Coronavirus outbreak in Europe has many asking, 'Why Italy?': Reporter's Notebook

"We are asking the same," an Italian man told James Longman.

It's among the most clichéd journalistic tropes: to speak to the taxi driver en route to the airport and use those comments as some kind of gauge for the national sentiment.

But at just after 5 a.m. on Tuesday, my cab driver cried as we drove to Rome's Fiumicino airport.

His name is Paulo, a jolly, middle-aged man, and for much of the journey he rambled in Italian -- most of which I didn't understand, especially through his mask.

But when Google translate asked him how he was, I didn't need it to understand his response.

"Mama," he repeated, time and again. He has elderly relatives in a region of the country he now isn't allowed to access, and he's desperately worried for them.

A man in his 40s or 50s, I guessed perhaps his parents would be in the group most at risk from coronavirus. Consider being unable to visit the ones you love, for fear that your own presence may put them at risk.

"The world is asking, why Italy? We are asking the same," he said.

Italy has the second-oldest population in the world, and the outbreak has killed a disproportionately high number of people in their 80s and 90s. Whoever Patient Zero was -- yet to be determined -- that individual may have brought the virus to Italy weeks before anyone noticed.

In the small towns of Italy's north, where your neighbors are family and your family are neighbors, the virus spread quickly among an elderly population that still often lives with younger family members, rather than in the nursing homes more popular in other parts of Europe or in the U.S.

So maybe it's a situation where a more mobile group is able to spread the virus to a less mobile group that's less able to survive it.

Whatever the reason, for Italy, this attack on the nation's seniors feels to some like an act of war, and so the prime minister's emergency measures had to be equally severe.

There was a sense that the virus was outrunning Italians' ability to counter it, that whatever measure came, the virus was two steps ahead. Giuseppe Conte's nationwide quarantine is an effort to get out in front of it -- a move that may seem drastic, but which may also be the only shortcut to limiting the spread.

The real concern now is Italy's health care system -- not many national health services could survive so many elderly people needing intensive care for such a prolonged stretch. Paulo's hope, as ever I often find in a crisis in a foreign country, is that America will help.

But the United States, I told him, has its own problems, not least the possibility of facing something even worse if reports are true that tests are not being carried out quickly enough and preventative measures ignored.

The abandoned tourist spots, empty hotels and forlorn restaurants are a heavy price to pay for Italy. Not least economically. Milan's stock exchange fell by 11%, and the country is now going into recession.

But they hope this drastic fightback will be enough. That it will be worth the pain.

"Pray for us," Paulo called, as I ran to catch the last flight home.