Masks, meals and Skype: self-isolating in Sicily – a photo essay

Covid-19 has been living in my apartment for the past 15 days. It falls asleep inches from my head and wakes up beside me. I breathe its breath. I’ve always been reluctant to call my apartment “home” here in Catania. Over the past 10 years I’ve traversed the Middle East, photographing cities, their inhabitants and the conflicts that have ravaged that area of the world for decades. The streets of Baghdad, Mosul, Kabul, Amman, Khartoum and Tehran have been my home. I’d always considered those 50 sq metres in Catania as a pied-à-terre, a place to keep my clothes and my photo archive. I never could have imagined that after documenting the desperation of refugee camps in Iraq or mass graves in Sinjar, or aboard an ambulance collecting the dead among the Kurdish resistance in northern Syria, that I’d have to confront the world’s biggest story in my own small apartment.

Photographing the empty streets from the window. Alessio since the very beginning of the imposed quarantine has decided to document this exceptional period of his life.

I’ve been living with Covid-19 since mid-March. My mother, my partner, the war reporter Marta Bellingreri, and other people close to me have been infected, but somehow I have been spared. I interpreted this peculiar twist as if Covid-19 had chosen me to photograph it from a different perspective. And I met the challenge, also because the reasons that brought the virus into my apartment are also extraordinarily tied to my career as a photographer.

The street where Alessio and Marta live at sunset with very few people walking due to the government measures to respond to the pandemic emergency.

Last 25 February I hosted some friends and family members for a celebratory dinner. World Press Photo had just announced the 2020 winners, and, for the second time, I was selected, for my photograph of an Isis bride embracing her child in the prison camp of Al-Hol, north-east Syria. At the same time, cases of Covid-19 throughout Italy had risen from four to 322. No one could have imagined that Sicily’s patient zero was at that dinner table, a friend who had returned from Germany. He had no idea he was an asymptomatic carrier of the virus. I left the day after for Khartoum with Marta to photograph a country in the throes of revolution for over a year.

The call that changed that trip and the following weeks came six days later, in early March, as Italy and the world were changing for the worse. My friend who had been in Germany had tested positive for Covid-19. The alarm was sounded: phone calls to notify those who may have been infected and tests for the older adults who were at the dinner. Some of my family members tested positive, and my mother was taken immediately to an hospital. She’s 69 and has suffered from respiratory illness in the past. Her life was at risk and my world caved in.

Marta at the window while drinking a herbal tea. In the background, some people queue in the street waiting to enter the supermarket below the apartment.

While preparing dinner Alessio and Marta have to wear masks to respect the rules of their isolation.

Turkey, where we had a connecting flight on the way to Sudan, had already cancelled all flights to Italy. Other countries had restricted entry for anyone who had been to Italy in the previous 14 days. Marta started manifesting symptoms: slight headache, a light fever. We started a self-imposed quarantine in Sudan. But we needed to go back. We returned to Italy with a connecting flight through Asia. Later the ministry of health in Sudan contacted us to track down the people we met: no one had symptoms, tests were negative and all were placed in preventive quarantine. Knowing that Sudan still has only six Covid-19 cases made us breathe a sigh of relief.

Every day Marta does sodium bicarbonate inhalation covered by a towel to clear her respiratory tract.

Upon our arrival, everything seemed surreal. People wearing masks, deserted streets. As soon as possible, we had ourselves tested. Marta received a phone call from the doctor: “Good morning. Unfortunately, I have to inform you that you’ve tested positive. You mustn’t leave the house for any reason. If your fever exceeds 38°C or if you have difficulty breathing, call this number. Do you understand?”

On the sofa bed before watching a movie. Most of the time when they are together Alessio and Marta have to wear masks. At night they sleep in separate beds.

Calendar, magnets and various objects hanging on the fridge at home.

I tested negative and was incredulous. I’d been with Marta since that dinner on 25 February. And yet, the virus did not seem to be interested in me. The doctor believed that the test was a false negative, because I began developing symptoms. My temperature ranged between 37.3°C and 37.7°C for days. I decided to grab my camera and do something I had never done before: while I had always photographed others’ suffering, now I had to photograph Marta’s suffering and my own, just as Marta’s condition began to worsen. She had trouble breathing and chest pains, as if a stone were lodged in her ribcage. I put myself in self-isolation, spending the next 14 days with Marta, in my apartment, using protective gear.

Marta at work on her laptop. Despite not having completely recovered she has recently returned to work on some articles.

Every day Marta follows doctor’s orders and measures oxygen with the oximeter in the bathroom. To be well her levels must exceed 95%.

The doctor suggested that we order an oxygen saturation monitor from the local chemist. It became our best friend. “If the level is 95, everything is fine. If it drops to 92, you need to run to the hospital.” My level was 99; Marta’s 98. But she was not doing well: she told me that it was as if she were wearing a bodice with the laces pulled tight. Friends brought us our groceries, leaving them outside the door. We did our best to plan our days: take our temperature, drink our freshly squeezed orange juice, take our temperature again, call the doctor. We included the oxygen monitor in our daily regime and moved on. I saw my mother on Skype. She was now breathing more easily. We exchanged smiles, but I was out of sorts.

Marta gets the basket from the balcony in which a friend had put in some medicine from the pharmacy. It’s forbidden for Marta and Alessio to go out, but thanks to the support of friends and neighbours they have all they need.

Michele, a trumpeter, plays in the city streets alleviating the quarantine of people with his music. The streets are empty but the people often stand in the balcony to take some air or to sing together.

  • Michele, a trumpeter, plays in the city streets, alleviating the boredom of quarantine with his music.

The doctors asked me to take a second test, but again I tested negative. Perhaps I’m immune? The days dragged on in my apartment, in black and white, like my photos. Sometimes we tried to smile, imagining that I was asymptomatic, because I was the virus. Our smiles seemed to bring good news. My mother left hospital, but I won’t be able to see her for weeks. Marta started breathing well again, and so did I. I would have liked to photograph my country in the midst of this emergency, the battles that the doctors wage on the frontline, the hospitals pushed to their limits, Italy on its knees fighting an invisible enemy. That enemy, a day in March, knocked on my door instead.

Marta greets a friend who has just brought her some food and left it behind the door. It is 7 in the evening and there is no one else on the street.

Alessio Mamo was talking to Lorenzo Tondo.


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