Nowhere to go

March 15, 2020

There is an unprecedented lockdown in Italy to contain the coronavirus — because this is not just a flu we can wash off our hands; this is taking lives and spreading farther and quicker as time passes

Rome: A day after restrictions were extended from Northern Italy to the entire country to contain Covid-19.

…17, 18, 19, 20,” I hear my five year-old yell from the other end of the house as he washes his hands. This is how it all began. They said, keep your hands clean, sneeze into your sleeve, don’t go to a crowded place. It’s just a flu, it will go away.

Within a week there were over 800 patients with coronavirus and over 20 dead, schools and universities were shut and all public events postponed or cancelled. Within a few days, an impact on the economy was being felt as tourism dropped. A new campaign began that encouraged people to not get too nervous. Milano non si ferma (Milan does not stop) it said.

But things swiftly moved from bad to worse, airlines began cancelling flights to Milan, and other countries reported their first cases of the virus, many of them connected to their travel to northern Italy.

The social media campaign for a rattled Italy took a turn: Andra’ tutto bene (It will all go well). Those were still easier times when Italians were showing a brave face, exchanging jokes and memes about not being able to hug and kiss.

Until, one horrific day when in 24 hours, the number of cases jumped by over a thousand and within the same time, over 100 people died. Italy stopped. Late that night Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte signed a decree, putting a quarter of the country into lockdown till April 3.

He was running out of options. This was not just a flu we could wash off our hands. This was taking lives and spreading farther and quicker as time passed. Local governments began pleading with their people to stay at home. Doctors from hard-hit Bergamo and hospitals in Milano sent out appeals for citizens to lock themselves in for 15 days. “Think of this as August,” said Mayor Giorgio Gori referring to Italy’s favourite month of rest when everything shuts downs as people sunbathe on Italy’s shores.

The numbers showed no signs of slowing down. Just a day after shutting over 16 million people, the prime minister, a man now in the unenviable position of being responsible for solving a crisis called it “our darkest hour” and announced a nationwide lockdown from the morning of March 10. The biggest ‘curfew’ in a western democracy imaginable. The campaign quickly changed to #iorestoacasa (I am staying home).

What is a lockdown?

Schools and universities are shut, and so are cinemas, theatres, pubs, museums, gyms, sports centres, swimming pools and spas. All events are cancelled, public gatherings are banned. Movement is only allowed for essential work and emergencies. Bars and cafes may open during the day but must bring the shutters down by 6pm and ensure a one-metre distance between customers. There is a ban on weddings and funerals. No more masses in church. There are police checkpoints and penalties - fines and even prison sentences. Directives have been issued to call emergency helplines in case of illness or fever. Doctors have asked people with other health ailments to wait it out if they can - even chemotherapy if it isn’t urgent.

A doctor from Bergamo says, “In the hospitals, the situation is the same as in a war.” And this means a plan is in place to make war-like decisions: since everyone cannot be helped, care will be prioritised according to age and health criteria.

The question now is, are people panicking enough to stay in?

A lot will also depend on how seriously people will take the new measures. The government is losing its patience and urging people to stay home but in a Western democracy, putting restrictions on movement can only come in the form of extreme urging.

But as the heading of an article in The New York Times recently asked: Can Italians Follow the Rules?

Also read:   Is coronavirus a biological weapon?

Bans, penalties and decrees aren’t easy in a European country and the world is watching Italy closely to study how this potentially global pandemic can be contained.

The challenges

The real challenge in Italy is to contain the virus from spreading, relieve its overwhelmed health service and ensure that the Italian economy does not collapse in the process. It seems that while the government was trying to keep all these ball up till a week ago, it has now made the final decision to prioritise virus containment.

Italy has an ageing population and is known for its long life expectancy. In 2018, there were over 14,000 centenarians. Now, this segment of population is the most vulnerable in the face of coronavirus. Perhaps this explains the very high mortality rate in the country.

The health system in Italy — one of the best in the world — is under heavy strain.

Hospitals are short of beds and there aren’t enough ventilators to go around. Doctors have spoken about overcrowding and lack of space in intensive care units. Patients are now being housed in less than perfect situations making entire hospitals vulnerable to catch the virus. Calls for recruiting doctors, nurses, specialists and volunteers are repeated as over sixty doctors have contracted the virus.

A doctor from Bergamo says, “In the hospitals, the situation is the same as in a war.” And this means a plan is in place to make war-like decisions: since everyone cannot be helped, care will be prioritised according to age and health criteria.

Are we panicking?

Perhaps one of the reasons why the lockdown was instituted was because Italians were not panicking enough. They expertly questioned every statement made by the government (because in Italy, as in Pakistan, we know it all and others don’t know anything). In the early days of the virus, rules were flouted widely. A day before the lockdown, the head of the crisis unit in Lombardia shared his disbelief: “How come there are still crowds at the Milano Central Station at 8am? How is the subway still so crowded?” The mayor of a small town announced a forced quarantine for a hundred people who attended a funeral despite the ban.

The virus seemed far away and people thought that after all, it’s just a flu. Except that young people interacting and spreading the virus were inherently making life and death decisions for the older, more vulnerable segment of the population.

When the lockdown in the northern part of the country was announced, thousands of people thronged the train station in Milan to make their way south to escape being quarantined. Possibly, taking much more than just their luggage with them.

There were other manifestations of this panic also. Following the announcement of the lockdown, riots broke out in 27 Italian prisons against coronavirus restrictions that limited in-person visitations for prisoners. There was anger and panic about catching the disease and being locked in. Fires were set, prisoners stormed rooftops, administration personnel were attacked and in a town called Foggia, 20 prisoners managed to escape.

The real question, of course, is what will happen when it’s all over? What remains will we walk out of our homes to gather when this deadly disease leaves our towns? How quickly will laughter and conversation fill the silent, empty streets?

The writer lives in Northern Italy where the majority of Italy’s coronavirus cases are located.

Nowhere to go: Coronavirus in Italy