‘Everything is going to be OK’

‘Everything is going to be OK’

Pawtucket’s Elizabeth Johnson-Mottola, left, shown at the beach with her husband, Michael, and daughters, Katerina, left, and Isabella, right, has lived in Italy for the past 15 years.
Living in quarantined Rome, Pawtucket native takes pride in Italy reaching Phase Two of lockdown by doing ‘nothing to do something’

A high school biology teacher at St. Stephen’s School in Rome, Italy, Elizabeth Johnson-Mottola decided to spend the final few minutes of a late-January class with her 9th graders by discussing something in the news that caught her attention and was related to the topic they were studying at the time, the immune system.

“I had read about a new and strange infection that had originated in China,” the Pawtucket native said. “We briefly discussed how a virus could spread and how difficult it would be to contain an outbreak, especially with international travel that could take a person from an infected area to anywhere in the world in a few hours.”

“At that point, the virus didn’t even have a name yet, but soon enough, it would become the most talked about, studied, and debated topic of the year.”

That virus, of course, turned out to be COVID-19, and Johnson-Mottola, who has lived in Italy since 2006, has seen everyday life across the globe get turned upside down by the current pandemic. For nearly two full months, from March 11 to May 3, Italy was in complete lockdown, to the point where “a sort of permission slip was issued by the government, which was necessary to have whenever we left our homes,” she said.

But last Thursday afternoon, Johnson-Mottola was happy to report that things are starting to look up for her adopted country. “Phase Two” of the country’s reopening began on May 4, which among the rules, allows people to leave their house to walk, run, or exercise, as long as they do so by themselves. There has been a decrease in the number of positive cases and deaths nationwide. And it's all been made possible by the nearly two months of sacrifices that the Italians have collectively made.

"We still have to wait in line for food and we still need to wear a mask and gloves," Johnson-Mottola said. "Our schools and our playgrounds are still closed. Our hairdressers and clothing stores are still closed, as well as many other businesses, but at least I can see a restored hope that we have come together to beat this thing and it has worked thus far."

Johnson-Mottola followed up an email she sent to The Valley Breeze by talking about the state of affairs in her country and how pleasantly surprised she was to see the overwhelming majority embrace the 7½-week lockdown and handle themselves well during it.

"Italians seem to never follow the rules," she said. "They are generally rule-breakers and rule-stretchers, but when it came to life or death, which is what we are really talking about here, and the unknown, they were overwhelmingly on board with the government. Most times, they're very leery of their government – the taxes are ridiculously high and people always seem to have something to complain about – and when this happened, I was really concerned that all the rules in place wouldn't be followed. But in this situation and the gravity of what was at stake, they have surprised me with most people following the laws to a tee."

Johnson-Mottola has plans to return to Rhode Island to visit her family and friends in late June with her husband, Michael, and daughters, Isabella, 6, and Katerina, 2, but she and her husband are having second thoughts of making the trip especially if a 14-day quarantine would be imposed on both ends of the trip and looking to possibly postpone it u

"I don't know if it's safe there," she said. "I just get the sense that even if we went home, we would be spending most of our time indoors. It seems like there are some people who aren't following the rules or are just blowing this off. The President has been saying that the country has to open up again. I don’t think he is giving it the time it needs for people not to be put in harm's way. That's really disappointing. He's putting the economy first rather than the health of the American citizens."

Johnson-Mottola has been playing close attention to the way Americans have reacted to their lockdowns, as well as the situation in this state, "and just listening to Gov. (Gina) Raimondo and talking to our parents, it seems like people in Rhode Island are following the rules more so than in other states," she said. But as for some other places in the U.S., "it's upsetting to see that some people haven't taken it seriously, especially when they knew that (the pandemic) was coming their way."

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Johnson-Mottola moved to Italy with her husband, also a Rhode Island native, when he landed an internship at a restaurant in the village of Asiago. The couple got married in Asiago in April 2006, and five months later, they moved to Rome’s Aventino neighborhood and currently live inside the complex of St. Stephen’s, where Michael is the head of the boarding department and Elizabeth teaches biology and is the director of the service learning program.

Within a few days of her prophetic discussion about the “new and strange infection” with her students, “two Chinese tourists in Rome tested positive for the virus,” Johnson-Mottola reported. “Then another Italian man who had spent time in Wuhan, China tested positive, followed by a cluster of cases detected in northern Italy, in particular the Lombardy region.”

And the news didn’t get any better.

“More and more infections and the spread became faster and faster,” she remarked. “Towards the end of February, the news reported that the entire region of Lombardy was closed. In Rome, we questioned how this would be possible, not realizing that we would soon be in the same boat.”

For schools throughout Italy, that bad news couldn’t have come at a worse time. ‘La Settimana Bianca,” or “White/Snow Week,” which is the equivalent of the February vacation in the U.S., was ready to begin its week-long break on Feb. 23, and students’ trips throughout Europe, Northern Africa, and parts of the Middle East were organized by the teachers.

“Those who departed on that Saturday successfully arrived at their destinations,” Johnson-Mottola said, “but early that Sunday morning, a surprising decree was sent out by the Italian Health Ministry declaring that all school trips nationwide were to be canceled. This incredible news was the first time we realized that this virus was not something we could ignore.”

“The students who were departing that Sunday were clearly disappointed, as were the teachers leading those trips,” she added. “Our boarding department remained open for the week, and as a school, we went into emergency problem-solving mode, trying to figure out what the next steps were going to be, all while still trying to wrap our heads around the fact that the second epicenter of this new, fast-moving contagious virus was Italy.”

When classes resumed the following Monday, Johnson-Mottola talked to her students about the possibility of school closures, and while “no one really thought it would happen too quickly,” two days later, a decree stating that “all schools would be closed until further notice" was issued, "essentially making that our last day of in-person classes for the academic year on March 4th.”

“At first, schools were only meant to be closed until March 15th, but the date of reopening the schools in Italy was continually pushed back as the virus gained strength,” she said. “Every night, after the 6 p.m. singing of the national anthem and other Italian favorites from balconies across the country, we watched the news and heard the staggering numbers of people who were infected, were cured, and had unfortunately died of this disease. It was a completely surreal situation.”


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Down, but not out, the Italians kept the faith.

“Within a few days of the (country’s) total lockdown, signs started popping up in windows and hanging from balconies with rainbows and the hopeful slogan, ‘Andra’ Tutto Bene,’ which means, ‘Everything is going to be OK,’” Johnson-Mottola observed. “Most Italians were ready to make the sacrifices necessary to stop the spread of this terrible disease.”

During the lockdown, Johnson-Mottola witnessed long lines outside supermarkets, pharmacies, and any other places deemed essential during that time, with people spaced at least six feet apart from each other. Face masks and latex gloves were a must for everyone, “and if someone was out and about without a good reason, the police would issue a large fine,” she said.

“If you had a fever or other symptoms, you could call your state-issued free family doctor or a free hotline number to speak with a doctor directly,” she continued. “If you had been in contact with someone who had the virus or had been to China, medical personnel would arrive at your home in hazmat suits to test you for the virus.”

When the lockdown began, it was "unclear if you were allowed to go out running or not," said Johnson-Mottola, who had run on the cross country and track and field teams at La Salle. Stonehill, and for the Rhode Island Road Runners' running club. "A couple of times, I went running with a friend, but we were stopped by a police officer. We were stopped another time by an army soldier, and they just said, 'You really can't be here. You have to go home,' without giving us a fine. After that, I just ran circles around the driveway, sports courts, and the indoor courtyard of the school."

Johnson-Mottola also heard of some instances of her running friends hitting the roads, only to get a good tongue-lashing from people who stuck their heads out of the windows of their homes. "Everyone living in this country was making sacrifices and they were basically shaming them, calling them idiots for going out running and not following the rules," she added.

Near the end of the lockdown, Johnson-Mottola was impressed by an interview that CNN journalist Ben Wedeman conducted in the famous Campo de' Fiori section of Rome with a man who was wearing a face mask and gloves and talking about life in Italy.

"He said something that I think is important for all of us to remember," she recalled. "‘Facciamo niente per fare qualcosa’ which translates to, ‘We do nothing to do something.’ Essentially by staying at home and doing nothing, we are doing something to stop the spread. By closing schools and daycares, and bars and restaurants, we are doing something to stop the spread. By staying indoors, by changing our behaviors, by canceling major events, concerts, graduations, and all of our summer plans, we are doing something to stop the spread. By changing our daily routines, we are doing something to stop the spread."

"We are lucky enough to be healthy, have money for food and a safe place to live, and have spaces like the garden and basketball court on the school’s campus to have a place for our girls to play and for me to run circles around to stay in shape," she added. "We’ve essentially done ‘nothing’ to achieve ‘something’, and support the health and safety of others’"

As for Italy's future, "I don't know how this country is going to rebound at all," she said. "We're going to go through a lean time. There is still a long way to go, and no one knows for sure what will happen next, but either way, we fought COVID-19, and will continue to fight it as a community, thinking about the common good, rather than what was good for the individual. Again, I have never been prouder to call this place my second home, and I truly believe that ‘Andra’ Tutto Bene.’"

Banners below the windows of houses with the slogan ‘Andra’ Tutto Bene’ (which means “Everything is going to be OK”) have become commonplace in neighborhoods throughout Italy.