhibitionism suffocates my choice of not to be part of a group, where majority overrules  communal good.

During the first ten days of the quarantine, I confront residents who, in a denial of reality, continue to act in a manner that compromises both their own and my safety. I worry about my partner who lives in New York, one of the most densely populated cities in the world with some cases already. And I don’t want to be trapped, even in a palace, with people who are in denial. 

One resident videoed each one of us about our lives at the Academy. I speak about the difference between a group and a community. In a group there is affinity (camaraderie) and aligned interests; a group is governed largely by popularity. However, in a community, individuals have a unified goal to protect each other and to reinforce behavior that protects the community as a whole. I believe this is the time to adopt the code of a community, to pay attention to what one does and how what one does impacts others and to be disciplined in one’s actions. It is a time of vigilance and labor (when one comes from the store, one has to wash everything: hands, food, money, plastic bags etc.). And it is a time of rest and contemplation, not on personal obsessions and fears, but on the interconnectedness of all.

The academy has a WhatsApp group to communicate with residents and so residents could communicate between themselves. From the beginning I have reservations about this medium because it demands constant attention as messages appear every few minutes. My phone is not my pet. I felt i had to check in, in case an important message appeared, as when i got a warning about the pot I’d left cooking on the stove, or information about a meeting or discussion. But most of the academy’s WhatsApp group was used for unimportant chatter, as a diversion from work.

Now, in Coronavirus times, messages are not about sharing information but about sharing anxiety. When anxiety is shared, it multiplies. Some people are using the group as a dumping ground, to discard their anxiety. But what they discard is passed on to others; the recipients, including me, are the one who are left feeling disturbed. Other residents are disseminating false assumptions to calm themselves. The unresearched postings infuriate me.This is just the common flu and not a big deal, are recurrent themes. A “common flu” three times more contagious and three times more likely to kill you? WhatsApp is meant for long distance communication and instant messaging for immediate action. We are enclosed in the same building complex, our movements are restricted, and we have no strict obligations. A WhatsApp group for the academy is unnecessary. If conditions change, then don’t keep the same habits. It is time to switch gears. I remove myself from the WhatsApp group at the academy.

Most residents downplays the situation, repeatedly saying  this is just a flu and suggesting we’ll all get it anyway. But it is not just the flu and to have it when everybody has it is a bad idea, because who assists in the case of total contagion. When reading this journal, now a couple months after the outbreak in Italy, I realize how amazing is the misinformation that surrounds the Coronavirus Pandemic in the Western world. Authorities in Italy, Spain and the United State (the countries I was in over the last four months) advised against the use of masks. This was due in part to the scarcity of masks available. The Western world didn’t  prepare for the pandemic, even after the mass contagion in China two months earlier. Only in late March, several months after the pandemic was declared, did several groups start to question the non-usage of masks, and only in April did health authorities actually recommend the mask. At the outbreak of the pandemic, the sole instruction was to “wash your hands;” there was no mention of contagion from droplets carried in the air through the mouth and nose of others.

Governments offered similar misguidance, as they had in the prevention efforts emphasizing hand washing but ignoring the efficacy of masks, when they issued statements on the recognition of symptoms and the equipment needed to check them. The warning flags for COVID 19 were high temperature, a dry cough and shortness of breath, and the emphasis was on checking temperature. But nothing was recommended about checking the oxygen level, and people purchased thermometers but not oximeters. Measuring the body’s oxygen level with an oximeter is key with this virus. In COVID 19 the cells that bring oxygen to the body are damaged, although cells that take out co2 are unaffected (a layman’s medical explanation).  When a person feels short of breath, they may be only two to three hours away from  finishing the body’s supply of oxygen. In addition, the protocol in the western world for those with symptoms, was to stay home, in part to avoid the burden in hospitals and the spread of the disease, but the protocol was misguided. When i told my friend, Kent, that i was getting dizzy, he sent me an article on monitoring oxygen. In the Infection that´s Silently Killing Coronavirus Patients by emergency doctor Richard Levitan explained why an unusual amount of  people die at home. By the time they notice a shortage of breath, they don’t have enough oxygen in their bodies to survive.

One month prior to this article, my friend Sam, who follows early reporting of scientific data, and who had almost lost his daughter to pneumonia, advised me to get an oximeter. (Yesterday, he saw first-hand an example of the woeful lack of public guidance, when his neighbour was found dead in his Madrid apartment). The federal authorities were wrong, and they are responsible for disseminating false and limited information, which translated into policies that spread contagion and caused unnecessary death.

In late December my partner visited me in Rome. The day after his arrival, we both began feeling ill. I thought we’d caught a cold, but later on, I began to feel dizzy. Five days later, upon his arrival home in New York on Christmas Eve, he went to a hospital emergency room with fever and pain throughout his body. He was told at the hospital that his symptoms indicated a  virus, but they were unable to diagnose  which virus. At that time there were no tests for Corona, nor had it begun to dominate the news. Ulcers in his mouth indicated herpes. With the help of the internet, he self diagnoses.  I wondered if he’d caught something from the unsanitary practices in our communal kitchen at the academy, or if travel and overwork had compromised his immune system. I spoke with an infectious disease specialist at Cornell, who agreed to see my partner, but he decided not to go; his copay for the emergency room visit was $2,460, and seeing a specialist was out of the question. Luckily, after five days he started his recovery. Now that the outbreak of COVID 19 in China was in the news, I wondered whether my partner had contracted the virus, although he was sure that wasn´t the case. I began researching the disease and wondered why others didn’t do the same. That citizens only follow what has been told to them by their government, without doing personal research, in a world with internet access amounts to international laziness. Minding your own business can kill you.

Saturday evening, I go to the kitchen to make myself dinner. The countertops are covered with resident’s refuse. The stove is occupied with trays of food. The music is very loud. They are having a party. My fellow residents are sharing bags of potato chips and other snacks and using their fingers to help themselves. They are super animated and very loud, eating and mingling close together in a show of invulnerability. I want to make myself soup but can’t while others  flaunt their disregard for basic rules of protection. I return to my studio with a bag of arugula and a package of cheese.

The next day I write a letter to the Director of the Academy:

            Good morning,

            I must speak to you about something i have spoken about before, but the need to address it has become more acute due to present circumstances. I would very much like to think of myself as part of a community but the academy, during the time I have been here, is not a community, it is a group. At least I perceive it to be so. The residents are governed by the popularity and the decisions of the majority and not by a common objective. I’ve heard you say that everything is not voted on. And I was glad to hear it. A community, unlike a group, protects and contains its members under agreement by all rules. A group considers what is better by majority consensus.

            There’s a way in which the group at the Academy operates that I can no longer be a part of. The lack of personal and public responsibility within the group is unacceptable. There is also a problem in the nature of interpersonal relationships, which have, with few exceptions, very little to do with art and intellectuality and much to do with personal affinities.   

            Responses such as “we’re going to get the virus anyway” when i question the safeness of communal practices in the face of a pandemic are dangerous. The disease is spreading at an unmanageable speed, and such an attitude is irresponsible because it puts all members of the community at risk, including those who do not wish to take a risk. I left the WhatsApp group, because so many of the comments showed a lack of consideration and responsibility for the safety of others. I am trying to use my time here to focus on my work.

            Yesterday, residents partied in the kitchen until 1:15 a.m. Around midnight I asked them to turn the music down.  It’s true that it wasn’t in the dining room so the sound was very annoying but not unbearable. But it is also true that there are areas of the academy where no one is disturbed. The kitchen is the place to cook and the dining room is the place for dining. That is to say, everything has its function. This is a public kitchen, so if the kitchen and dining rooms are used as the party spot, those who simply want to cook and eat, and not to party, cannot do it. I was selected individually for this grant. You talk about  flexibility, tolerance and respect. It is not a trio that goes together on a regular basis here.

            There is a difference between a vacation cruise and a residency at an art academy. In the former the motivation is fun and camaraderie, in the later, it’s creativity and well-being. I left my job, my partner and my own community, in order to be part of another community. The most expedient solution would be to tell me to leave because I don’t fit in here; the more ambitious reaction is to reflect on the extent to which the actual academy experience corresponds to the one projected in the Ministry guidelines of the grant, and to see how the guidelines of the grant are modified in the face of the current circumstances. Artists have to deal with the problems of materialization by converting an idea or a product of the imagination into a work of art. Institutions have the task of converting the written model into a place for progress and creation.

The week after I presented my letter, people seem less scattered and a bit more centered and considerate. Perhaps slowing down, a lack of activity, the restricted movement, offers time for reflection, but the COVID 19 pandemic may also reveal the worst traits of humanity; that remains to be seen. The situation is worse by the minute with many more cases in the North of Italy. Tuesday we have a meeting with the director, she makes us aware of the threat of the possibility of travel restrictions in or out of Rome.  I immediately book a flight to New York for that Thursday.

Jana Leo

March 15 2020

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