WASHINGTON — I was supposed to be home in Italy for my spring break. Instead, as my parents are self-quarantining in our house near Milan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Italy, I am stranded in Washington, D.C., self-isolating in college housing more than 4,000 miles away from them.
I want to go home, but I’m afraid to do so.
As a perpetual international student, I am no stranger to homesickness. I moved to the U.S. last June for a master’s in journalism at Northwestern University. This was after spending the five previous years in four different countries for the sake of pursuing what I saw was a better education. But my current state of mind seems unfathomable.
I long to fly home and see my loved ones as I had originally planned. But that would mean embarking on a 24-hour trip and going through at least three different airports, which now seems incredibly risky, especially given the current shortages of basic supplies to protect myself from the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. It wasn’t until recently that I managed to buy some surgical masks after days of searching, and I am still striking out with hand sanitizer.
Upon my arrival in Italy, I would most likely be quarantined in military barracks before sheltering in place in my own house, which is in one of the most infected areas in the country. It is so dangerous that my 80-year-old grandmother left her home to join my aunt and uncle in another region.
My parents decided to stay and have not left the house in more than a month. They have been resourceful, coming up with innovative ways to keep themselves busy — new recipes, online courses, strolls in the backyard — but our daily calls suggest that their days have inevitably started to melt into each other. But they have no other option: Leaving the house would mean getting in trouble with the police, in addition to seriously putting their health at risk.
With hospitals in Italy at maximum capacity, I fear that relatives and friends who have been infected could be among those who will be denied treatment. It’s a gut-wrenching feeling that shadows me day and night.
The worry, of course, is mutual: As I worry about my family, my family worries about me stranded in Washington, despite my best efforts to reassure them. My parents like to say, “It’s our job to worry,” and they are surely taking this more seriously than ever. My dad started an email chain titled “Important information regarding Covid-19” so he can send me daily updates about preventive measures. The latest one detailed the importance of owning an oximeter, a small device that can help prevent a respiratory crisis by detecting a drop in the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream.
To give myself and my parents some peace of mind, I have been self-quarantining, like so many others in the United States and around the world. I feel fine, but after being exposed to someone who had Covid-19, I worry I might have it too.
I recoil at the idea of being in a hospital bed, an ocean away from my parents, in the middle of a pandemic. I am also trying to figure out what my health plan covers. Where would I go in case I needed help? And how much would that cost?
Most of my friends in Washington have also been staying at home. In an attempt to resemble the social life we once took for granted, we have created a book club, spent hours playing games online, and talked incessantly via the electronic devices that have now become our only connection with the outside world. We even manage to work out together, though separately, in our respective living rooms. Since I left home at a young age, I had to learn how to be by myself, but Covid-19 has brought a unique level of loneliness.
Not all of my friends are taking this approach to the pandemic. Some are carrying on with their normal lives, filling their days with social gatherings and dismissing the most simple precautions, such as washing their hands often. In some cases it’s a matter of thoughtlessness; in others it’s the flawed perception that such measures won’t make a difference.
While I battle with worries, hopes and a million “what ifs,” I cannot help but think of all the other international students in the U.S. — more than a million of us — who are also juggling loneliness, searches for hand sanitizer, and uncertain futures.
If we can’t go home now, when will we be able to do so? And if we do manage to get home, when will we be able to come back to the U.S.?
Silvia Martelli is a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, a White House pool reporter for Bloomberg, and an intern at Vice.