Alessandro Sarno, right, is known throughout The Bahamas as The Lonesome Photographer. For years he has roamed through our islands producing stunning photography capturing the unique beauty of our nation. But today he is at home in a village near Venice, trapped in a country paralysed by the coronavirus. His asthma-suffering mother is nearby but he can’t visit for fear he may have the virus and could pass it on. He stumbled into this nightmare after flying back to Italy following two months taking pictures in the Exumas for his new book. From paradise to a country gripped by fear......This is his story . . .
I first realised the coronavirus was a serious issue when I landed in Venezia on February 25. I was returning from Miami where I’d spent a week after photographing and navigating through the Exuma cays for over two months.
As we disembarked the aircraft we were welcomed by a team of Red Cross volunteers, all geared up against infectious diseases. They pointed a laser on our forehead to measure the body temperature and granted entry if it registered below 37.5 celsius.
With a higher temperature they’d have taken us to a special quarantine hospital in the outskirts of Venice where we’d have been kept for at least 14 days.
Venice’s Marco Polo airport is the third busiest airport in Italy after Roma and Milano yet as I walked through it was shockingly deserted. Never had I seen it like that in 30 plus years of travelling.
The following days went by quite smoothly and while news of the virus was everywhere it wasn’t until a friend sent me a press release from the Bahamas Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the real seriousness hit home. They were banning entry to people who had been in Italy, South Korea and Iran in the last 20 days.
My first feeling was of being discriminated and I thought how ridiculous it was to ban only these countries. Then I got worried of not being able to be back in The Bahamas in time to photograph the Georgetown regatta the third week in April.
Since that day the situation has escalated in the most dramatic and unthinkable way.
And Italy became the world’s main coronavirus spreader.
Last Saturday I went out for dinner with an old friend from high school. We were a bit nervous and trying to keep a small distance from each other - at least one meter is recommended.
We were having a dessert when the chef’s wife came by the table and asked if we’d heard the news? The news was the Government had decided to restrict movements, close schools and churches, forbid funeral services, weddings and was shutting down all bars and restaurants at 6pm.
The whole Lombardia region and other 14 provinces, including Treviso, Venice and Padova would be affected at least until April 3.
We were shocked and did not finish the dessert.
On Monday night the news of a new ordinance extending the restrictions to the entire country incredibly leaked before the government could officially announce it. Thousands of people rushed to the Milan train station to go home to their families in the South of Italy. This fact was widely discussed and criticised over the news and reminded me of a passage in Alessandro Manzoni’s famous Italian novel, The Betrothed, set around the time when the Black Death swept through Europe.
“They left before midnight. Nevertheless the ordinance prohibiting the population to leave the city of Milan and threatened the usual harsh punishments such as the seizure of their homes and properties, many left to find refuge in their country homes.”
Sadly 400 years later we had the exact same reaction. Little have we learned from history. Always tempted to think only of ourselves seems to be the DNA of our race. This time we have to be better.
Back to today’s times. We can’t leave our homes unless we have a work or a medical reason, an emergency or to go to the grocery store or pharmacy. If we leave home we need to have with us a document that certifies the reason why we are out, and if we don’t have one, we can be charged and detained for up to six months.
I live in a town called Montebelluna, 30 miles Northwest of Venice, at the feet of the famous Prosecco hills. It’s a nice little town surrounded by fields and hills with the mountains in the background.
Mornings are usually busy with people chatting in cafes, buying groceries - all the normal daily activities. But today as I went out to frame some of my photographs of The Bahamas, the atmosphere was surreal, only a few people around, no-one walked close to the other, I was even afraid of saying hello in fear that droplets in my breath could reach the other person or theirs could reach me.
You completely change your habits, I don’t even have a coffee at the bar and I don’t stop and talk to anyone.
I think I never experienced such a sense of fear and heaviness. I have never been in a war but if I had to imagine it would be like this morning. I’m not so afraid of the virus for myself but I am terrified that I can infect my mom, Gabriella. She has asthma and she is 78, this means that if she gets it she dies.
There are millions of people in the same situation. The elderly are left home alone or in old peoples homes. They can’t have visitors.
Children can’t go to school and parents are forced to rearrange their working life. Shops are closing, airports too.
It’s an unprecedented human and economic tsunami. And we are only at the beginning.
In the afternoon the sun came out and warmed the air a bit as I walked my dog in the fields. I had a sense of calmness of reconnection with nature and came home with a renewed sense of hope.
I then dived into my photographs of The Bahamas and started working on my new book of The Exumas and for a while was lost in the memories and visions of my beloved Bahamas, forgetting for a small moment about the current nightmare we are living.
I wish to conclude with a strong message to my friends in The Bahamas. Please don’t underestimate the impact of the coronavirus. I understand it seems so far from your beautiful shores but trust me, being in the midst of it here in Italy you come to a clearer understanding of things.
The worst mistake you can do is to think that it is just a flu. It is not and the number of casualties the virus could bring in your little islands are huge.
The main danger for those who get the virus is the extreme difficulty in breathing. When it’s critical you must have an artificial ventilator and if clinics and hospitals don’t, all you can do is pray. In some hospitals in Lombardia doctors are already having to decide who to cure and who not to. All beds are full, every piece of equipment is in use and we have some of the best hospitals in Italy and we can’t cope.
Just read the daily Bulletin: more than 10,000 infected people in Italy and 168 deaths in one day.
God save us.