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Former Kern County resident Anne Benvenuti now lives in southern Italy and is seeing firsthand both similarities and contrasts between how Italians and Americans respond to the global pandemic caused by the new coronavirus.

She's the author of a book nominated for a Pulitzer, an organic farmer who grows wine grapes, walnuts and fruit, and she worked 25 years as a college professor in the Kern Community College District before retiring and moving to southern Italy.

Anne Benvenuti has seen much of the world. But she's never seen anything like the global pandemic that has shaken her adopted home in Italy to its core.

In a text interview with The Californian from her European home, Benvenuti said she hopes Americans back home in Kern County and California can learn from Italy's experience.

"It's clear that the lockdown is effective," she said of the Italian government's extraordinary efforts to stop the spread of the virus.

"The death rate here is holding steady between 7 and 8 percent," she said.

That's much higher than the global average.

"When I read American friends on Facebook ranting about government control and drama, I feel desperate to counter that voice.

"This is a virus," Benvenuti said. "It is quiet. You can't shoot it. But you can stay home."

As of Friday, there were more than 47,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Italy, with more than 5,100 having successfully recovered.

But in one day, the death count rose by a record 475 on Wednesday, the BBC reported, with single-day fatalities rising to 627 on Thursday. As of Friday, more than 4,000 Italians had succumbed to the disease.

Italy's death toll has now surpassed China's, where the virus originated last year.

But in mid-February, when Benvenuti returned from a visit to California, few in the West were taking the coronavirus very seriously. 

She lives in Puglia, in a tiny rural town called Oria in the south, but she returned to Italy via Milano in the north.

She left California on Feb. 18 and arrived in Milan on Feb. 19.

"I did a walking tour that included the Duomo (Milan Cathedral) and Da Vinci’s famous Last Supper painting. No checks at the airport. And I was in crowded public spaces at the very time that the contagion was coming to light."

She flew from Milano to Brindisi, whose airport is now closed.

"By the time I got home, I was aware of the nascent epidemic in the north, so I self isolated for 14 days."

She wasn't in a panic, but Benvenuti knew that carriers of the virus don't always express symptoms.

"That is very important for your readers to understand — that's why I'm here talking," she said.

"I feel some urgency to communicate. I have friends and family there (in California and Kern County). "It is very hard to wake up to the reality of this, even when you’re in the middle of it."

The day after her self isolation ended, the north went on lockdown and the next day social isolation was national policy.

"Of course people wanted to get to their families — and that’s how they spread the virus," she said.

"Just don't do it. Love mom and grandma by staying put."

The retired educator said Italy has universal health care, ranked second in the world to Singapore, a city nation that can easily deliver care.

"All those uninsured Americans are at great risk of both getting sick and getting others sick," she said.

Benvenuti is stunned and saddened by the numbers. More than 350 new deaths in one day. Then, 475 the next. She can only hope the number of fatalities levels off, then declines rapidly as the spread of the virus is cut off.

And she's worried for those back home in the United States.

"America has got to take this seriously, including being honest about specific vulnerabilities, like all those homeless people," she said.

"Another difference is that we don't have the hoarding problem and empty shelves," she said. Italy has "a different cultural attitude and ethos. I was shocked at the photos of empty shelves sent by friends and family."

Italians, she said, view other people fundamentally as being like them, and more as resources and helpers than as competition.

"Italy certainly has its social ills, but it is also deeply humane," Benvenuti said. "If you fall on the street, 50 people will be there to help you. And they will all be late to work."

On a recent day, Benvenuti had to take her aging dog to a veterinarian in a neighboring town.

"We were inside the car with the dog and were stopped by the Carabinieri (military police), asked where we were going and told to put masks on even inside the car."

She said Italians know that every trip out increases the odds of getting sick, even dying.

"The towns are ghost towns," she said, "except when the incredible Italians open their windows, go out on their balconies with accordions, guitars, and tambourines and sing together, dance together, as they did all over Italy last Friday night."

Not only are masks and gloves worn regularly, but only one person at a time is allowed inside many stores.

The controls initiated in Italy may seem antithetical to many Americans.

"You can be cited for taking a walk," she said. "On the other hand, wine is considered an essential."

But the controls are temporary. And worth the trouble and inconvenience.

"I read that in Bergamo ... there is a funeral every half hour, priest and funeral director only," she said. No funerals filled with guests and mourners. No weddings.

"Social isolation is SO unItalian," she wrote.

Perhaps the containment measures will work. That's what every Italian is counting on.

Benvenuti believes the Italian government waited too long to institute social isolation, but as no new hot spots are appearing in the south, she's confident the measures are beginning to take hold.

"For all the very real problems here, it is a deeply humane and beautiful place," Benvenuti said. "I would more expect an Italian to tear his mask in half and give me half than I would expect an Italian to horde for personal safety much less price gouging profit."

Meanwhile, this American of Italian descent — who is seeking dual citizenship — says she has too much to live for to die at the hands of a lowly virus.

Her award-winning book, "Spirit Unleashed: Reimagining Human-Animal Relations," is still garnering attention, and her latest book is ready for printing.

And her vineyard awaits.

"We were out grafting varietals onto the root stock in our vineyard today," Benvenuti said. "Just gotta live to make the wine."