Road to recovery

July 12, 2020

While Covid-19 cases rise across the world, Italians are ready to return to a life of recovery, sun, sand, and a somewhat difficult ‘new normal’


If there is ever to be one visual representation of the death and destruction caused by the coronavirus in Italy, it would have to be from the night of the 18th of March, in Bergamo. A phone video, produced by a resident: a dark image of Italian military trucks, moving slowly in a single file along the main road of the city.

Around 70 military trucks carried coffins from Bergamo to other towns and cities when the local cemetery could no longer cope with cremating them all. Those driving the trucks recalled their own trauma in later interviews - of feeling the jolt of every pothole in the road, of the uncertainty they drove towards and the pain they carried within.

Less than four months later, Bergamo is open for citizens and tourists to enjoy their evening drinks around its historic castles, lie in its open-air gardens or attend literary and cultural activities with friends. There are markets, music, and theatre performances planned through the summer. At nearby lakes and hills, families are invited to come trekking, swimming and take guided tours ‘by day or by moonlight’. But the masks must stay on.

Bergamo, the Italy that suffered.

There is talk about rebirth through culture and art. Bergamo, together with Brescia, will soon be confirmed as the cultural capitals of Italy for the year 2023. The idea is to make art and culture the tools to rebuild a broken people. Even the economic programme led by the local government of Bergamo to support small businesses post-pandemic is called the Renaissance programme. Applicants can choose the Michelangelo scheme to re-launch business competitively, or the Raffaello scheme that supports innovation. If further consultation is required, the Leonardo [da Vinci] scheme can help.

After 240,000 coronavirus cases and over 34,000 dead, Italians are now looking to rebuild their future.

I live 40 kilometres away from Bergamo, within the Lombardy region that, with over 94,000 cases was one of the worst affected regions in Europe. It remains the only part of Italy where masks are mandatory upon stepping outside the house.

On the third of June, Italians were finally allowed to travel across Italy’s twenty regions and on the same day, the country’s national borders opened to Schengen countries (plus the United Kingdom) after a three-month lockdown.

It took some time for Italian to begin filling their cars up with kids and take off for holidays. New rules and decrees aside, people were studying the situation and carefully calculating the risk and their fear.

By end June, my family and I had driven 400 kilometres to Tuscany and stayed in a small town called Cortona, where tourism is a major source of economy and a key attraction for Americans.

Bars, museums, art galleries and restaurants were open, with business improving each passing week. The piazzas had music, children played, but the sounds of summer didn’t have the right feel to it. The mix of new protocols - masks hanging by the ears, social distancing often trespassing into danger zones - meant that even on a holiday we couldn’t quite forget what we had collectively just experienced.

One-metre distance between clients at restaurants, plexiglass to cover cash desks, staff in masks at all times, menus covered in plastic or on a board. Some more conscientious restaurant owners even took down phone numbers which they are expected to keep for at least 14 days in case customers need to be traced after a possible infection. Businesses were ready, as the town waited for its tourists.

In Cortona, tourism is a major source of economy.

In a bid to attract visitors during a pandemic, Tuscany’s official tourism website also reminds us that the region guarantees that all non-Italians will receive the “same healthcare that it [Tuscany] offers to its citizens: universal, public and free to all”.

On the third of June, Italians were finally allowed to travel across Italy’s twenty regions and on the same day, the country’s national borders opened to Schengen countries (plus the United Kingdom) after a three-month lockdown.

But the number of foreign travellers remains low. And most domestic tourists spend their summers either by the sea, along the peninsula, or in the cooler temperatures of the mountains.

110 km from Cortona is the historic town of San Gimignano. In any other year, more than 2 million people come to see its skyline of towers from the fourteenth century. A few years ago when I first visited, it could be best described as overcrowded. But this time, the main road to the central piazza inside its walled town, is almost empty. This town of 8,000 inhabitants depends almost entirely on tourism and is now part of a group of small tourist municipalities that have appealed to Italy’s prime minister for help in economic recovery.

To promote domestic tourism, the Italian government has allocated over 2 billion euros towards holiday bonuses for low-to-medium income earners, promising vouchers up to 500 euros for families for travel within the country this year. By 9pm on the first day for bonus applications, around 150,000 disbursements had been made.

But this will not be enough. The real money lies elsewhere. The big spenders in Italy are American, Russian and Chinese tourists. According to BankItalia, a total of 4.4 million American tourists in 2019, spent over 5.5 billion euros in the country, with almost 40 million overnight stays. Russians spend an average of 173 euros a day while in Italy.

Small towns like Cortona and San Gimignano and larger cities of art, history and culture like Venice, Rome, Florence and Naples are considered key attractions for an international market. The real loss is being felt here. Enit, the Italian tourism association, estimates that more than half of the 84 billion euros in tourism expenditure during 2019, was thanks to foreign visitors. This year the country is set to lose 67 billion in total spending.

At the time of writing, Americans and Russians are not allowed into the country and traffic from China awaits reciprocity.

It is peak season and 3.5 million Italians depend on tourism for their livelihoods. The government needs to give reassurances to kick-start the economy and open Italy to the rest of the world.

But the reality is that as long as the virus exists anywhere in the world, it isn’t over. A false sense of security is also letting Italians lower their guard. Pictures emerging on social media pages show crowded beaches with limited social distancing.

The microbiologist Dr Andrea Cristani says that “contradictory messages” lead to careless behaviour. Dr Cristani has been credited for the best containment policies in the country and miraculous results in the region of Veneto, which saw Italy’s first coronavirus death.

“Italy is not in a protected bubble,” he told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. “The other day in the world there were 215,000 cases in the world in 24 hours, it is impossible to think that we won’t be affected.”

Some experts now suggest that temperature checks at stations and airports are not enough and all passengers arriving from countries where the virus is growing should be tested.

This is not paranoia and no people know that better than in Bergamo where, when I visited, many people were out walking the streets, and each and every one of them wore a mask.

“Here in Bergamo is the Italy that suffered,” Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella said at a memorial ceremony held late last month at the gates of the Bergamo cemetery that will always keep count of what has been lost. 6,000 people have died in the province.

“Remembering means first of all commemorating our dead,” he said before the orchestra played Bergamo-born Donizetti’s Requiem Mass to a live television audience. “But remembering also means reflecting, seriously, with rigorous precision, on what did not work, on the system’s shortcomings, and on the mistakes to avoid repeating.”

Many Italians hope that in the road to economic recovery, the mistakes will be remembered, will be accounted for, and never repeated again.

The writer is a former producer with Geo TV and now lives in Italy

Coronavirus: Italians are ready to return to a life of recovery, sun, sand, and a somewhat difficult ‘new normal’