Nicola Bogani has been quarantined with his wife and daughter in their sixth-floor downtown Milan apartment for several weeks, as COVID-19 roars through northern Italy and demolishes all that was once normal.
The 52-year-old taxi driver leaves home only to get groceries. He wears gloves and a mask and immediately puts his clothes in the wash when he returns. He waves to his 82-year-old mother from the adjoining balcony that separates their apartments, fearful that he might unwittingly infect her if they get too close.
But he said two parts of each day are most searing. The first comes at 6 p.m., when officials update the nation’s coronavirus case and death totals, now 74,386 and 7,503, respectively. Over the past week, about 700 Italians have died from the virus each day.
The second part is at night, when eerie silence is pierced every few minutes by the wails of ambulances rushing patients to the overflowing and overwhelmed Ospedale Niguarda, which sits about 500 yards from Nicola’s home. The military trucks that transport the dead from the hospital are quieter as they rumble away.
Nicola already knows two people who have been killed by COVID-19, and he is resigned to the likelihood that there will be more.
“Here, we are scared,” he said. “I’ll tell you, it’s very bad.”
In October 2015, I traveled to Milan to cover the Celtics’ exhibition game against the Euroleague club Olimpia Milano. Italy is teeming with Celtics fans, and it’s unlikely any of them are more loyal than Nicola, who even has a parrot named Larry the bird.
After we met in Milan he offered to ferry me around the city in his taxi. He pointed out landmarks, and I told him about Marcus Smart. It was enjoyable for both of us. He typically comes to Boston once a year for a Celtics game, and this season he was booked to see the team play the Bucks and Magic at TD Garden in early April.
But the NBA season has been postponed indefinitely, and that is the least of Nicola’s worries now.
As we talked this week, he spoke with great concern about both Milan and Boston. The epidemic struck parts of the US about two weeks after it began to pummel northern Italy, and he says Italians did not take its lethal path seriously enough. He worries we might have a similar fate.
“What you are doing now to stop this is not what you will see tomorrow,” he said. “It will take 15 days to see a difference. I hope it will not get as bad there as it is here. You must follow the rules. We made the mistake, and now we are paying for it.”
In late February, when the coronavirus was believed to mostly be contained to China, cases began to sprout in Italy. For about a week, there were less than 100 confirmed infections and a handful of deaths each day. It was enough to make people notice, but not enough to disturb their daily lives.
“Young people didn’t care, because there were reports it only infected the old,” Nicola said. “And it was not explained that the disease would collapse the hospitals.”
Schools were closed for Carnevale—a weeklong celebration that marks the beginning of Lent—and Nicola took his wife Raffaella and 16-year-old daughter Gaia on a ski trip to the Sella Ronda, an intricate collection of trails in the Italian Alps.
“At the beginning, I didn’t take it as seriously as I should,” he said. “It was a stupid thing to do. But I did not know it was spreading so quickly.”
When the family returned home, it was clear the situation was escalating. Schools were closed because of concerns about the virus, although Nicola said many in Milan still treated it as an extended vacation, with parks packed with teenagers, and cafes buzzing with revelers.
Nicola started wearing a mask when driving his taxi, increasingly uneasy about sharing such enclosed spaces with strangers. On March 7, it was announced that Milan would be included in a partial lockdown of northern Italy the following day. Residents began to flee to the southern part of the country, and Nicola received a call from his dispatcher asking if he would take a passenger all the way to Rome, a six-hour drive. He declined.
Later that night he picked up four young people at a bar. They appeared drunk, and one was showing cold symptoms while the others joked that it was probably coronavirus.
“I started to feel insecure,” Nicola said. “I didn’t want to bring the disease to my wife, or we give it to our parents and they die.”
He has not completed another ride since then, even though taxi drivers are among those exempt from severe restrictions, mostly to ferry workers to essential jobs. For three weeks, he and his family have remained confined in their sixth-floor apartment together.
In the early days of Italy’s quarantines, there were widely-circulated videos of Italians on their balconies in the evenings, singing and playing music in a nationalistic display of resolve. But Nicola said that in his neighborhood, those moments have come to a halt.
“People started to realize that there is suffering and dying, and you are outside playing music?” he said. “The first 10 days there was no notion of people dying. Maybe you didn’t know anyone who died. Now everyone knows someone who died. So you have no more of that feeling of making parties outside.”
In late February, a close friend of Nicola’s father went to a hospital because of a kidney issue. It is believed that he contracted the coronavirus there, and he died last week. At the start of the outbreak, Nicola received updates from a friend who worked as a nurse. That man, just in his mid-40s, caught the virus and recently died.
In Milan, protective measures that once would have seemed draconian have become accepted.
When in public, citizens must carry forms that show they have a valid reason to be out, such as a doctor’s visit or a trip to buy food at the nearest grocer. Transgressors face massive fines or jail time. Three replacement forms have been distributed over the last two weeks, each one more restrictive than the last.
At the grocery store, people line up in queues that sometimes span for blocks, because only five shoppers are allowed inside at once. Nicola waited for 90 minutes on his two recent trips.
At his building, just one person is now allowed on the elevator at a time. When he gets upstairs, he cleans the food packaging with sanitizing wipes and leaves his mother’s groceries on her doorstep. He removes his shoes in the hallway and washes the clothes he wore to the market.
His daughter’s school has started holding classes via video conference. Gaia is scheduled to attend a three-week summer program at Columbia University in New York in July, but now that appears unlikely. Nicola said her isolation has been particularly challenging. She recently had a panic attack.
“It’s not easy for a girl of 16,” he said. “She has been inside for one month and she can’t see the end, and I can’t promise her when it will be.”
Gaia recently heard her father on the phone discussing how this outbreak could cripple the family financially, and she was inconsolable. So now he doesn’t talk about work with anyone, and he tries not to even think about it.
“I decided to worry about jobs when this thing is finished,” Nicola said. “The health is more important. I will prefer to be safe and live poor.”
The family gets exercise and sun by walking on their small terrace. They clean the apartment every other day. Sometimes Raffaella will bake a cake to make their home at least smell like everything is all right. At night they watch movies, but they mostly stay away from the news, aside from the 6 p.m. briefing about the virus’s deadly toll.
“We already have the sound of the ambulance to remind us where we live,” Nicola said. “I think that’s enough for us.”
Old Celtics games have offered Nicola welcome distractions, with YouTube transporting him to a simpler time. He recently watched his favorite one, Boston’s 100-98 win over the 76ers in Game 6 of the 1981 Eastern Conference finals.
He shared the game with his Facebook group of Celtics fans from all over Europe, and then others—many of whom are quarantined just like him—started sharing their favorites, too. Some posted more Larry Bird masterpieces. Younger generations preferred the 2008 NBA Finals against the Lakers. In those groups and on text messages and video chats, they talk about the time they will be able to watch real games again, the time when everything might start to feel normal.
“Right now it is hard to see that day, because there are so many people dying,” Nicola said. “Right now, it is horror.”