March 12, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Better Safe than Sorry With COVID-19

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Like many second semester juniors, I was thrilled to be studying abroad. Before my trip, I was looking forward to eating authentic pizza, exploring villages lined with cobblestone streets and getting the chance to learn a new language. Instead, I find myself planning my return trip to the U.S., where I will have to self-quarantine for 14 days.

This semester, I picked an unfortunate place to be studying: Milan. I was recently forced to leave Italy due to the spread of the novel coronavirus.

On Sunday, March 8, the government officially quarantined Lombardy — the region containing Milan — meaning that no one would be allowed to leave the region until April 3, at the earliest. Then, suddenly, the next day, the Italian Prime Minister took the extraordinary step of putting the entire country on lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus. Lombardy now has the largest number of coronavirus cases and deaths in Italy. As of March 10, there were over 10,000 cases and 827 deaths, most of them in the Lombardy region.

The Lombardy quarantine was very unexpected and was announced late at night on March 7. The director of my abroad program called all students that night, begging us to take midnight trains out of Italy. At this point, he stressed that it didn’t matter where anyone ended up, as long as it was out of the country. At 2:00 a.m., my friends frantically packed their suitcases and ran to catch any train leaving Italy. Although most students were able to leave, some were not, and are now trapped and unable to get flights back home. They will remain in Italy until the end of the quarantine, whenever that may be.

Italians also tried to leave Milan that day. A viral video of the Garibaldi station in Milan showed a group of people running to catch the last train to Rome before the closure of the entire region. Hundreds attempted to get on the last train, but the train was so full that many were forced off, leaving them stuck in Milan.

The situation in Milan is dire right now. Highways are blocked by military police. There are no flights landing at major airports and no forms of public transportation are available. A Milanese friend of mine took a short walk outside and was asked by the police to go home and stay home. She is not even allowed to walk to the post office, which is just one block from her apartment. There are not enough medical staff, and those who are working are exhausted and overworked. The Italian government has even called for retired doctors and nurses to come out of retirement to offer extra assistance in local hospitals. Universities in Milan have not only hosted virtual graduations but have even graduated nursing students early so that they can immediately go to work. Milan, a city of 3.1 million, is in a crisis.

I find it disheartening that Cornell students are not more supportive of the decision to cancel classes for the rest of the semester. Shifting to online classes and leaving campus is certainly a major disappointment, especially for the graduating class. However, students do not seem to understand that it is better to be safe than to create a potentially dangerous situation in which all of Ithaca becomes a containment zone.

While students have been complaining about missing on-campus events such as Slope Day, Dragon Day and Commencement, they have failed to recognize the dangerous implications of allowing in-person classes to continue. The coronavirus usually creates mild symptoms for people who are young and healthy. However, as we know, Cornell is not merely comprised of young, perfectly healthy people. It is also made up of faculty, staff and students who may be immunocompromised. I fear for the professors and staff who are older or have health conditions. But more importantly, I feel as though Cornell students have failed to show compassion to those who are more vulnerable in our community during this challenging time and have not taken the global situation seriously enough.

Although the Cornell administration has taken a step in the right direction, students will still need more guidance in the coming months. Choosing to hold virtual classes is a complicated decision that will undoubtedly involve more planning and guidance from the administration. But on top of this, there need to be resources in place for students who are unable to go home before or after spring break. The University should also accommodate students in Ithaca if they cannot return home due to coronavirus concerns in their hometowns. In order for the rest of this semester to be successful, the University needs to take action as soon as possible to ensure a smooth transition after spring break.

While the closing of the Ithaca campus will create many logistical, emotional and financial disappointments, the example of Milan shows us how necessary it is.


Juliette Raymond is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Comments may be sent to [email protected]Guest Room runs periodically this semester.