Thursday 12th March 2020
With the exception of the UK, who’s new national sport has become toilet paper hoarding (psstt…. coronavirus doesn’t give you the shits), the world feels like it’s facing Armageddon right now. Unless you’ve been living in a cave since January you can’t have missed the c-bomb being dropped into every topic of conversation.
Right now I’m sat in Catania airport (Sicily) after cutting my Italian trip short. I’m anxiously waiting to see if my flight is actually going to depart. I’ve spoken others out here who said they had flights booked to get out of Italy only to find a few hours before departure, their flight had been cancelled.
No ‘best-decision’ was ever made under panic mode
Just minutes ago I checked in my backpack, got through security in the quickest time ever; it’s like a ghost town! only to be faced with the departures board on the airside flashing ‘Cancellato’ next to my flight. An air steward reassured me that my flight is happening. However, I won’t be convinced until my bottom is firmly planted into that cattle-class EasyJet ‘rescue flight’ seat (talk about over-dramatic titles!) and I’m taxi-ing along the run-way.
What’s the feeling like in Italy right now?
Considering I’m in a country in lockdown I’m feeling fairly relaxed about the whole ordeal. Ironically, I’m panicking more about the fact that I’m not panicking. I’m just trying to make the best decision with the information available at the time. No ‘best-decision’ was ever made under panic mode, especially when some of the information is changing on an hourly basis.
There are clearly people not happy out here and understandably so. A big part is to do with the mixed messages in the media and lack of information, too much misinformation and a fear of the unknown. Basically, we haven’t had that much quantifiable info to go by since the Italian Minister announced the imminent lockdown of the whole of Italy on Monday night.
Each day there are more enforcements, but no one seems to be 100% sure exactly what the enforcements are. The other ambiguity is that no one knows just how long this will go on for. Right now it’s until the end of March, but this may well be extended and visitors to the island don’t want to be stranded here or risk not being let back into their own countries.
The feeling on the streets over the last few days has been, in a word; tranquil yet frustrated at times. No one is rioting or panic buying
loo roll yet. On Monday some museums and archaeological sites were closed to the public. But restaurants and bars were open as usual with a minimal amount of restriction.
By Tuesday people were still going about their everyday lives, however, there was an influx in mask wearers and restaurants and cafes had to work under reduced hours, usually, 6 am – 6 pm, as if Coronavirus ‘attacks’ after dark. Indoor places like the supermarket had a one-in-one-out rule with the people queuing outside waiting with a minimum of 2 metres away from the next person.
The local outdoor markets were still open and the 2 metres apart rule certainly wasn’t enforced here as we wandered through. Some of the churches were open with no apparent restriction and more or less, people were going about their daily lives. We even went as a small group to drink wine at the docks to watch the sunset and no one enforced any kind of curfew. It’s very much keep calm and carry on approach.
On Wednesday the mood started to change a little. It was a gloriously sunny and warm spring afternoon so if it hadn’t been for c-virus, the streets would have been bustling. However, the Piazza del Duomo, which is the hub of the city was deserted. Most shops were closed and just a handful of cafes and restaurants were open, even then they were pretty much empty.
Catania has a beautiful park called Giardino Bellini. I met with a friend and we went for a walk in the late afternoon. We were sat on a bench chatting at about 4 pm when a couple of police on horses were going round the park asking everyone to head back home. By the evening, the streets were deserted and we had a notice from our Italian contact that the government were enforcing a tougher embargo for the movement of people.
I didn’t visit the centre on Thursday, but news from the owner of the B&B I was staying in said that no one was allowed to leave their home. And if they did it was only to visit the supermarket or with an official document.
So, why was I in Italy in the first place?
So I’ve had some stick from this. ‘Why did you even go out to Italy in the first place?’ people are asking me. I did consider cancelling my flight and not coming out here. However, at the time of my flight, everything was still ay-ok. Nothing saying otherwise on the UK.GOV site, nothing from the Italian side, no flights cancelled, my insurance hadn’t posted any notice and everything going ahead as normal. So why would I think otherwise?
My trip to Sicily was initially because of TBEX: The Blogger Exchange. In a nutshell, it’s a conference and networking event for content creators (Bloggers, Vloggers, Podcast, Instagram etc.) to get under the skin of a destination with the help of local tourist boards and companies to provide coverage and basically promote a destination. All this whilst meeting and hanging out with fellow like-minded people. Unfortunately, the main event was pulled (as have been lots of large gatherings across Europe) but a smaller group were still able to make it there.
Despite the cancellation of the main TBEX conference, the organisers still offered a pretty full-on itinerary for us #TBEXSURVIVORS (yes, it even got its own hashtag!) to go in smaller groups to experience what Sicily has to offer.
Sicily and the Coronavirus
If your anatomy of Italy isn’t great, then Sicily is an island to the south of mainland Italy. It’s over 1300km away from the epicentre of Coronavirus outbreak, Milan. Shockingly, Milan is actually closer to London than it is to the Sicilian capital of Catania!
Add to that, Sicily is a very sparsely populated country in comparison to the UK – Sicily has about 5million residents, compared to the 66.5million in the UK. On some days during my short stay in Sicily, I would come in contact with fewer people in 24 hours than I would compared to just a single trip to the supermarket in the UK.
There’s also the fact that Sicily has a warmer climate than the north of Italy (and the UK) so the virus is less likely to survive here. I’m an outdoorsy person so I’d planned to do mostly adventure stuff or visiting archaeological sites during my stay. Overall, the odds of catching anything were going to be pretty slim. So why would I be worried any more than if I was back in the UK?
When things start to change in Italy – they change fast
After the announcement on Monday evening, lots of people started to book flights out of the country. Good ol’ EasyJet was one of the last airlines to send out cancellations to its passengers and didn’t pull this plug and start to cancel flights until Tuesday evening which left me in a bit of a limbo. The announcement of my own flight cancellation didn’t come until later. Cheers EasyJet!
Prior to that, I had two choices. The first was to book and pay for new flights back to the UK via a different airline (there was nothing direct to my hometown) and chance trying to claim back the expense on insurance. My second option was to stay in Italy until the restriction was lifted at the end of the month.
In the words of rock icon Meatloaf, ‘Out of the frying pan and into the fire!’ would I be worse off by leaving what felt like low-risk Sicily to non-regulated-free-flowing-germy-UK.
On a sub-note – screw you airlines!
Flight prices skyrocketed over the following days due to increased demand for people trying to get home. £200 tickets for lowest-of-lows-budget-airline Ryanair to get back to non-lockdown Europe!?!
I know flight prices go up with demand but FFS airlines, these are people who are worried and potentially stranded, who just want to get back to their home. It was pretty underhand behaviour for people genuinely in need. Shame on you airlines!
So why did I leave?
Finally, on the morning of Wednesday. EasyJet sent the message that they were officially cancelling all flights in and out of Italy. Including mine on the 21st of March.
Along with my two options I had yesterday (DIY my own way home and hope I can claim back through insurance or staying to ‘ride out the storm’), I now had another option of taking one of the over dramatically named ‘rescue flights’.
That was until I found out their route. All of the rescue flights from Catania back to the UK went through the epicentre of the virus; Milan! I don’t want to go anywhere near there.
My options for getting a different airline and combination of flights back to the UK were now dwindling in choice and raising in cost per hour.
So I started to look into longer-term accommodation to stay, use the ‘opportunity’ to catch up on my ever-growing list of blogging tasks, photo and video editing, article writing. I didn’t have a shortage of ‘jobs’ to do (basically, I was trying to find my silver lining to the situation)
Then a monumental block was put in my tracks. Most accommodation had closed down for the interim. I was stuck between a rock and a hard place and knew my chances of staying were getting slimmer as a new Government notice of an increased clamp down on people even leaving their apartments wasn’t something that excited me either. I wanted to be in the sunshine and fresh air at least.
My only option – to take the rescue flight
Reluctantly I had to make the choice I didn’t want. The rescue flight; which went via Milan, involving a layover, before catching another flight home.
Good ol’ EasyJet had a note on their website saying we were able to book a seat on the rescue flights, however, their app or website wasn’t playing ball. Which left the only way to book a flight (hoping there was still space on one) was via customer service at Catania airport on the day of travel.
I was up at 5.30 am, packed and at the airport to make sure I had the best shot of getting onto the earliest flight. The staff at the airport were fantastic, for whatever cock-up reason EasyJet weren’t allowing anyone to book onto the flights – bravo EasyJet. Eventually (we’re talking over an hour here) customer services finally got me onto a flight home. The added bonus to getting one going directly to London, bypassing the Germ Central.
My worry now
Despite Sicily being hundreds of miles away from the epicentre of the virus, Italy has evidently put in measures to try and contain the virus by putting in the Lockdown situation.
What does worry me now is that when I return to the UK, everyone is carrying on like normal. People are still in shopping malls, universities, bars, offices and generally in close proximity.
I worry that the UK isn’t doing enough right now after seeing the impact this virus has had on Italy. Thankfully I fall in a very low-risk group so as the ‘all-knowing-keyboard-warrior-medical community’ of Facebook tell me, I will probably just get a cold or mild flu.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for everyone in society and for some, contracting Corona Virus is literally a death sentence.
Italy has been classed as a high-risk country, despite what I mentioned earlier that Sicily is actually further away from the epicentre than London is. Twin that with the warmer climate and that I’ve hardly been near other people, the chances that I’ve picked up anything are comparatively slim. Yet I get branded potentially ‘contagious’ and am expected to self-isolate.
I’m worried because the UK seems to be doing very little to contain the virus and protecting the vulnerable members of society. The UK for sure has ‘carriers’ (probably unknowingly) who are wandering about, interacting with society and going about their daily lives all while infecting others. Yet there seems to be little our government is doing to slow down the risk.
So, here I am reluctantly heading back to a country out of necessity wherein a couple of weeks I might face the same situation as Italy has right now. I really hope it doesn’t come to that but with how quick Italy escalated the prospect could potentially be very real.
Let hope it doesn’t get to that. I’m keeping my fingers crossed and using my ‘self-isolation’ time as more of a ‘self-protection’ time.
So, was coming back to the UK the right thing to do?
I’m going to be re-evaluating my decision to come back to the UK over the coming days and weeks. At least in Sicily a steady supply of good wine, sunshine and loo roll was a given. Ask me this question when we’re out the other side, how long that’s going to be, no one knows.
In the meantime, please to the people of the UK, for the sake of the civilisation and actually being able to wipe my arse, stop buying all the fricking loo roll!
P.S. While you’re at it with the loo roll, don’t forget to wash your hands with that mountain of soap you’ve also hoarded!