Life under lockdown: Strabane man tells what it's like from coronavirus-hit Italy

With the island of Ireland now enduring increasing levels of restrictions, Co Tyrone teacher Niall Hegarty tells us what things have been like under lockdown in his adopted home of Italy

Strabane man Niall Hegarty has spoken to The Irish News about living under coronavirus lockdown near Bergamo in northern Italy
Maureen Coleman

WHEN the Catholic Church announced the suspension of all Masses throughout Italy, Niall Hegarty knew the coronavirus outbreak in his adopted home had reached crisis stage. In an unprecedented move for a country which prides itself on its weekly church attendance, bishops in Rome ordered the cancellation of Masses following the closure of all schools, colleges, universities, cinemas, theatres and museums.

Since then, churches, which had previously remained open for private prayer, have been told to close too, with Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte describing the outbreak in the worst hit European country as its "darkest hour".

Watching events unfold and develop in his home village of Stezzano, near the northern town of Bergamo, Strabane school teacher and father-of-two Niall Hegarty says the lockdown is completely "surreal". Streets are empty, groups of no more than three people are allowed into small shops to buy provisions and the one designated family shopper must stand at least a metre away from the person serving them.

With so few customers around, many businesses, from pizzerias to ice cream parlours, have closed their doors. Those that have remained open are subject to dusk patrols by police officers, giving staff a gentle nudge to remind them to shut up by 6pm.

And yet Niall, who has lived in Italy since 1998 when he moved there to set up home with Bergamo-born wife Alessandra, is quite philosophical about the lockdown, saying people recognise and understand that it's for the greater good.

“Where I live with my family is about 50km from Milan and in one of the worst hit areas of Italy” says Niall. “Because of that, schools have been closed the longest in this region.

“To begin with, when news of the coronavirus broke here, there was a lot of confusion because we were in uncharted territory. When the government took the decision to start closing schools, things became a lot more serious. That had a big impact here.

“Then when it was announced that all Masses were being cancelled, it really hit home. And yes, we're living in a very surreal situation but I wouldn't say it's frightening or apocalyptic. It's not easy, that's for sure, but we're taking guidance from the experts and hopefully everyone is being sensible and taking the necessary precautions.

“What we have to remember is that we're not just taking these measures for ourselves but for the people around us too.”

Since the schools and colleges shut down Niall, a freelance teacher of English, hasn't been able to work but he says he is fortunate as his wife is still able to. His children, Filippo (16) and 13-year-old Valentina, are currently doing their lessons at home, receiving homework via email. It's frustrating for the children being cooped up indoors, but they are allowed outside to go for walks in their immediate area.

Niall says he looked out the window one morning and saw a couple of children from a nearby apartment block playing in the street, but intentionally keeping their distance from each other.

“We're being advised to stay at home if we can and we're not allowed to go out in groups,” he explains. “One of us is allowed to go to the shops. When the schools first closed, I went to the supermarket to get food in and there was absolutely no pasta left on the shelves. After a week or so, they were stocked again though.

“Some bars and restaurants are still open but not late and again, we're not allowed to go in in groups. Many people are ordering their groceries online but are having to wait a while for a delivery.

“I went out the other day to get milk and I saw people outside the chemist's, waiting to go in. Also, the police were out too, going round the bars and restaurants to remind them to close up at 6pm.

“Our local pizza place that does takeaways only, is still open but they're just delivering and asking people not to come in to place an order.”

While some workplaces such as factories remain open, other businesses have told employees to stay indoors and work from home. Travel is greatly restricted, with a ban on people moving from place to place unless they have a valid reason and a special consent form which states travel is necessary for work or health reasons.

Niall says these forms are checked thoroughly by police and if found to be false, the carrier can face sanctions.

The police are also cracking down on people going out to visit friends. In a country where large family gatherings are part of day and daily life, this restriction is something many people are finding difficult to adapt to.

“No-one is allowed to come to our home which is hard for the kids,” he says. “They're used to having aunts and friends about the place. Being cut off like that is putting a strain on them.

“In saying that, we have my mother-in-law here with us and she is almost 90. We have to think of the older population, those who are most vulnerable. That's a big difference between Italy and Ireland; we have an older population here and these are the people who are being most affected.

“But we're all going to get older and this lockdown is for a limited time, hopefully, so we need to do it for those around us.”

Niall, whose family and friends have so far managed to remain virus-free, says he doesn't think it's particularly fair or correct to criticise the Italian authorities for not acting quickly enough, pointing out that the country was the first outside of China to be so adversely affected by coronavirus and that it had never dealt with a crisis like this before.

He says he hopes that Ireland and the UK will learn lessons from Italy and that everyone will play their part by following expert advice and being mindful of their community.

“My advice to people at home would be try not to worry or panic,” he says. “Don't over buy; the shops will be restocked and, as is the situation in Italy, will still stay open.

“Wash your hands with soap, even when you are at home. Clean your door handles regularly. If things get worse, don't rush out to buy up masks. Leave them for the people who really need them.

“Yes these are strange times that we are living in and what happens next is anyone's guess. We have to wait until April 3 to see what happens next. But the truth is, people have to keep living their lives and that's what we are doing here in Italy. We're all trying to take this in our stride.

“If you need to withdraw, withdraw. If you're not affected, look after the elderly and weak. Keep your distance, but make sure they have everything they need. Look out for one another because that's what's going to help us all get through this.”

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