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Marquette grad, family dealing with crisis in Italy

Coronavirus outbreak creates death toll, lockdown in European nation

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It was not that long ago Concetta Evola-Mangiapane was sitting in her kitchen in her home in Cinisi, Italy chatting with her husband’s grandmother, Orsolo Mangiapane, about measures being taken in that country’s battle with the coronavirus when she noticed the 91-year-old woman had tears rolling down her face.

Holding her hands to her face, the woman who as a child grew up in that city when the ravages of World War II befell her native country, said sadly, “This is like war. This is the war for your generation.”

Unfortunately, her words accurately describe not only the deteriorating health situation in Italy for the family of Evola-Mangiapane, a 2001 graduate of Marquette Academy, but also what the future may hold for the United States and her many loving relatives back here in the La Salle County area.

On Friday, a day after Italy supplanted China as the epicenter of the worldwide pandemic, a total of 627 people died from the coronavirus in a single day. As of Monday morning, 6,078 Italian fatalities have been caused by the disease.

So overwhelmed is the system and the cemeteries in this predominantly-Catholic country that bodies are now being cremated and, due to public restrictions, there are no funerals.

Those numbers Evola-Mangiapane finds staggering, considering the first case of the virus — believed to have been carried in by tourists on cruise ships docking in Rome — was found on Jan. 31 and there were 60 at the end of February, all of them in northern Italy. However, people fleeing to the south to escape the virus carried it to all parts of the country, which now has a still-growing 64,000 confirmed cases.

It might have been much worse had the president of Italy, Sergio Mastarella, not put northern Italy on a two-week forced stay-at-home order — not unlike the order that went into effect in Illinois on Saturday — in the first few days of the month, with only essential workers and those going for food or medicine allowed on the streets.

A few days later, it was extended to the entire country and for the remainder of the month. If that isn’t effective, Italy is also considering a plan to close down everything, including grocery stores and pharmacies. All will further stress an already weak Italian economy.

Evola-Mangiapane, in an interview on Sunday morning, said experts there believe the U.S. is only 11 of 12 days behind Italy in regard to the spread of the virus.

“The way it is here now, can you imagine what it would be like here had we not gone to lockdown when we did? It would be an even worse disaster,” she said.

“Here in Italy, we’re in deep and we know it, but you in America still have a chance to limit this and not let it get to this point. I wish the best for everyone in America and urge them to please just stay home. It affects everybody, so it has to be everybody. People’s lives depend on it.”

As are the people in Illinois, Evola-Mangiapane is adjusting to a new normal as a resident on the island of Sicily, just off the southern toe of the boot-shaped country. She explained she hasn’t left her house in 15 days, caring for her husband, Roberto, and her three children — 14-year-old Mariaelena, 12-year-old Caterina and six-year-old Giuseppe — who have been out of school and learning at home since March 4.

When food is needed, once a week Roberto passes through the now-emptied streets to the one grocery store in the city of 12,500 people, as travel restrictions to neighboring cities with more stores is prohibited.

When walking, he is sometimes stopped by police officers stationed at every intersection to be questioned about his destination. When driving, video cameras record license plates so they can be asked the same information by phone and may be required to prove it with a dated receipt.

Once at the store, he stands in line for an hour or two as only two people are allowed in the store at any one time. Masks and gloves must be worn by patrons at all times.

The most sought-after items in Italy are not toilet paper, as here in the U.S., but flour and yeast as most Italians make their own bread, pizza and pasta.

When he returns home with his purchases, Roberto takes off his shoes at the door, sets down the packages and goes upstairs to shower while his wife puts the clothes he was wearing through a disinfecting wash.

“It’s so dangerous,” said Evola-Mangiapane. “You might have it and walk around with it, coming in contact with other people, but not have any symptoms yourself … There was one man who was visiting his 81-year-old father every few days, checking on him and bringing him food, but was actually an asymptomatic carrier of the virus and unknowingly passed it on to his dad. A day after his son’s last visit, the father developed a fever and died.

“This is truly a silent killer. Yet so many people still going out, doing things, not taking it seriously and thinking it’s all a joke, but it’s not a joke. That’s what is very frustrating.”

Evola-Mangiapane, grateful so many of her friends in America have reached out to her in light of the situation, visited the Ottawa area just last Christmas. She now spends a lot of time online and in video chats trying to alleviate her great concern for her parents, who live in Marseilles, and the rest of her family back in Illinois, a state where 1,285 cases and 12 deaths have been recorded, as of Monday.

The United States total is a growing 43,718 cases, with 546 of them fatal.

“It’s been crazy,” said Evola-Mangiapane. “Who would expect anything like this? But what can you do? You just have to be tough for your kids, stay as positive and in high spirits as you can and hope we’ll find a way out of all this because no one really knows what’s going to happen or when it’s going to end.

“People keep saying they want things to get back to normal, but to get there, we have to keep it from spreading and staying home as much as possible now is the sacrifice we have to make to get back to normal. We can’t give up.”

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