Quarantined In Italy

19/03/2020  — by Paul Murphy

Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash


In the 14th Century the Black Death (Bubonic Plague) killed about 30% of Europe’s population. Venice, the Singapore of its day, appointed guardians of public health to help protect the Republic from this deadly disease. They implemented a 40 day waiting period for all arriving ships. This early quarantine was called the quarantena, quaranta being the Italian word for forty.

Today, not just Venice, but all of Italy is under quarantine. We aren’t allowed to leave our homes for anything but necessities: food and medicine. Freedom of movement has been suspended. The quarantine is being enforced by local and federal police. 

I normally live in Bangkok. My company is completely decentralised, we all work from home. When we saw what was happening in China, and then South Korea, we decided that Thailand might not be the best place to weather the coming storm. So I moved my family to Italy. Within a week of arriving, schools were closed. A few days later the country shut itself down. 

So what’s it like?

From a family perspective, it’s a whole new experience. 

My wife also works from home.  Our 3 year old normally spends the day in school. Now she’s underfoot, all the time, trying to get someone’s attention. A few days ago she finally gave up, built herself a computer out of legos, pretended to type and complained about the download speed. Today she got hold of my phone and called about twenty of my contacts. I only found out when my father-in-law called back from Australia panicked that I’d called in the middle of the night and hung up on him. 

Activities outside of working hours are so wholesome I sometimes feel I’m living in a TV show from the 50s. In the morning we all take a walk to get the blood moving and, hopefully, let out a bit of excess energy.

Nothing’s going on so we focus on the little things. The day before yesterday we found an interesting rock. This morning we watched an earthworm for 20 minutes while it tried to find a patch of dirt soft-enough to burrow. In the evenings, we play a card game called Uno, or a strange variation on Jenga that involves preventing monkeys from falling out of trees.

From a professional perspective, it’s business as usual, mostly.

All of our meetings start with a Corona update, which is more interesting than it sounds. Everyone’s circumstances are different. Last week I met with someone in Shanghai who started the meeting with: “Let me tell you what things are going to be like.”

Mostly though, I find myself telling people what things are going to be like for them in a couple of weeks. Europeans believe me. Americans, mostly don’t. At least not yet. 

When we finally get down to business, it’s different. We’re all more human than we used to be because now we know about each others’ struggles and anxieties, each others’ spouses, kids and parents. We know things we never would have known in the past.

The tone is different. The tone is better. 

What else has changed?

Everything is happening more slowly. Some of it is distraction, of course, but I can’t help thinking that maybe everything is more considered. We seem to be narrowing our focus on what matters most. Wasting time isn’t in the cards anymore. This is better too.

The lack of certainty turns out to be less frightening than I expected. A month ago I knew what I was doing for at least the next nine months. Now I don’t have a single confirmed conference, face-to-face meeting, or any travel planned. All of my remote commitments are tentative, and that seems to be okay with everyone. It’s incredibly strange. 

I’m reconnecting with family and friends I haven’t spoken to in a long time. I think everyone’s doing that.

I’m getting to know my coworkers, suppliers and customers as human beings. I’m ashamed to say that wasn’t the case before. And of course, I’m waking up every day trying to figure out what really needs to get done, because now not everything can get done.

I’ve read that some people are more productive because they don’t have to commute, but I think that’s probably a myth. 

Quarantine gives us more time to be productive, but that’s not what’s happening. Instead, we’re refocusing on things that make us less productive. The people and the problems that we used to ignore.

Maybe that’s better.

Paul Murphy’s software career has primarily focused on financial services and voice. On Wall Street he worked on a broad range of front and back office systems. He then became obsessed with the human voice as interface, building tools and applications that interacted with users over telephones. This obsession culminated in the founding of Clarify, which developed cutting edge speech recognition and language processing software for conversations. With Credmark, Paul is re-entering the finance space because he firmly believes that crypto is the foundation of the next global financial system.

This article does not constitute legal advice.

The opinions expressed in the column above represent the author’s own.

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