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American Couple Quarantined In Italy On Effects Of Prolonged Isolation


Let's revisit an American couple quarantined in Italy. University professor David Unger first spoke with us six weeks ago, relatively early in his life indoors.


INSKEEP: So how do you feel about the restrictions you've been describing to us?

DAVID UNGER: Bring them on, you know? I mean, I want them to do as much as possible to flatten the curve and get us out of this on the other side.

INSKEEP: Unger is in his 70s. His wife Kathleen Quinn, a retired journalist, is a bit younger. When we first called in March, they were getting used to Italian rules that gave almost no reason to go outside. We called back to see how they're doing as they approached two months indoors. And we learned that for all the stress of this time, they find relief in their view. Their apartment overlooks the Mediterranean. And though we can't travel and they can't travel, talking with them feels like traveling.

KATHLEEN QUINN: It's a beautiful sunny day. I can see all the way across what's known as the Gulf of Paradiso. He's looking out the kitchen window, so he's got an equally beautiful view out there, which he can describe to you, which includes the lighthouse.

UNGER: I've got the lighthouse here in the little port where the boats come in, the fishing boats and the tourist boats come in. And if it were less hazy, I'd have a clear view of the city of Genoa.

INSKEEP: Does every little change in that view become more significant because it's the only thing you see?

QUINN: Absolutely. I try every day to go out and take a different picture. So I take pictures of the garden below and the trees change and the - which boat comes in at which time, which train goes by.

INSKEEP: Kathleen, I guess we should clarify. When you say you try to go out every day to take pictures, you don't actually mean going out.

QUINN: No, go take a picture out the window. I go out - I lean out the window and take a picture - open the window and take a picture.

INSKEEP: When we spoke with David some weeks ago, he hadn't left the apartment for any reason for about 12 days, I believe. Is that still the case, that you have someone else doing your shopping and you don't even go out for exercise, not at all?

UNGER: That is indeed the case. We have a back garden to the apartment building, so I go down the steps of the building, out through the back garden. And at the back of that garden, there's a gate. And on the far side of that gate, people leave packages. It's not a street. It's just a sort of catwalk over the railroad tracks that people are able to bring the groceries and leave them for us so that we can retrieve them without encountering any other people at all. And that's as far as I've gone.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking about people who like to get 10,000 steps in a day and pondering how much of that apartment you'd have to walk to get up to 10,000 steps.

UNGER: I was one of those people who liked to get 10,000 steps a day. And I did, usually, rain or shine. But you can't make up those 10,000 steps very easily in the confines of an apartment.

INSKEEP: Are there any stresses that build up over a couple of months that were more difficult than at, say, a couple of weeks?

UNGER: I think, you know, I - in the beginning, I was thinking about safety, not getting infected, the strangeness of being inside. And now as they talk about plans for partial reopening - as they're doing in Italy, as they're doing in the United States - I think more about the future. I guess there wasn't space to think about the future, and it all had this sort of immediacy of an emergency before. As I think about the future, I say, well, you know, will we ever be able to get to an airport again? Will we be able to get back to the United States again? Will I be - I teach at a university, and we do it all by Zoom now. But will that change? And how much of life will come back? And of course, nobody knows the answer to these questions.

INSKEEP: What have you thought about as you've read guidelines - and there are such guidelines in the United States, at least - that say that even as things begin to open up, people can begin to come out, those who are in high-risk groups, like people over 70, say, should still stay home?

QUINN: I think it's totally unrealistic. I'll be very blunt about it. It's not only unrealistic here in Italy, where the senior population is actually extremely large and many of them live with other family, these kinds of things - so the idea that you're somehow going to cocoon, as Boris Johnson said in the U.K., these people that can't be really separated out of society, certainly not here. So I think that it's a little bit alarming, this kind of idea. They can't stagger along for years at a time hoping a vaccine turns up or some sort of treatment while other people are supposedly just sitting at home never seeing their grandchildren. This is not a realistic plan.

INSKEEP: Well, David Unger and Kathleen Quinn, it's been a pleasure talking with you.

QUINN: OK. Thank you.

UNGER: And with you. Thank you.

INSKEEP: David Unger and Kathleen Quinn, who've been living in quarantine in northern Italy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.