ROME – Italian grandparents — “nonni” as they are called — were pulled in two contradictory directions on Thursday — and as usual the grandchildren won out.
In a decree that took effect Thursday, the Italian government urged the elderly and infirm to stay at home and restricted visits to nursing homes and assisted living facilities to contain the spread of coronavirus among those most vulnerable to it. But Italian grandparents were out in force at the nation's playgrounds and parks, stepping in as last-minute baby-sitters after the government canceled school nationwide on Wednesday.
The government move left 8.4 million students with no place to go for the next two weeks.
Italy, the epicenter of the outbreak in Europe, has the world’s oldest population after Japan, and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus. The 148 people who have died so far in Italy were all elderly or had other health problems.
“It’s an absolute paradox!” said Mauro Benedetti, a 73-year-old retiree who was called in to look after his grandson Thursday while his granddaughter had her horseback riding lesson. “They tell us to stay home. How can we help our kids and grandkids at the same time?"
“Grandparents are now at risk,” he declared.
Italian nonni have long been the go-to caregivers for their grandchildren, often taking the place of expensive nannies or daycare when both parents work. Many are also relatively young, given that some Italians can retire in their 50s or 60s. They often stay on to help out even when the grandchildren reach school-age, since classes often get out at 2 p.m., well before any parents can get home from work.
But the emergency school closures put families in a bind. A small sampling of Roman playgrounds indicated that the measures had the unintended boomerang effect of sending the elderly out on duty at the nation's sandboxes, swings and jungle gyms. Not to mention the fact that they were fully engaged with young children, those infamous germ carriers.
“Practically speaking, if there weren’t the grandparents, it would have been a big mess,” said a man named Roberto who took his granddaughter to the Santa Maria Liberatrice playground in Rome’s Testaccio neighborhood. “Those families where both the mother and the father work, it is really a problem.”
Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte justified the extraordinary measure of closing schools and universities nationwide until March 15 by warning that Italy might not have enough intensive care units to treat patients if the virus continues its “exponential” spread.
Already, ICU beds are in short supply in hard-hit Lombardy, which has 2,251 of Italy’s 3,858 positive patients.
Dr. Franco Locatelli, head of Italy’s national scientific council on health, said the measures adopted by the government sought to reduce contagion and protect the “fragile population” of the sick and elderly, since all studies say they are most at risk of fatal complications from the virus.
“The care of this population of patients is a fundamental objective for our country,” Locatelli told reporters Thursday.
Lorenzo Romano was among those on duty, making lunch for his grandchildren who were home from school. Despite the risks, he looked on the bright side.
“Altogether it makes me happy, because then I have them around me more,” he said.