An American student living in Italy describes what it was like to watch the country shut down as the coronavirus panic spread

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An American student living in Italy describes what it was like to watch the country shut down as the coronavirus panic spread

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  • One American student studying in Italy found her studies cut short as the coronavirus pandemic swept the nation. The situation progressed startlingly quickly, she said.
  • She said many wished to remain abroad, fearing for their safety and lack of health insurance in the US. She had also wanted to stay, but it wasn't as hard a decision for her because she is on her parents' health insurance.
  • She just got back to the US on Friday, and isn't sure if she'll have to go into quarantine. She said several of her friends weren't tested when they returned from Italy.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, one American student studying in Italy - whose identity was confirmed by Business Insider - found herself in a country second only to China in number of infections. Italy's death toll is now over 631, with over 10,000 infections reported, out of global totals of more than 6,500 and 169,000, respectively.

The student was meant to stay in Italy for the full academic year. And she's far from alone - in 2016, Italy was the second most popular destination for Americans studying abroad. She and her peers found themselves scrambling to leave the country - but not necessarily looking forward to their uncertain future upon returning to the US. She got home on Friday.

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She let Business Insider in on her experience of Italy during the pandemic, with pictures she took after lockdown began.

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At first, as friends were getting sent home, she decided to stay.

At first, as friends were getting sent home, she decided to stay.

She chose at first to stay, she said, because the outbreak "started out as, the schools were just going to close for a week" or so. Some of her friends considered using the week off to travel, but then it became clear that life was not going to resume as normal anytime soon.

As the week stretched into a month without class, the student said "we had nothing to do." And then it became clear that nobody was "really too sure" whether or how the outbreak was going to stop. Then the past few weeks have been a whirlwind, she said.

"All of the Chinese restaurants started closing and then, stores started closing; churches and then cinemas, theaters, gyms, schools, universities — any sort of place where a lot of people gather, they just started closing. And then eventually .... the shops, even the touristy shops, which usually remain open during holidays, were closing."

When she first heard about the coronavirus, in January, "there were a couple people wearing masks, and then, in February, that's when you started noticing that the tourists were disappearing. More people started wearing masks, and then maybe every other store was closed."

Coronavirus first started to make a minimal appearance in January — and then things progressed quickly.

Coronavirus first started to make a minimal appearance in January — and then things progressed quickly.

The only stores currently open in Italy are pharmacies and grocery stores.

As street life began to shut down in Italy, the student said, it felt like everyone was wearing masks and gloves, with people having to line up outside — shoppers can only go in one at a time as people leave. And, she added, everyone stays "a respectful one meter away from each other.

This was "super surprising" and "really striking" to the student, who had gotten used to Italy, where "personal space bubble is way smaller" than Americans or the British, who "already stay like one meter away from each other."

Inside grocery stores, she said, people are also generally wearing gloves and masks. When you go to get groceries rung up, you must wait behind a red line until an employee comes to meet you and bring your items to be scanned.

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She's not sure if she'll have to go into quarantine upon returning to the US — and she said several of her friends weren't tested when they returned from Italy. But many are choosing to self-quarantine.

She's not sure if she'll have to go into quarantine upon returning to the US — and she said several of her friends weren't tested when they returned from Italy. But many are choosing to self-quarantine.

"I do have a couple of friends that are like, 'Oh my parents are really old, or my children are really young, so I'm going to rent an Airbnb for two weeks and stay there. And I'm not sure what I'll do, or what other, low-income students will do, because there's nothing we can do. We just have to go home and try not to get our family sick."

She added that students from her cohort in different countries all echoed the same sentiment — they felt more comfortable staying where they were than returning to the United States.

"They don't feel safe going back to America, because they either don't have medical insurance or their families are ... they're vulnerable. And I myself have medical insurance, but it's only because I'm on my parents' medical insurance." If she didn't have that insurance coverage, she added, she also wouldn't have wanted to come back.

"This whole ordeal has been really tiring for me. So I'm just like, I'm done. I want to go home."

"This whole ordeal has been really tiring for me. So I'm just like, I'm done. I want to go home."

According to the student, not everyone who received the email telling them to evacuate shared her sentiments.

"The other students in my program, and in the other American programs, they were absolutely heartbroken. People were crying."

She said that some students were upset about the circumstances they had to leave under — and didn't want to head back right away.

"When we got the emails, they didn't want to go home. Because, for some people this is a once in a lifetime to live overseas, before we hit the regular 9-5 ... it was a dream come true for them to live in Italy."

She said she was ready to head back to the US — but the departure was still difficult. "I didn't want to go home like this," she said, "it doesn't feel like it's on my own terms."

Even taking photographs to commemorate the experience was difficult.

"When I was walking throughout the city, I was trying to take as many pictures as I could to sort of remember .... but it, like, taints the memory because in all my pictures the streets are empty, and there it's just like, I don't know, it feels like it's history in the making."

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