Now, just four months later, life in Italy, the country’s vice president Mike Pence once said that “no one wanted to be like”, has almost returned to normal, despite the occasional spikes in cases that have been attributed to arriving migrants. in the country or live in confined spaces.
The death toll has stabilized at just over 35,000, with the number of new deaths reported now less than a dozen most days. The total number of cases is now 250,103 with daily increments of a few hundred at most.
Nightclubs and schools have not yet reopened, face masks are mandatory and social distances are imposed, but summer is in full swing in this country. You go out to dinner in restaurants, enjoy the summer tradition of the aperitif in the square, go on vacation and generally go on. It̵
Before that terrible day in March when nearly 1,000 people died, stories about how Italians were bypassing the blockade were common. Tales of clandestine dinners and entire apartment buildings walking the same dog just to get out seemed to unmask the Italian national pastime of breaking the rules. The blockade at that point meant that all but the most essential of workers were confined just 300 meters from their homes.
People have lost their jobs, businesses have suffered, and children have lost precious time as the country’s poorly funded education system struggled to adapt to online teaching. But as difficult as it was, the images of the dead, overcrowded hospitals, people – dear grandmothers and grandparents – dying alone unleashed unimaginable national pain and frightened the whole country, says Gianni Rezza, director of the National Institute of health.
“The population reacted quite positively in the first phase, but fear probably played a role,” he told CNN. “The images of the coffins transported on military trucks in Bergamo were harsh, and evidently made it clear how leaving the uncontrolled circulation of the virus would lead to serious problems”.
‘Out of the storm’
Slowly, things have only gotten better since that horrible day, with daily cases, finally reaching a plateau and falling to a negligible number of daily infections. People took the blockade seriously, wore the masks with respect, as they continue to do today, and the country has gradually healed.
Police rigorously enforced the blockade and civil defense cars patrolled the streets telling people to stay inside through loudspeakers. Then, in early May, the country gradually began to open up, first for take-away food, then for table service. With each new taste of freedom, health authorities monitored the rate of contagion, never allowing more establishments to open if there was a spike, and warning they would close again if things changed.
The gyms are open with caution and the shops cannot yet be crowded. Trains can only travel at 50% capacity and public transport is limited. Mask compliance is strong because it is the law, and hand sanitizer is a feature in almost every corporate entrance.
The worst, at least for now, was finally over. Now the spikes in cases can generally be attributed to groups in migrant camps or closed communities that are kept in check through aggressive testing.
On 23 July, Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza confirmed that hard work has paid off. “I think Italy has managed to get out of the storm,” he told the Italian agricultural group Coldiretti. “I am not thinking of the government but of the country as a whole”.
Speranza warned, however, that it was not yet time to completely let her guard down. “We were the first to be affected in the world after China, we didn’t have an instruction manual. We had to know about the virus,” he said. “I think we have to be honest with each other: these have been the most difficult months in the country’s history since World War II.”
But while Italy was celebrating – at a safe distance – he was quick to warn that the worst may not be over for everyone yet. “The international situation worries me a lot”, he said, stressing that on a global scale we are in “the worst moment of the epidemic”.
So what makes a country like Italy, known for a long time for its skepticism towards everything that also seems like a rule, to win this battle that no one else seems to come close to? The second waves hit Spain, France and Germany, and the first wave is hardly over in the US or the UK.
Journalist and author Beppe Severgnini told CNN that it is the Italian spirit of Italians that makes it happen. “We addressed the problem because we found other resources that were always present: realism, inventiveness, extended families, solidarity and memories,” he told CNN. “In Italy the rules are not respected, or disobeyed, as elsewhere. We think it is an insult to our intelligence to respect a regulation without first questioning it”.
Thus, when the government established a draconian bloc on March 10, Severgnini claims that the Italians believed in the government. “With Covid-19, we decided the blockade made sense, so there was no need to enforce it,” he said.
Many credit the unelected Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte, who has no political affiliation or party behind him, for not playing politics. Whenever he instituted a stronger measure, he said the fault was “on me” and not on the government he led.
However, activists in the north of the country, where the virus swirled unchecked from the first reported case on February 21 until the country shut down on March 10, insist that it didn’t take it seriously enough at first. He was questioned by prosecutors in June to determine if the draconian blockade should have started earlier.
Rezza believes that not only fear played a role, but the government should also be congratulated, citing Conte’s adherence to science rather than popularity. “Once upon a time, I would say, clarity and a certain courage on the part of the politicians because they listened to the scientists, especially the health minister,” he said referring to Speranza.
“The politicians have also taken courageous decisions because the blockade has meant that a part of the population can be unhappy and have economic repercussions. The decision to block nationally was certainly courageous.”
In the United States, the blockades have been irregular and in the United Kingdom the reopening has been complex and difficult for the population to understand. There are loopholes and exceptions to almost any rule. Even in Spain, where the virus hit hard and the lockdown was stiff, the virus managed to find a new base, partly because the authorities reopened too completely, too quickly. You can go dancing in Spain, but not in Italy yet.
France has also seen a resurgence of the virus, but local authorities have only instituted a mandatory rule for face masks indoors on July 20. Italy has kept the request from the start and Speranza says they will likely stay for some time to come.
Despite the success story in repelling the virus, Italy has suffered huge economic losses. GDP is expected to contract by around 10% this year and many tourism-related businesses may never reopen. But the lack of a second wave – so far – means there likely won’t be another lockdown and businesses can continue to rebuild without fear of losing even more money.
Severgnini, who has lived in the United States, contrasts Italy’s surprising success so far and America’s obvious struggle to flatten the national curve. “The United States was born out of a rebellion, and you can still feel it,” he said. “But rebelling is sometimes absurd, for example during a pandemic.”
He also believes that fear played a role. “Fear can be a form of wisdom,” he said. “Audacity, a display of carelessness,” he said. “Ah, and we don’t have Donald Trump, which helps.”