In Italy, the mundane has become sociable

A man wearing a protective mask pushes a shopping cart in an almost empty street during the virus outbreak in Rome Thursday. (Reuters)
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Updated 27 March 2020

In Italy, the mundane has become sociable

  • Italians used to consider grocery shopping boring, but now use it to interact

ROME: For Italians, grocery shopping has never been a popular item on the to-do list. But as all cafes, restaurants and nightclubs in Italy have been shut by the government because of the coronavirus pandemic, the simple act of grocery shopping has become an important social activity.

Local supermarkets have become a kind of lifeline for many residents of Rome. Under special laws passed by Italy’s government, for the past 20 days people have been allowed to leave their homes only for necessities.

They can go to work in the few businesses and factories that are still open, and can go to pharmacies and food stores.

Even churches have closed their doors to stop people from congregating there. As such, going to the supermarket has become the only time people can see others.

This is why they tend to do their grocery shopping more than once a day, to avoid loneliness and boredom, and to escape from home. This applies especially to the elderly.

“I feel trapped at home. I need to go out and see people. In this absurd situation I feel like I’m under house arrest even though I’ve done nothing wrong,” Pino, 74, told Arab News as he queued in front of a big supermarket in San Giovanni in southern Rome.

“Since the lockdown began earlier this month, every day I look forward to going shopping. I never went. I always had somebody to do it for me. But this way, at least I manage to leave the flat once a day for some time, have a little stroll. If the police stop and question me, I proudly show them my receipts.”

Pino and a few of his friends arrange their daily trips in advance and meet up at the store. “We stand in line one behind the other, keeping a safe distance from each other of course, at least a meter as we’ve been told by the government. And we chat together while we queue,” he said.

“I’d have never thought in my life that I’d enjoy queues. I always sought ways to cut and avoid them whenever possible, but now it’s different,” he added.

“Of course, we can’t kiss and embrace each other as we always used to do between friends and family before the pandemic, but it’s something.”

Furthermore, elderly people are not fond of video calls. “I’m not good at that. I can’t make them. That technology belongs to another generation,” Mario told Arab News after greeting Pino from afar. “I can barely place a phone call with my Neanderthal-era cellphone.”

Italians have always made fun of the English attitude to queuing for everything, but now they are doing the same.

A security man allows people into the supermarket so no more than 20 are on the premises at the same time and can keep a safe distance. Once inside, they wear plastic gloves provided upon entry. Staff also wear them, along with masks.

“It’s like at the hospital,” said Pino. He and his friends follow each other in a line, a meter apart, eventually meeting at the checkout, then saying goodbye and going back to their homes.

Since food shops and supermarkets are now among the last remaining gathering spots, authorities are anxious to prevent new hotbeds of contagion.

Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi has announced disinfection operations in areas that still have substantial foot traffic, including pharmacies, supermarkets, bus stops and hospitals. Other mayors are doing the same nationwide.

Some shops require customers to disinfect their hands, put on gloves and leave their personal belongings at the entrance before beginning to shop.

Some grocery stores have installed Plexiglas panels at checkouts to prevent close contact between cashiers and customers. Still, when one comes nearly face-to-face with the cashier, it is a brief opportunity to socialize.

“The employees are really nice, and almost more welcoming than usual, especially the younger ones,” Giuseppe told Arab News while picking up his shopping bag.

“A smile becomes really precious in these difficult moments. I appreciate it very much. In normal times it wasn’t this way at all.”

He waves goodbye to his queuing buddies. “See you tomorrow,” he told them. “We’ll need bread and ham, and a little chat.”




Tech-savvy Indonesians go off-grid to help to remote villages fight virus

Updated 04 July 2020

Tech-savvy Indonesians go off-grid to help to remote villages fight virus

  • Young volunteers tackle tough terrain, pandemic myths in isolated northern region

JAKARTA: A group of tech-savvy young locals in Indonesia’s northern North Halmahera regency is spreading awareness about the dangers of COVID-19 in remote corners of the archipelago at a time when bureaucracy has impeded a rapid response to the pandemic.

The Relawan Merah Putih, or Red and White Volunteers, includes a multimedia expert, university students, lecturers, civil servants and a web developer in Tobelo, the main city of North Halmahera in North Maluku province, about 2,500 km from the capital Jakarta.

The city is located on Halmahera island, part of the Maluku Islands, Indonesia’s fabled Spice Islands on the northeastern part of the sprawling archipelago.

Stevie Recaldo Karimang, a 28-year-old freelance photographer and videographer, told Arab News that he set up the group after social restrictions introduced to counter the pandemic put him out of business. 

He quickly developed a website on the pandemic and created online flyers and audiovisual materials that he and 31 other volunteers distributed on social media platforms and messaging apps to educate the public about the pandemic soon after the first cases in Indonesia were confirmed in Jakarta in early March.

“We translated the information we took from the national COVID-19 task force into the market language spoken here, which is a mixture of Indonesian and the local dialect, to make it more understandable for the locals,” Karimang said.

The group also used a drone to issue public warnings against mass gatherings.

“The drone helped to remind people not to form a crowd when social restrictions were enforced. We attached a flashlight to the device to catch the crowd’s attention, and we were able to dismiss such gatherings.”

But the volunteers shifted their efforts to rural areas after the first coronavirus case in North Maluku province was confirmed on March 23.

Jubhar Mangimbulude, a microbiology expert at Halmahera University and the group’s adviser, said the team had visited 30 isolated villages out of 196 townships in the regency, which is home to 161 million people.

“We reached one village after hours of driving over rough terrain. We have to use four-wheel-drive vehicles because along the way we may have to cross a river where the bridge is damaged,” he told Arab News.

Mangimbulude said that many villagers were unaware of the pandemic and only knew from TV that a dangerous virus was spreading quickly and infecting people. He was glad to find that no COVID-19 cases had been detected among the villagers.

But he acknowledged that misinformation was rife and said that he had to debunk myths about “how alcohol could be used to prevent the disease.”

“The villagers heard that the virus can be killed with heat in one’s body, and since drinking alcohol can warm the body, they encouraged their children and elders to drink a local alcoholic beverage made of fermented sugar palm fruit,” Mangimbulude said.

Fellow volunteer Oscar Berthomene, a local civil servant, said that the group was able to move faster than the regency administration whose bureaucracy slowed down the response to the pandemic.

“I have support from my supervisor, and we were able to help their activities with cars to allow them to move around,” he told Arab News.

The regency has about 18 percent of the 953 cases in the province, which make up about 1.5 percent of the national total of 62,142 as of Saturday.