A War Zone for Hospitals: One Artist’s Coronavirus Story from Venice

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Countries that are slow to respond to the COVID-19 outbreaks do so at their own peril. Currently, in the United States, 3,602 people in 49 states, plus Washington, DC and three US territories, have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to a New York Times database, and at least 66 patients with the virus have died. After many wasted weeks of denying the seriousness of this virus, our healthcare systems are woefully unequipped to handle exponential outbreaks that are likely to occur.

Italy is a few weeks ahead of the US, in terms of spread of the virus, and it provides a cautionary tale. The Italian government closed all schools and universities on March 4 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus after it claimed 107 lives, but life in Italian cities and towns continued pretty much as usual, with people eating, drinking, and socializing in public. Cases continued to surge so the government put the entire country on lockdown last Wednesday, restricting travel banning public gatherings and sports, and closing bars, restaurants, and stores that do not sell essential items.

Italy has reported more than 24,700 cases and more than 1,800 deaths, with their largest one-day increase in cases and deaths on Sunday, with 3,590 new cases and 398 deaths in a 24-hour period, according to the The Associated Press. The country, which has been on lockdown since last week, also reports that almost 2,000 people have recovered from the coronavirus in the nation.

As obituaries proliferate in local newspapers, families try to keep children contained in homes, and a large freelance-worker population struggles to pay their bills, individuals are making the best of a bad situation. One such individual is Irene Woodbury, a Baltimore native who has been living in Italy for the past fifteen years, first in Padua and now in Venice. She is married to a Venetian, with two young boys aged 3 and 6, and works as an adjunct professor at several public and private universities in Padua and Venice. Woodbury graduated from Loch Raven High School, attended RISD for college, and earned an MFA from MICA in 2007. In addition to teaching, she works as a professional translator with specialization in Art and Architecture and translated artist Melissa McGill’s Fuori Biennale site-specific public art project “Red Regatta” in 2019, to be published later this year. Woodbury’s own artist books, printmaking, and multimedia projects can be found in the collections of the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Tate, UK, and the artist keeps a daily photo journal on Instagram @americanincannaregio capturing life in the lagoon city from a local’s perspective.

Woodbury took a few minutes away from parenting and preparing for her online classes to talk by phone about the realities of living in Northern Italy, a region hit hard by COVID-19.

All photos: Irene Woodbury

Cara Ober: Here in Baltimore, I am not aware of public access for COVID-19 testing for most people. How did Italy handle that part of coping with the coronavirus?

Irene Woodbury: At the very beginning, they were testing everyone including healthcare workers, who were getting tested all the time. Then they started running out of tests, so they rationed it. If you have symptoms or have travelled to certain places, you can get it. I know that some other countries like Singapore and South Korea had drive-through testing and total access, but here it has been taking as many as three days to get your results because of the overload of the number of tests and the number of labs that can handle it. 

How does this compare to your observations of what is happening in the US?

Our availability of tests is better than in the US. The US botched this in the beginning by only allowing what the CDC could do; they didn’t let individual hospitals set up labs and the US labs weren’t ready. And then they sent out faulty tests and had to send them back. Compared to Italy, the US has had one problem after another and I don’t think that it helps that health policies are run state by state, not nationally. In Italy or France, they can do a national decree. The population numbers are different—60 million here vs. 330 million in the US—and you are the biggest democracy getting hit by this. China doesn’t have to deal with democracy so they made radical choices after only 20 deaths and started a lockdown and widespread testing to get it under control. 

What did it take for Italy to take drastic measures to protect people from the coronavirus and institute a total quarantine? 

By the time they did a total lockdown in Italy, we were at around 300 deaths. The lockdown was incremental and started much less drastically, because businesses were angry and losing money. People were resisting the idea of a complete quarantine, even though the virus kept spreading. 

What has finally made a difference in people’s public behavior?

The numbers. Seeing how many people are dying every day is sinking in with people, more and more. Now that a lot of people are really starting to die from this, people are taking it seriously. Until quite recently, the 20-year-olds were all still out, thinking, “I’ll just be fine, it’s just a flu.” And statistically, they will probably be fine, but it’s everyone else they pass it along to. Now that numbers are growing higher and higher, there are 20-year-olds on respirators in the hospital. It’s not as high as other demographics, but they can no longer assume that they will be fine if they catch this. Younger people were acting obliviously and bars had to shut down for that to stop. 

Why do you think people were resisting the government decrees?

People don’t want to believe it. Initially one of the first things they did was to shut down universities and schools, but everyone kept going to restaurants and bars like normal. They were all told not to do it, but they did anyway. And then these ski resorts were having amazing snow conditions, so they started doing massive ad campaigns for university students who were out of school, and everyone was in line together for ski lifts and gondolas, with social interaction in the lodges, and it was bizarre that so many people just went skiing. A few days later, the prime minister shut it down, and this was a few weeks earlier than resorts wanted to. 

How do the numbers of those who tested positive and the number of deaths in the region impact everyone?

Over 24,000 people have officially tested positive, with numbers hovering around 200 people dying a day now. Venice is doing better than Milan, and Lombardy and Brescia and Bergamo are the hardest hit. It just spread more there, and this happened from people at the beginning not taking it seriously. It hit really hard immediately, on the 20th of February, in two or three places: outside Milan, where a 38-year-old manager spread it without realizing, and one little town in the hills about 10 miles outside Padua, where they had 88 people test positive. All of these four little towns were totally shut down, and went on lockdown immediately for two weeks… and now that the lockdown ended 3 days ago, they have no new cases.

People are having a really hard time taking this seriously and not going anywhere. They’re too interested in their own bubble and doing what makes them feel comfortable and this is really not good for everybody else. 

So a total shutdown worked in these towns?

We know it works if it is done completely and properly. The problem is the rest of Italy was thinking, “It’s not going to happen to me.” And even here, locally, people love to go to the bars to get a drink and were still doing this until a few days ago, sitting outside not far away from each other, like normal. Italians are very social and in general they have a hard time not being in contact with others. We are always brushing up against each other. This is really foreign for a lot of people.

What was the impact of people ignoring government decrees? 

It’s getting worse right now instead of better, and the number of coronavirus cases is exploding. Italy has about 1,500 new cases a day, but a lot of people don’t have that bad of symptoms. So 10 to 15 percent end up in the hospital in need of respirators and the hospitals are running out of beds. It’s like a war zone for hospitals. They’re opening up 30 new beds a day, using shipping containers and makeshift ICU units to create new beds, and the respirator situation is a national crisis. There’s only one company in Italy that is expert at making respirators, and it’s a small, family-run company, and they have accepted a government request to make 5x the number of respirators a month—to stop making everything else and sell directly and only to Italy, no other countries. They have brought in soldiers to help in the effort. For certain people with the virus, if they don’t get a respirator they will die, and your lungs just completely collapse. With a normal flu, people might need a respirator for seven days, but with this flu it can take up to 20 days, much longer. 

Is there progress being made?  

The north of Italy is pretty well organized; doctors and nurses are doing a great job. We are also having around 200 people healed each day, so that’s starting to get better. But there is a new problem. Last Sunday, when the government issued a new and total quarantine, in places like Milan everyone ran to the train station and went home to various towns in the south where they’re from, if they were studying in the north. The idea of spending two weeks isolated in their apartments was unthinkable. The problem is that a lot of those people could be infected, and could be spreading to friends and family in the south. We are not going to see those numbers for a few days, but it’s growing in the south too, although numbers have been mostly bad in the north. Hospitals in the south are not as well equipped and prepared, so this may be a ticking time bomb. Health professionals are really scared and the people who left behaved irresponsibly, so it’s most likely they didn’t self-quarantine and didn’t know if they were sick, since it was only a week ago. And then another wave of people left on Friday night from Milan. 

How are you feeling? How is your family and your larger Venetian community holding up?

People have had a hard time isolating. Starting last weekend we were getting new updates and government decrees every couple of days, new restrictions and a total quarantine situation. Now, you can technically go out for walks, but only to the grocery store or to walk your dog. Even last week, people were going to parks with their kids to play, but now they are shutting down the parks. Last week, families were getting together in piazzas with kids, and everyone was talking and playing and nobody was keeping a distance. Socially, it’s so strange, no shaking hands and keeping a distance, but still trying to be nice to people without interacting with them. 

After the total quarantine issued this week, what have you been doing?

We are all basically inside. They are phasing public transportation back in because so few people are using it. You are allowed to go to work and many jobs have shifted to working from home. A lot of companies, including my husband’s, are not equipped for working at home yet. He does international freight shipping—wine that needs to get sent to China, or all kinds of products from food to clothes, they ship farm equipment to Africa, and they ship them abroad. It’s a French company with several global offices in Italy. He is trying to pressure the office to let him stay at home a certain amount of time, to work every other day from home, but we have another three weeks of this to go through.

How do you justify some kinds of professionals working from home and others going into the office?

This virus is really dangerous because it’s so easy to transmit. You can touch a doorknob and don’t know you are sick and infect a bunch of people. For every single sick person counted, they’re saying there’s another two to four people who have it, and contagious behavior is happening most prominently with people you are working or living with, but some people here outside of Padua got it from playing cards with a man who got sick and died. They all got the virus. Restaurants and bars by government decree are not open, so there is no working there and no temptation to go because they are not open. Coffee shops were open until last week and people were still going and hanging out and talking so the government had to close everything. 

If I’m allowed to go to work, why should I get on a bus or a subway? The risk is high for transmission on public transportation, but it all depends on your company and job. Luckily I work for a university, and the government is blocking mortgage payments for houses for a month or two. There is a huge number of people who are freelancers and they’re getting hit so hard, have no backup money and weren’t getting enough money before. 

Freelancers seem to be particularly vulnerable here too, financially. 

We had a freelance “scam” already going on in Italy, where a freelance tax ID number is given to young professional employees so businesses can hire them, but don’t have to legally guarantee pay for any of these people. I’m seeing a lot of freelance translators who work for a number of businesses and ten days ago their projects were all cancelled. If you already work from home, why are companies cutting them off? But companies are cutting off anything extra, and there is total uncertainty, so they are cutting out anything not essential. There’s too many people—and they’re 40 and under, like 30 percent of the workforce is in this situation—and the EU is starting to promise more money to help us through the situation.

Can you talk about the timeline for cancellations and interruptions in daily life in Venice?

For me it started three weeks ago. First universities and schools were shut down the last week of February, so I started seeing my work and my kids’ life affected by being at home. Last week, when we could still walk around a little bit, I was taking my kids to the in-laws so I could get work done. But they are in their 70s and 80s and more susceptible if they get it. We don’t know if any of us have gotten it or not and you cannot always know if you have it, and so many people keep spreading it asymptomatically, so the government said no one can go anywhere except the grocery store.

Grocery stores are crazy right now in the US, with many empty. How is grocery shopping impacted in Venice? 

The elderly are used to grocery shopping every single day. This is what they do. Telling them not to go anywhere for days, they don’t understand how to shop for multiple days. All these old ladies and men are still grocery shopping. The grocery store is where it’s at—everyone is there. People are wearing masks, but then the stores all ran out of them, especially the good ones with all the filters. 

Do grocery stores have adequate supplies?

In theory, all grocery stores are getting their usual deliveries. The thing is that everyone is at home, so there is panic shopping involved, and people are buying out the shops because they’re afraid, even though the government promised all shipments will continue and farmers will keep producing food for shops. Essential services are not being barred, but people are in a panic over certain things and want to buy up a lot of stuff. Hopefully we can all calm down a little bit at this point. Also, people are at home and bored and the grocery is the only place allowed so maybe people are going out to the store because it’s the only place we’re allowed. 

Everyone is eating at home now; my kids aren’t eating lunch at school now, so twice as much food is needed in the house every week. I went to the store on Friday evening and all the fruit and vegetables were totally gone, so now we have to shop in the morning right after delivery instead of the evening. 

How does this impact your teaching?

I work for four different universities and they have different semester breakdowns. One was starting class that week and it was canceled. That week I had four thesis students supposed to be doing their dissertations and that all got canceled. And now we are doing it all via e-learning now. The universities were saying we have to prepare e-learning and video platforms for lectures, so I started going to the university in person, locally in Venice, to get technical help to figure out how to make video learning work. Basically the university has been developing these platforms for a few months, but wasn’t ready to launch it. Then this came up and they launched right away because they had to. I’m waking up at 6, before the kids, so I know I get an hour and a half to think and develop lesson plans, four classes for four different universities. Advanced English language skills at one, International English language prep course test, two active translation courses—giving them techniques to how to translate from Italian into English—it’s complex but a lot of people are doing a great job of adapting and actually teaching under these conditions.

What programs and strategies are you using for teaching electronically?

Zoom in particular is an app and program that I learned how to use at the University of Venice. This was the second week of universities being officially closed, and the government said you can’t go into work anymore. So the university has given teachers the credentials, and I’m signing in through the university and can have unlimited use and they’re the host. Other universities haven’t bought the programs yet but say teachers still have to do it, and access is limited. Each university has a different platform they want to use—so I’m having to learn three different online platforms—and this is happening across the board. All the high school students are getting video classes and every teacher has a different preference.

How do you do this with small kids at home? What about their education?

It’s kind of an impossible situation, where I have to work remotely, and I have my kids at home inside, and I don’t have anyone helping with them. I can’t hire a babysitter and bring them into my home. I can sit them in front of the TV for a while—an hour and a half is doable, and I hope my husband is home and doesn’t have to be sitting in front of a video monitor. Next week, all university administrators are staying home. 

We have no experience in Italy with homeschooling. I’m supposed to be a remote worker—supposed to work 4 to 6 hours a day—but I have my kids home and I’m supposed to be homeschooling them in Italian, math, and geography. My 6-year-old is in first grade, so there’s not that much, but the school assignments are building up and his math skills are getting rusty because we have not been diligent and now his teachers are sending more stuff. I don’t know how many hours am I supposed to teach him, but Monday through Friday I’m aiming to devote three hours a day to teaching my children, and I am expected to simply carve out that time during my day. 

Is art or music helping to calm people down at all?

I don’t know if you saw the “flash mob” event that happened last Friday, but everyone was invited to open up their windows and play music—people were singing to each other, favorite songs and the national anthem, famous opera singers did concerts on their balconies. It got some international media attention and there was lots of social media sharing, viral video sharing, and the BBC put a compilation together. Another thing circulating is asking kids to draw rainbows and write “everything will be all right” and put these drawings in our windows. It’s delicate to talk about, and kids are confused about why can’t they see their friends. Today my kids and I are baking black bottom cupcakes. We have never made them before. 

And today we are going to have a family meeting and think about what we want to do with our time, if there are any projects the kids might be interested in. I have been teaching the kids to help with the cleaning, cooking meals, and they’re helping more and more with that. I do have some private English students and clients, and some of them are sending me messages that they’re going crazy, not used to being home with family all the time, that they’re basically at each other’s throats and asking, how many more weeks will we have to be home? People are used to going out, and we just can’t do that right now. Our living spaces here are much smaller than US homes, there isn’t much room. 

How do you talk to your kids about what’s happening? 

For us, as a family, we normally eat dinner together and don’t put on TV in the evening, but now at 8 we are watching the news every night. They open with the numbers of how many new cases, how many died, and the kids are seeing it. As a family we are interrupting our dinner to watch and they’re going to bed later, because daily numbers come in around 7 pm about what happened during the day. 

How is your local and national news keeping you informed? Do you feel like you’re getting the information you need to make decisions? 

If cases continue to expand exponentially as they have been, we expect the peak—the worst of the worst of the worst—in the first week of April. Since we have put all these controls into action, the curve should come down, but we don’t know. It took China six weeks of shutdown to flat-line in a positive way for cases spreading and our schools are going to have been shut down between four to five weeks officially, the way the plans are right now. 

Can you talk about the impact on your daily reality in Venice?

We live in Venice, in the district of Cannaregio on a canal, and I can see the northern lagoon from my house. It goes out to the open water and, on a clear day, I can see the mountains. Our actual neighborhood is next to the elementary school for the district and there are lots of public housing units here, and people are having a hard time accepting this whole thing and not congregating. There are always about twenty people who hang out in front of our building—until three days ago, it was the same, as if nothing was happening, but then there were more police around. Yesterday, my husband ran about 10 miles and didn’t see a single police officer. We were curious to see if they would stop him, but they didn’t. There are fewer people out and no boats are out. They ended Carnevale celebrations early. People were still going out to their boats, in open air, sanding and varnishing them, but stopped coming this week. 


In America, the coronavirus was called a “liberal hoax” and a lot of misinformation was put out by the president and Fox News. In your opinion, how well has the Italian government responded to the virus? What kind of a job are they doing and how political are the decisions?

That political aspect is actually good here and everyone is realizing this is so massive, so let’s not turn this into a political thing. We don’t need to because it’s not voting season. I think in part, the US is suffering because of the primaries and election season gearing up. Trump was going to the CDC with his campaign hat on instead of acting like the chief officer of the US. It seemed like he was campaigning and was not there to do his job and was set on convincing everyone that the virus was fake news set to make him look bad. Reading a lot about Trump, it seems that now his fate is sealed because he has handled this crisis so improperly, but we have to see what the numbers are in the US. 

Luckily for us, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has done a great job. We as a public didn’t really know him, he was a professor of law in Rome, and he was selected to represent the core group of parties who won the election. They had a split but decided to keep him—one faction hard-right group had to leave the coalition, then reformed a new coalition—and they wanted Conte to continue. As a country we didn’t know much about him, but he is doing really well in this national emergency, trying to talk to everyone in industry and health, and he has had to write up all these complicated decrees and set them into place and to make things happen in an official capacity. We didn’t really vote for him because in Italy you don’t vote for the person, you vote for the party and they form a coalition and decide on whomever they want to lead, but we are very happy with his performance. 

Even with good leadership, the hospitals are over-extended. What about regular sick people?

Regular operations at the hospital have been shut down. Everything is all coronavirus. If you have tonsillitis and need surgery, you have to just deal with that for a month and wait. A friend of a friend in another town has this problem, but sorry—we have to dedicate all of our resources to this virus. He has to wait another month.  

How is the relative age of Italian citizens making the health scenario more precarious? 

Italy has an enormous elderly population. In Venice, over 50 percent of residents are over 60. Tourists are totally gone and it feels totally surreal. In Italy, the population is really old across the board because the birth rate is low and many young people leave the country to find jobs elsewhere. So when we look at the number of new cases it’s more older people, which is making it worse, compared to China with a much younger average population. This is probably why the death rate is higher in Italy than other places. The horrible reality is that, as numbers increase, depending where you are and facilities available, doctors have to make decisions. If there is just one respirator and three patients, they have to give the respirator to the person most likely to survive—if they have a 30-, 50-, and a 70-year-old, they will have to give it to the 30-year-old. It doesn’t seem like there have been too many situations like this, but if it gets worse, this is what could happen. 

What can you do to protect older people but not give the young a sense of complacency?

I haven’t seen my in-laws since Monday. It’s even more serious for them because it hits people more seriously in older ages. The more it spreads, it hits everyone more. The doctors say the only group that is fine are kids 6 and under, it’s like a regular flu for them, and doctors don’t understand why. Maybe it’s because all flus are new for them and bodies are processing it like a new flu? Or it could be that all the vaccines these kids have gotten are helping to create a barrier, but doctors don’t know yet. Teenagers can get it, but they do better than a 38-year-old, who does better than a 60-year-old.

How is living under this quarantine surrounded by the coronavirus cases affecting you emotionally and psychologically?

It’s weird because you have this invisible enemy. You’re going into public spaces and the only thing you can do is go to the grocery and everyone is wearing gas masks and you feel like you’re in a war zone. And then nurses on TV are telling you it really is like a war for them with thirty new ICU patients a day and hardly anyone leaving. You’re getting all of these images, but since I have little kids I’m forced to stay grounded for them. I’m also feeling lucky that I know that my job will continue and my classes are going to run and I’m not losing my paycheck. A number of people here are taking this time to seriously reflect on their life, values, habits and we are learning not to take anything for granted. We may see changes in how business and the economy looks and functions after all of this is said and done, so we are trying to view this as an opportunity to reflect and reset.

Venice, 2017: Dinner out in Santa Margarita after the Guggenheim Party with Amy Eva Raehse, Kelly Zimmerman, Irene Woodbury, Cara Ober, and Sheri Fisher

All photos via Irene Woodberry's Instagram @american_in_cannaregio and Woodbury's etching is titled Under Venice #1, 2019

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