Eugene native John Henderson has been reporting on COVID-19 from Italy, where he’s lived since 2014
William Shakespeare’s soothsayer in the 1599 tragedy "Julius Caesar" heeded the warning:
Beware the Ides of March.
Those words have taken on a new meaning for modern-day Romans staying home en masse trying to avoid the invisible dagger that is COVID-19.
John Henderson, a South Eugene High and University of Oregon graduate, has been covering the coronavirus from the heart of Rome, where the Eugene native has lived since 2014.
The longtime sports writer — Henderson spent the last 23 years of his newspaper career at The Denver Post — has been reporting on the "mostro invisibile" since Italy became the first European country to be devastated by the pandemic.
Henderson provides his followers with statistical updates on the amount of cases and deaths every night and has written first-hand accounts of living through the pandemic on his website, which is typically reserved for his Dog-Eared Passport travel blog.
"When I first started to do it I got such a response from people saying, ‘Thank you for keeping us updated on our favorite country,’" Henderson said during a recent video interview with The Register-Guard. "Italy is so popular with everybody. They want America to heal and then they want Italy to heal. Plus, a lot of people looked at us as where the United States was headed.
"It hit us harder earlier, and (Italy) put in a lockdown first. So what was going to happen in Italy was going to happen in the United States."
On Feb. 28, the well-traveled Henderson returned to Rome from Saudi Arabia, the 107th country he has visited, only a week after Italy’s first official coronavirus death and about a week before the lockdown began.
"If I would have scheduled that trip four days later, I could still be there because they shut the thing down," Henderson said. "Besides the fact that I wouldn’t be able to get a drink for three months, I’d have to pay for my accommodation there. …
"I came home, and Italy was just getting overrun."
On March 9, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte imposed a strict national quarantine. Italians are not allowed to leave their homes without carrying an official government form outlining where they are coming from, where they are going and why they are out in public.
Movement is restricted to health, work or necessity (groceries, post office, pharmacy). Violators of the quarantine are fined by the police.
Henderson and his girlfriend, Marina Pascucci, were allowed to get outside and tour the breathtaking city for a media project they are collaborating on.
The photographs of Henderson roaming the empty streets of Rome, which are usually congested with tourists and traffic, look like something out of an apocalyptic science fiction movie.
"My favorite city in the world was tailspinning toward a slow death," Henderson wrote of the experience. "Behind the silent walls and empty stores were people suffering from lack of employment, money and, in many places, food. According to Corriere della Sera, Italy’s most influential newspaper, Rome is expected to lose 1.5 billion euros in tourism dollars. Restaurants are losing an estimated 3 million euros a day. The government sent out a 400 billion euro stimulus package for Italian businesses in need.
"But how long can a government support a nation of 60 million people?"
I took a very eerie two-hour walk through Rome's hauntingly empty Centro Storico. It was beautiful but heartbreaking. Here's my take in Dog-Eared Passport: https://t.co/indtGZiiYp— Dog-Eared Passport (@JohnHendeRome) April 16, 2020
Italy, which has a population of 60 million, had over 26,000 reported deaths from the coronavirus through Saturday. Only the United States, which has a population of 328 million, has more deaths with nearly 53,000.
So far, the health crisis is not a political issue in Rome like it has become in pockets of America.
"The Pantheon was just absolutely empty. Then I started thinking about it, and the Romans are adhering to the edict. They are being obedient," Henderson said. "No one in Italy is protesting on capital grounds saying, ‘We want to go back to work, we want to get back on the streets.’
"No one is doing that because they know how serious this thing is."
Conte’s "Phase II" plan to gradually reopen Italy is scheduled to begin on May 4. Restaurants could start to reopen on May 18 with parks and fitness centers to follow on May 31.
Henderson, who has become a passionate A.S. Roma fan — when in Rome, do as the Romans do — said he can’t picture the 70,000-seat Stadio Olimpico or other soccer venues opening in 2020.
Especially not after experiencing the eerie silence during his stroll through the city’s muted historic center, the Centro Storico, during the sixth week of Italy’s lockdown
"There were so many mixed feelings because, on the one hand, it was so beautiful," Henderson said. "I live here because this is the most beautiful city in the world, it really is. And without people there it’s really like walking through a pristine movie set because the streets were all picked up, there’s no garbage on the streets. There’s no tourists anywhere. There hadn’t been hardly any traffic for a month so the skies were like Norway. Bright blue sky, perfect sun, 70 degrees, it was just flawless. …
"But it was also depressing and sad and very lonely just walking through that place with these really narrow streets and no one around."
Henderson will likely have to cancel planned excursions to Greece and Finland this year. He began 2020 by visiting Oregon to show off its beauty to Pascucci; the couple’s holiday trip to the coast and Eugene made for a sentimental blog entry.
"I’m very proud of being an Oregonian," said Henderson, who stayed up into the wee hours to watch Sabrina Ionescu and the Ducks’ women’s basketball team dominate UConn last season. "Whenever anyone asks me where I’m from, I say I’m from Oregon, even though I haven’t lived there since 1978. I was born, raised and educated there. Oregon made me. I lived in Denver for the 23 previous years, but I’m an Oregonian. …
"The one thing I love about traveling is it really teaches you how to be open minded, how to be environmentally conscious, how to be adventurous. I think all those things are what Oregon is about."
To read about Henderson’s travels and his COVID-19 coverage follow him on Twitter @JohnHendeRome or go to johnhendersontravel.com.
Contact reporter Ryan Thorburn at email@example.com or 541-338-2330, and follow him on Twitter @By_RyanThorburn and Instagram @rg_ducksports. Want more stories like this? Subscribe to get unlimited access and support local journalism.