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Italy Under Stress of the Coronavirus: An American Student’s Experience Abroad

"The shelves are as empty as they were after hurricane Sandy in New Jersey... This is a national emergency but I have faith in in the Italian government"

by Alessandra Clizia Sabba

Alessandra Sabba in Venice during Carnival

After reading countless articles on the Coronavirus to better understand the situation at hand, I realized the lack of stories from students living abroad. I am a third year at Arcadia University studying in Rome for the semester and like everyone else in Italy, the Coronavirus has been greatly affecting my life.

Alessandra Sabba in Venice 

All my life I have dreamed of going to il Carnevale di Venezia and last weekend my dream finally came true. After much planning and preparation, I hopped on a train, lugging around my big costume, and headed north. Having family predominantly in the South, the farthest North I have ever gone was Florence, so I was beyond excited at the opportunity to see what life was like in Northern Italy. 

With the Carnival in Venice and Fashion Week in Milan going on, many of my friends were also North, along with hundreds of thousands of other tourists rushing in for the iconic events. Venice was breathtaking but I immediately noticed that the number of people was nowhere near what I had imagined. Italians had warned me just how crowded the last weekend of the celebration would be, so I was happy to have room to freely walk and breathe. 

After our first day we started receiving emails and notifications from the US embassy that cases were suspected and confirmed in Veneto as well as other Northern Regions. We were encouraged to prepare for sudden closures and blocks to transportation, which worried us since we had class the following Monday. I woke up Sunday morning to catch the first train back towards Rome. When I walked outside everyone was wearing a mask, or thick scarf around their face, including all police officers and military personnel. Everyone seemed extra alarmed, more so than usual. I watched a woman on the bus cough and everyone around her looked absolutely terrified, as if they had heard a gunshot heading in their direction. At the time I didn’t know that news had come out that Coronavirus cases had spiked in Italy, making it one of the largest outbreak zones outside Asia. People in the train station were trying to get out of the zone, something which became a lot more difficult later in the day as Italy began to impose lockdowns in the North and officially shut down the Carnival.

Alessandra in Rome

When I returned to Rome I was advised to wash and clean everything since the virus can live off the body for several hours. My friends studying in the North had all their classes canceled for the time being and I went to class the next day only to find the hysteria continuing to grow. Other students in my program returning from other countries from their weekend travels had to go through screening processes in airports and other public transportation hubs. As more news was coming out, panic struck Rome as well as the rest of Italy.

Panic buying seemed to be everyone’s first response after being alerted that shops were either closed or bought-out in the North. I went to buy hand sanitizer and couldn’t find one anywhere in Rome. There is a shortage of disinfectant solution and masks all over Italy, making them nearly impossible to buy. Our program directors had to order disinfectant wipes online for us. I also went to the nearest grocery store that night, but the shelves were nearly empty. A cashier warned me that I’d need to go early in the day, since their shelves were being stormed every day. The next day I returned only to grab the few remaining cans of beans, pasta packs, and rice. 

Alessandra Sabba in Roma with her cousin Nick Cafagna, visiting her from Gaeta.

The only other time I have seen such empty shelves at a grocery store was when Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast. People began stocking up and preparing for the escalation of the virus as if it was a natural disaster. To me it seems the virus has been blown way out of proportion. Yesterday, an old man in the grocery store was joking about all the empty shelves and said “I don’t understand why this is happening. It wasn’t like this during World War II.”

This past week I myself have read some ridiculous articles and apocalyptic like scenarios from sensationalist reports provoking nothing but panic. Italy’s Foreign Ministry responded to these exaggerated reports by emphasizing the Italian government’s diplomatic channels would send out daily reports providing people with trustworthy and accurate information. After reading countless articles on the Coronavirus to better understand the situation at hand, I realized the lack of stories from students living abroad. I am a third year at Arcadia University studying in Rome for the semester and like everyone else in Italy, the Coronavirus has been greatly affecting my life. 

This week many US universities began to pull their students out of Italy and bring them home. My roommates that go to Villanova also had to return home. Villanova students made up a large part of our program so many of us lost new friends and were left in empty apartments. It was upsetting to have made such strong connections and have the fear that our experience might be cut short too if our home institution feels pressured to bring us home. 

Alessandra with other students at Fontana di Trevi, in Rome


Although some students may be afraid and want to be closer to their families, all the students in my program have made clear that they want to remain in Italy and finish their semester as intended. I was supposed to be traveling to Calabria with my class this weekend but the Ministry of Education suspended all student excursions and extracurricular events to reduce the amount of travel even more. The only course of action left now is to manage the situation, contain it, and cut down on travel for a week or two so the spread of the virus slows down. 

Alessandra at Osteria ‘da Memmo’, in Rome

Many of us have already purchased and planned excursions in advance, having paid for flights and accommodations which are now being affected or questioned due to the crisis. While some companies are being cooperative during this time, others have strict no return policies, including cheaper airlines such as Ryanair and Easyjet. Therefore, not only are students being sent home upset about their time abroad being cut short, and worried about graduating on time, but now they are also upset since most of them are losing money. 

I currently intern with the Erasmus program at Roma Tre University and I have had to respond and deal with many concerns from professors and students alike who are worried about coming into Italy during this time. My program and home institution have done an excellent job of keeping an open discourse with all of us studying here in Italy. Arcadia students were quick to create a group chat connecting those of us in Perugia, Firenze, and Roma. In this way we can make sure to stay informed about the atmosphere and evolving situation of their home location.

Alessandra in Roma

The program provided us with precautions and ways to avoid getting the virus as well as steps to follow if exhibiting symptoms. The Italian government and health services are responding efficiently and I think we will see improvements in case numbers. This is a national emergency that is not easy to manage but I have confidence in the Italian government and their management plan. 

The only thing left to do now is to minimize travel, follow prevention measures, and continue living life. I consider myself privileged to have been here in Italy during the time of this national crisis. With hopes to one day enter the field of diplomacy, it was fascinating to see the response of the Italian government and their interactions with neighboring countries as well as the reactions of the public.

I have had many interesting conversations with local Italians while in Venice but also here in Rome. While studying abroad in France last spring semester of 2019 I got to experience the yellow vest protests, and now while in Italy I have gotten to experience the outbreak of a virus which has become a national and global threat. My opinions of Italy and my experience here will remain to be only positive and close to my heart. Hopefully, this type of mentality and open mindedness is one that will be shared among us students living in Italy during this time period. 


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