Mon | Mar 30, 2020

‘I think I am in the war’ - Italy lockdown harks back to 1950s Jamaica polio crisis

Published:Wednesday | March 25, 2020 | 12:24 AMDanae Hyman/Staff Reporter
Margarette Abrikian
Margarette Abrikian

Margarette Abrikian, a 77-year-old Jamaican who has been living in Italy for decades, says that the novel coronavirus outbreak that has crippled the European nation reminds her of the poliomyelitis crisis that plagued Jamaica in the 1950s.

In 1954, the Caribbean island battled a severe outbreak of the highly contagious disease, which claiming the lives of Jamaicans, including children.

With COVID-19 devastating economic and health systems, Italy has become the sick man of Europe, recording 69,176 confirmed cases and 6,820 deaths. Approximately 740 deaths were tallied yesterday. The country has been on near absolute lockdown.

“We can’t leave home, we can’t even go to the next town. We are supposed to stay in and keep ourselves busy, I guess because everywhere is closed, except like supermarkets and pharmacies,” Abrikian told The Gleaner. “With all of this. ... It’s like your whole life has changed.”

Abrikian, whose older sister died back in 1954 in the polio epidemic, said modern-day quarantine is a grim reminder of those times.

“I went to St Hilda’s, and it was before there was a vaccine, so we couldn’t go to school. This is what really always comes to my mind right now because then just like now, your whole lifestyle had to change,” Abrikian said.

Her sister was 13 years old when she died.

Reported deaths in Italy have now doubled China’s, which was once the epicentre of the virus. China has recorded 3,277 COVID-19 deaths.

Among the deaths, a 34-year-old man in Rome, with no existing health conditions, died after being hospitalised for four days in sub-intensive care. He had developed a fever after returning from Barcelona, Spain.


Abrikian, who lives close to Rome, said that because her age makes her more vulnerable to the virus, she has tried her best to faithfully follow all the rules laid out by her government, even if it means not being able to speak to her neighbour physically.

“Taking it just one day to the next is really what is at the forefront of our minds,” she said.

Her daughter, Angella Zaffaroni, who lives close to Milan, said she, too, is trying to stay safe by not leaving her home – even though the area where she lives has not had many confirmed cases.

“We are not in the red zone, ... but we still follow the same government rules. I am not particularly scared but I try to be cautious, because we have kids, so we have to be strong and try not to do any stupid things. We had to rearrange all our lives and my husband and I are both teachers so we are teaching online using digital devices. No one goes out, the streets are empty,” Zaffaroni said.

The middle-school teacher said that the only reason most persons leave their homes is to get groceries or medication, but physical contact is discouraged.

Zaffaroni also disclosed that even though she speaks to her mother daily, she is still worried because Abrikian lives alone and is in the age cohort of greatest vulnerability – especially if complicated by underlying medical conditions.