'We underestimated it': An Italian woman urges Americans not to repeat the same mistake that left her home country vulnerable to becoming the new coronavirus epicenter

Isabella Costaldi

  • When the coronavirus outbreak was reported in Wuhan, most
    people in Italy didn’t take the threat too seriously because China
    is “far, far away” and the infection itself seemed like the flu,
    Isabella Castoldi said.
  • But as the COVID-19 virus reached Europe, people went from
    joking about it to panic-buying toilet paper, and Florence became
    “a ghost town” almost overnight, she recalled.
  • Looking back, Castoldi acknowledged that underestimating the
    virus left Italy susceptible to becoming the COVID-19 epicenter in
  • She urged Americans and others in countries where the
    coronavirus is creeping in to practice social isolation and follow
    containment measures if they want to wrestle control of the
  • Italy has been wracked by its local outbreak, with nearly
    70,000 sickened and 6,820 dead as of March 24.
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    Insider’s homepage for more stories

When news of the coronavirus first emerged, many people in
Italy, Isabella Castoldi included, thought they were

The COVID-19 virus originated in Wuhan, which is “very, very far
away,” Castoldi said. “We expected other countries that are much
closer to China to be in this situation before us so we just joked
about it. We were not afraid of it or anything.”

That thought process was compounded with a misconception that
the coronavirus is “just a flu,” she recalled. People were
convinced that even if they got sick, they would be able to get
better, telling themselves, “It’s not that serious. It’s just a
phase. It’s going to be fine.”

“We underestimated it,” Castoldi told Business Insider,
stressing that Italy, home to some 60 million people, is paying
dearly for that misstep.

The coronavirus, which causes a pneumonia-like illness, has
breached 169 countries around the globe, infecting more than
415,000 people and killing at least 18,500 people, based on data
compiled by
Johns Hopkins University

Italy has been thrashed by an escalating outbreak, with nearly
70,000 sickened and at least 6,820 dead as of March 24. Despite
being on lockdown since March 10, it has set the record for the
highest single-day coronavirus death toll — 793 on March 21 —
and overtaken China as the country with the most coronavirus-related deaths.

italy coronavirus

From ‘one day to another,’ Florence emptied out

Italy confirmed its first coronavirus case less than four weeks
ago, on February 20. But people weren’t yet paying heed to the
brewing threat, evidenced by the fact that Castoldi went to Milan
— in the nation’s hardest-hit Lombardy region — to get a spider
and a heart tattooed on her arm on February 28. 

After returning, she went about her normal daily routine, which
included working at a popular ice cream store just steps away from
the city center.

“We usually have a very, very long queue that extends outside
the door,” Castoldi said. “Then, from one day to another, it was

That same week, she also helped a co-worker count the shop’s
daily earnings, only to realize that they’d made “thousands of
euros” less than normal. And their team and hours were cut down as
customers slowed to a trickle.

“It was crazy,” Castoldi said. “That’s when we started to
realize that maybe this is more serious than we thought.”

The 25-year-old also remembers noticing supermarkets
“overflowing” with people panic-buying everything from toilet paper
to meat and pasta.

“I was shocked,” she said. Florence, usually a hit among
tourists, became “like a ghost town” seemingly overnight.

supermarkets coronavirus

The coronavirus should not become meme fodder

However, it wasn’t until Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte
shut down Lombardy on March 8 that Castoldi responded to the “panic
level,” and reached out to her doctor about possible exposure to
the virus while she was in Milan. She was instructed to
self-quarantine only from March 9 to March 13 since she’d already
spent several days interacting with her coworkers, and father and
brother, with whom she lives, and no one was symptomatic.

So, Castoldi shut herself into her room, and spent five days
watching movies, surfing the internet, reading, and sleeping. Her
pet cat, Bilbo, stuck by her side for all of it.

She only came out for a few moments at a time, always with a
face mask on, to use the restroom or get food.

The Castoldi home has two restrooms, so she used one. The
kitchen, however, required a bit more planning. Either her father
cooked meals and left a dish for her — that she ran out and
grabbed while they took cover elsewhere in the house — or she
came out and prepared a plate when they weren’t around. Everything
she touched had to be sanitized.

Castoldi’s self-quarantine has since ended, so she can now roam
the house and spend time with her family. They all remain

But Castoldi has taken to posting warnings on social media,
discouraging influencers and others around the world from spreading
coronavirus jokes and memes.

Italy coronavirus

People need to do their part to halt the spread of the virus

China’s cases declined dramatically because they “put everybody
in quarantine,” Castoldi said, urging people to remember that we
not only don’t have a cure for the coronavirus, but are also
battling a lack of knowledge about it. In the interim, others, in
the US and elsewhere, need to double down on stringent containment
measures and social distancing.

“It’s hard to change habits, put them on pause, but … it’s the
only way,” she said. If Italians had taken the coronavirus more
seriously during the onset of the outbreak, maybe they could have
averted the disaster that’s since wracked their country.

Castoldi said
the state of medical workers in Italy
further galvanized her to
speak out. They are working inhumane hours in overloaded hospitals,
lack appropriate protective equipment, and are being forced to
decide who to save, all while the country’s healthcare system

“They don’t really want to be called heroes, but that’s what
they are,” she said. The fact that “they risk their lives for us”
should be enough impetus for people to obey directions and not
exacerbate the situation.

One thing’s for sure, though, Castoldi said, “unless an outbreak
like this affects us directly, it’s easy to believe it never

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'We underestimated it': An Italian woman urges Americans not to repeat the same mistake that left her home country vulnerable to becoming the new coronavirus epicenter