By Julia Fonteles
February 25, 2020
BOLOGNA, Italy – In the early hours of Sunday, February 23, Lombardy, the northern region of Italy, woke up to a public health crisis. In a span of 72 hours, Italy reported more than 200 cases of COVID-19, marking the biggest outbreak of the epidemic outside Asia. On Monday, February 24, officials confirmed Italy’s fifth death. Roberto Speranaza, Italy’s health minister, announced the closure of public buildings and events, advising people against traveling and gathering in crowded spaces. According to Speranaza, those exposed to the virus are under quarantine until the outbreak is contained.
On Sunday afternoon, one of SAIS Europe’s affiliates, the University of Bologna (UNIBO), suspended activities. According to the university, due to the high number of students that live outside Bologna and the public health concerns of a travelling population, classes were suspended from February 24-29.
Following the tensions between Iran and the United States earlier this year, student life director Gabrielle Calabro created a “SAIS Europe Alert” Whatsapp group. With the goal to communicate security updates to SAIS Europe’s student body, the group saw an increase of 70 students during the 24-hour period following the COVID-19 outbreak. At 8:33 pm, SAIS Europe received an email from the administration acknowledging the Italian government’s precautionary measures.
As part of a joint decision by SAIS University administration in Italy and Washington DC, SAIS Europe decided against suspending classes and resumed normal activities. Under the assumption that most SAIS students live in Bologna and do not commute to and from cities with infected populations, the university established that the epidemic poses no risk to students at this time.
Laura Rong, an MA student from Nanjing, is skeptical about Johns Hopkins decision to resume activities. She has been closely monitoring the situation and says that, without any new confirmed case for 3 days, Nanjing is currently safer than Bologna. According to Rong, Nanjing’s success in containing the virus can be attributed to “the fact that Nanjing closed and they cancelled everything.”
From Sunday to Monday, however, circumstances in Bologna may have changed. As of Monday, February 24 there is a reported potential case at Ospitale Sant’Orsola, less than 1 mile from the SAIS campus. The patient is isolated and under close observation.
Test results have not been confirmed and it remains uncertain if she or he does, in fact, have the virus.
Brian Teeter, an MAGR student at SAIS Bologna, previously worked with infectious diseases at Emory Healthcare. Teeter says, “the biggest risk right now is that they failed to identify patient zero.” He noted that healthcare officials are trained to balance between containing widespread outbreaks and the panic that follows them.
Experts warn that the most vulnerable people are elderly, children and people with respiratory problems and weak immune systems. Doctor Lee Riley, professor of infectious diseases and vaccinology at University of California Berkeley says there is no cause for panic. According to Riley, common influenza is far deadlier than COVID-19.
Meanwhile, as students grasp the implications of the current crisis, both optimists and pessimists remain. Lopo Neto, an MA candidate concentrating in Energy, Resources and Environment said, “I am no health expert, but I think it is a matter of time (before) everyone gets it. Quarantines do not work.”
Brian Steiner, MA student at SAIS Europe concentrating in Conflict Management has reservations about the panic. He is not scared of catching the disease, “you just have to wash your hands,” he said.
On the evening of February 24, SAIS Europe students received an update from the administration confirming that SAIS will remain open for now. Updates are sure to continue until the crisis is contained.