Covid-19: A ground report from Italy

Francesco Alberti | Updated on April 06, 2020

File photo   -  AP

Italy did not take the warning signs from China seriously and today it is reeling from the consequences of that initial indifference

Italy has entered its fourth week of lockdown as the coronavirus pandemic claimed more than 13,241 victims as of April 3, 2020. For those of you who are not too familiar with my country, Italy has a population of 60 million people, or about one-twentieth of India’s.

What does it mean to live in isolation for weeks with the likelihood that it will be extended until the end of April?

Let me start from the beginning.

In mid-January we started hearing about this mysterious, never-seen-before pneumonia that was spreading in Wuhan, China. I don’t think anyone really understood what was going on, also because the Chinese authorities were not being fully transparent on the extent of the epidemic.

Faraway land

Most people had never heard of Wuhan so, for most of us it was something somewhere out there in Asia, a faraway place to the east of Europe. Then the news: the whole province of Hubei, with a population matching Italy’s, was in lockdown. This was a first wake-up call, but we put it on snooze.

Even the powerful images coming out of Wuhan, a city that turned from a bustling commercial centre into a ghost town within a matter of weeks, were not enough to make us realise the extent of the problem. Police and the army patrolled the city, stopping and arresting those who broke the quarantine. Hospitals were built in less than two weeks and tens of thousands of people were hospitalised. But the feeling was that yes, it was bad, but it was in China, thousands of kilometres away.

Then, one day Covid-19 knocked at our doors. At first a few isolated cases, 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. Then, one evening came the announcement: Italy is in lockdown.

‘Suggestion, not rule’

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 we got it. We need to stay at home. From what I see from my windows, however, I feel there is still room for improvement. I leave home roughly once every four days to buy groceries and other foodstuff and I see there are still too many people in the streets.

The lockdown has affected all of us to different degrees. I am on the lucky side as I am a freelance journalist so I do work from home a lot anyway. I can do video calls, phone calls, send questions by e-mail and then write my stories. It’s not ideal, but it works. Income has dried up a bit, but unless the lockdown lasts forever, I should be able to cope with it. My wife is used to having me around during the day and the kids don’t seem to miss school much. So far so good.

Most people, however, face major disruptions to their lives. Schools are closed so kids are at home. Some schools have started online lessons, some others have not. Not all children have the necessary tools for remote learning — a strong internet connection, computers, printers — at home. So for families with both parents working it became a major headache. Who looks after the kids? Which of the parents stays at home? Many places adopted work-from-home policies, but some jobs require you to be out there. If you work at a supermarket (one of the few categories of businesses allowed to operate), or are a medical staff, you do not really have a choice.

The disruption encompasses all aspects of our lives. People will have to deal with the financial (loss of income), psychological (families are not used to spending so much time together), physical (lack of exercise) and social (we are very gregarious people) effects of this prolonged, forced isolation. People, however, react in different ways depending on their particular situation.

A few days back, while in line at the supermarket I asked some people what they thought about the lockdown and the epidemic in general. Apart from the general unhappiness about the restrictions on daily life and the line at supermarkets, I was struck by what three people said as I think their attitudes sum up the general feelings of the country.

Feeling lucky

Carlo (he declined to give his family name), a middle-aged man who works as a manager at a major bank, said it’s painful, but he feels lucky. He works from home three days a week and goes to the office the other two. He said he still gets paid full salary at the end of the month, and that while his year-end bonus will be affected, overall he does not think the lockdown will change his life in a significant way. “La vita continua (life goes on),” he philosophically added.

The second was Irina (she too declined to give her full name), a 34-year-old woman from Ukraine who’s been working in Italy as a caregiver for about 10 years. She said her income had more than halved because people are afraid that she might catch Covid-19 and infect the elderly people she looks after. She said she was going to apply for a special grant the government is giving self-employed people who have seen their income reduced because of the epidemic, but “if this goes on for much longer, I will have no job at all,” she said.

The third was a lawyer. This 45-year-old woman (who didn’t want to give her name) was very vocal about blaming China for everything. “China hid information about coronavirus for a long time and misinformed the world,” she said. “They should pay us damages, not just sending a few face masks and some doctors,” she angrily added. “That’s not enough for causing this mess!”

All praised the efforts of the medical community in fighting the pandemic and all had harsh words toward the government for not acting fast and decisively enough.

Damage to economy

The most visible and immediate effects will be felt by the economy. Small- and medium-sized businesses will bear the brunt of it as they have fewer means to cope with the emergency. Many enterprises risk closing down for good if the lockdown goes on for too long and the government does not provide fast and adequate assistance. A friend of mine, who runs a pizza shop, has told me that when he goes back to work, he’ll have to fire at least one of the four people he used to employ before coronavirus hit Italy. Once the lockdown is over, it will not be like before. Some kind of restrictions will be implemented for a period of time, affecting the ability of these businesses to go back to normalcy.

Even multinational companies will have a difficult time. In today’s ever-interconnected world, someone’s final products are someone else’s components. Will Italian firms be able to fully reclaim their place in the international procurement chain? It’s hard to tell, but it won’t be business as usual.

The truth is that the coronavirus pandemic has upended life as we are used to. We enjoy a high degree of freedom. Freedom to go out for a coffee or a chai, freedom to go for a walk at any time, freedom to meet whom we want when we want to. When this freedom is taken away or limited, we feel like the world is coming to an end. And the first instinct is to fight to get it back. And that is the right reaction.

But 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 this can only be achieved through strict isolation and respect of the rules. And for the sceptics, just look at the results. After three weeks, the rate of increase of new cases has declined. One more effort by all of us and we’ll be able to resume our lives soon.

Published on April 06, 2020

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