Italy in Lockdown -- Some Considerations

  • By Francesco Alberti

    October 22, 2020 13:40

    Francesco Alberti

    After a period of relatively few new daily cases of coronavirus following a 69-day lockdown, the epidemic has started up strong again, bringing back the specter of something that nobody in Italy wants -- a second full-scale lockdown. Italy was the first European country to register the coronavirus pandemic on a massive scale and, as of Oct. 14, it registered more than 372,000 cases and over 36,200 deaths. Most of the cases and deaths were registered in the first months of the pandemic.

    At the time the country became an international pariah, with many well-known international newspapers, including the venerable New York Times, calling Italy "the sick man of Europe" and pointing the finger at the inability of the Italian government to put in place measures to contain the spread.

    Fast-forward a few months and Italy became the Western country that registered some of the fewest infection rates and deaths on a daily basis. All of a sudden, Italy became a model to look at and possibly follow -- so much so that the New York Times titled an article on July 31 "How Italy Turned Around Its Coronavirus Calamity." In the September edition of Foreign Policy, Elizabeth Braw wrote an article applauding Italy for how it managed to contain the virus and suggesting that other countries copy the Italian model. But this virtuous behavior came at an enormous social and economic cost. The whole country was shut down, which impacted people's livelihoods and exacted a heavy toll on the economy, which is expected to contract by about 10 percent this year.

    In the last few weeks, however, new cases have shot up and now have reached more than 7,000 a day, forcing the government to impose new measures such as compulsory face masks in open spaces and new restrictions on social gatherings and restaurants' operating hours. Compared to countries such as France, Spain and the U.K., Italy is still doing relatively well, but the biggest danger is complacency. No one says it, but everyone fears it -- if things get worse, we are heading toward a second full lockdown. The government is already talking about local lockdowns of areas that register an outbreak of the virus and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte did not rule out a lockdown over Christmas.

    So what was life like during those endless 69 days when most Italians were allowed to leave their homes only to shop and go to see a doctor. Italy has a population of 60 million people, with a population density about half of Korea's.

    The first news about this new mysterious pneumonia that was spreading in Wuhan, China came toward the end of December 2019. Nobody really understood what was going on, partly because the Chinese authorities were not being fully transparent on the extent of the epidemic. Most people had never heard of Wuhan, a faraway place in Asia. Even the news that the whole province of Hubei, with a population the size of Italy's, was in lockdown was not enough. It was a first wake-up call, but we put it on snooze. People felt it was like the 2002-2003 outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) that affected mostly Asian countries. It was not a European problem.

    Even the powerful images coming out of Wuhan, which turned from a bustling commercial center into a ghost town within a matter of weeks, were not enough to make Italians realize the extent of the problem. The feeling was that yes, it was bad, but it was in China, thousands of kilometers away. Then, one day coronavirus knocked on our doors. At first a few isolated cases in January, then more and more until the hospitals of Lombardy, the region around Milan, were overflowing with sick people. Then it was Veneto’s turn, then Piedmont, then Emilia-Romagna and, luckily to a less extent, most other regions. People were dying in the thousands.

    The government took some timid measures, likely underestimating the seriousness of the situation and bowing to the pressure by the business lobbies. Then, on the evening of March 9 came the announcement -- starting March 10 Italy is in lockdown.

    Italians have a genetic intolerance to rules, so at first people reacted as if the stay-at-home order were just a suggestion. Despite strict rules forbidding people from leaving their homes without a compelling reason, the streets were still quite busy. Police were sent out to patrol the streets and enforce the rules strictly. Thousands of people were fined, and finally people got it. They needed to stay at home. During the lockdown, I would leave home roughly once every four days to buy groceries and other foodstuffs and still felt there were too many people in the streets. The disruption encompassed all aspects of our lives. People had to deal with the financial, psychological, physical and social effects of this prolonged, forced isolation, which was especially hard for such a gregarious nation. But people reacted in different ways depending on their situation.

    Maria Cristiana De Gregorio, a 52-year-old civil lawyer and mother of two young children, said the lockdown was not too bad as it gave her and her family the opportunity to unplug and to reflect on what is important in life. From a professional point of view, however, De Gregorio says it was disastrous. Everything came to a standstill and she had basically no income for about four months. The family relied on their savings and on her husband's salary as an eye doctor at a local hospital. The husband's job added some anxiety to her life as he would go every day into an environment of high contagion risk. De Gregorio praised the government's measures, saying it took courageous decisions to help the country come out of what seemed a black hole. As for the future, she does not think there will be another lockdown as the economic consequences would be devastating for everyone. "We'll either die of COVID-19 or starvation."

    It was very different for Eloisa Lombardi, a 55-year-old civil servant who lives in Bergamo, one of the cities hit hardest by the first wave. She was diagnosed with COVID-19 in mid-March. At first it looked like the flu but within a few days she lost her sense of taste and smell and developed mild respiratory problems. While she was not hospitalized, she spent more than three weeks in self-isolation at home until her second PCR resulted negative. She was looked after by her husband and daughter. The hardest part for her, was the news of someone she knew being hit by the virus. And the strong images of army trucks carrying the dead to the cemeteries left an indelible mark on her. She is now very careful when she goes out and strictly respects social distancing and mask-wearing measures. It definitively changed her life.

    The most visible and immediate effects were felt by the economy. Small and medium-sized businesses bore the brunt of the lockdown as they had fewer means to cope with the emergency. Many enterprises risk closing down for good if there is a second lockdown and the government does not provide fast and adequate assistance. Insufficient and late subsidies are the main complaint of Giovanni Gramano. Gramano, a 58-year-old entrepreneur who runs a wedding dress fashion house, said his business was hit hard by the pandemic because people canceled or postponed weddings plans. He mentions some subsidies that were supposed to be paid in the month of March were actually paid in October. Asked what lies ahead, he says uncertainty. Uncertainty about what is going to happen the next day, uncertainty about his health, uncertainty about the future of his business.

    The truth is that the coronavirus pandemic has upended life as we knew it. We enjoyed a high degree of freedom -- to go out for a coffee or a tea, for a walk at any time, to meet whoever we wanted when we wanted. When this freedom was taken away, we felt like the world was coming to an end. And the first instinct was to fight to get it back. But that is the right reaction? How do we get it back? By flouting the rules? By breaking the law? The simple answer is no. The only way out is to break the contagion and, until we get a vaccine or an effective cure, the only way forward is respect of the rules and self-restraint. If we all limit our freedom a little now, we’ll be able to resume our lives as we knew them.

    Francesco Alberti is a freelance journalist who worked in Japan and Singapore with the Mainichi Shimbun and in media syndication for Bloomberg. After more than 25 years in Asia, he is now based in Rome.

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