Negasi Kibrom remembers the day he first felt ill. He had been working in his electrical supply shop in Milan's Porta Venezia neighborhood when a customer walked in, needing help. Negasi barely noticed the man's sneezes — until later, when he had gone upstairs to the apartment he shares with his wife and their two teenage daughters. Then he, too, started sneezing.
That Thursday, March 18, marked the onset of Negasi's symptoms of COVID-19, the terrifying infection that has engulfed his family, his country and the world. Milan is the capital of Lombardy, the hardest-hit region in the nation most ravaged by the coronavirus. Italy had recorded more than 17,100 deaths from the respiratory disease as of Wednesday, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers.
People in Lombardy and other parts of northern Italy mostly have been restricted to their homes since March 8, a government-imposed quarantine extended to the whole country days later. The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11.
Nonetheless, "we barely paid attention to what they used to tell us about the virus and the precautions we need to take," Negasi, originally from Ethiopia, told VOA's Amharic Service last week.
That changed when the coronavirus that was all over the news eventually turned up in their home.
The day after Negasi began sneezing, his wife Hana Gezai woke with a fever — especially troubling because she has a kidney ailment. When she went to the hospital for a routine dialysis treatment, she was having trouble breathing. Hana tested positive for COVID-19. So did Negasi, who had developed a dry cough.
"My wife used to never leave the house. I brought this to her while she is a kidney dialysis patient," Negasi lamented.
Hana was hospitalized and given an oxygen tank to supplement her breathing. Negasi was allowed to go home but ordered to isolate himself.
He has relied on his daughters for food, laundry and other essentials. "They are young but very strong. They talk to my doctor and also follow up on their mother's situation with her doctors," Negasi said from his bedroom.
"It is difficult not to see our father. We can only hear his voice from his isolation room," said 15-year-old Gloria, interviewed with her sister, 14-year-old Kenean, via Facebook. "But we don't have any other choice. We can only pray for our family. It is more difficult for our mum. We can see her on a video if she is feeling better, but not every day. It is difficult for her because her symptoms are more severe."
Kenean shares responsibility for caring for their parents. "My older sister talks to the doctors. But we cook for our father together," she said, noting they prepare Ethiopian foods such as chechebsa, flatbread torn into pieces and mixed with spiced butter. They leave meals outside his bedroom door. "We can only see his hand when he takes his plate."
When he's finished, Negasi replaces the dishes. Gloria and Kenean put on gloves to retrieve them, or to do laundry. They stay at home in the apartment, taking online classes and doing school assignments in between caring for their parents and the household.
Relatives and friends bring what's needed, such as disinfectant for the dishwasher, or grocery items or sometimes meals.
"Negasi's family is well known here in Milan," said Antonio Pagano, assistant pastor of the Milano Evangelical Church, to which the family belongs. He said Negasi's family members have "provided food and clothes for migrants" in times of hardship. "We are praying for them every day."
The VOA Amharic Service's interviews last week on Facebook — with Negasi and then with his daughters — together generated more than a million page views, plus supportive comments and offers of assistance.
"Social distancing with the people you love might be difficult now," Kenean counseled in the interview, wiping away her tears. "But it is much better than losing them forever. It is better to keep your distance now so that you can always be with them."
Hana was still hospitalized but improving. Negasi said that though he spends most of his time sleeping, he now feels well enough to watch video and read, including the Bible. "I speak with my daughters over the phone," he said. "When they told me my wife could talk, I called her to speak a little bit."
But now there's a worrisome new development. Both daughters had developed fevers early this week, and health workers came to the family home to test them for COVID-19. On Wednesday, Gloria spoke with a doctor who instructed the girls to separate, with Kenean in isolation.
"We don't know if it is because we have the virus," Gloria said. "The doctors only tell us what they think is appropriate for our age."
This report originated with VOA's Amharic Service. Tsion Girma reported from VOA's headquarters in Washington.