Growing up in New Hampshire, I’m used to a degree of isolation from having to remain indoors during winter months. The isolation I experienced from the occasional nor’easter pales in
comparison, however, to the necessary prison-styled conditions we’ re currently facing here in Italy. We originally moved to Italy in 2015, where for the first three-years I represented the United States as a prosecutor for the Air Force. I have since moved into the position of Special Victims Counsel representing survivors of rape and sexual assault. My wife, three kids, and I live in the town of Sacile in the province of Pordenone, located about 50 miles north of Venice, and we have fully embraced the Italian culture and the relaxed lifestyle.
Sacile is a stereotypical Italian town with old Venetian style buildings painted in bright colors. Like most Italian towns, it’s typically filled with vibrant signs of life: people riding bicycles, walking, eating gelato, and sitting at cafes sipping tall glasses of prosecco. Italy is a very peaceful and laid-back country that tends to reject technology and embrace the concept of simplicity. This approach is highlighted by the phrase “a domani” (tomorrow) which is a favorite phrase used by locals to mean “no hurry.”
The past four weeks have seen quite a departure from the typical laid-back lifestyle however, with the country taking a panic-driven turn into isolation. The streets are empty and constantly patrolled by Italian Polizei and Carabinieri. The schools, restaurants, cafés, and shops are closed. The only authorized businesses that are allowed to remain open are grocery and pharmacies. COVID-19 has essentially reshaped Italy and everything it represents.
Upon confirmation of the first several COVID-19 patients, the Italian government decided to close all schools; Coronavirus had become the new snow day. COVID-19 hit northern Italy faster than any of us could’ve anticipated. Although the Schengen agreement of 1985 has allowed for uninterrupted transit across European borders, the heavy saturation of the virus in the northern part of the country has thrown borders into flux, with countries closing to Italy. This has further stressed a situation already taut with fear and uncertainty.
Over the past five years, I’ve had several opportunities to experience the Italian healthcare system firsthand. Italian healthcare providers are incredibly hard-working and extremely compassionate, but the system lacks the technology and supplies that we, as Americans, take for granted. The most startling observation I’ve had of the Italian healthcare system is that even in the absence of a pandemic, it’s overwhelmed with patients, likely as a result of a system that provides universal coverage. Now combine an already saturated healthcare system with a rapidly growing pandemic and it’s no surprise that the system has begun to collapse. Currently, most of the local hospitals are out of supplies, have no ICU beds, no ambulances, and no staff to tend to new patients. This has forced Italy to abandon isolated red-zones and quarantine the entire country.
As of this week, the Italian government has declared many new restrictions that surpassed even the most stringent expectations. A decree was issued on March 11 that mandates the closure of virtually all businesses and gives power to local municipalities to stop public transit. Violations of this new decree will result in heavy fines or jail time. These new measures have sent the local population flooding grocery stores to stock up on necessities. “A domani” is simply no longer an acceptable answer. However, unlike the United States, toilet paper, water, and milk are thankfully still in stock at most local stores. All the while, everyone is abiding by the one-meter social distancing rule, which is a rare sight since the Italian culture relies on physical contact (the mere thought of “personal space” is considered ridiculous). With new travel restrictions not having an expiration date, I’ve had to create a plan to continue zealously representing my clients.
Thankfully I am no stranger to teleworking since a vast majority of my clients are geographically separated throughout Europe, but I’m now facing the challenge of having to work entirely over the phone and through email. In response to the quarantine, I’ve implemented a four-step process to make sure I can maintain competent representation of all clients.
Step 1: Logistics
I backed up all files for easy transport home, updated office voicemail, placed signs on the door, and secured the office.
Step 2: Clients:
I called each client and updated them on the Italian quarantine, then I reassured them that I am still tracking their case and protecting their rights and interests. Even though Italy has been thrown into chaos, for most of my clients their well-being is dependent on the outcome of an upcoming trial.
Step 3: Prosecution
It’s been essential to contact each prosecuting office to confirm they have my current contact information. It’s also been important to provide a brief synopsis of the quarantine measures so there is no expectation for me to travel for a court appearance. Step 4: The unimaginable
In the event that someone in my house becomes ill, and I must divert my full attention, I have granted access to my case files to a supervising attorney outside of Italy. This attorney has access to a quick-reference client contact sheet that can be used to easily contact all of my clients to inform them of the situation.
So far these simple, common sense preventative measures have helped me maintain my duties to clients. And in the end, I’m optimistic that we will overcome this situation. But in the meantime, “andra tutto bene.” Everything will be fine.
(Required Disclosure) The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, the Department of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.
Biographical Info: Captain Jason Hebert is admitted to practice law before the Supreme Courts of Texas and New Hampshire, the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.