Now, just four months later, life in Italy, the country vice president Mike Pence once said “no one wanted to be like”, is almost back to normal, despite the occasional points in cases attributed to migrants coming to the country or living in nearby neighborhoods.
The death toll has reached over 35,000, with the number of new deaths now reported less than a dozen days larger. The total number of cases is now 250,103 with daily increases to hundreds lower at most.
Nightclubs and schools have not reopened yet, face masks are mandatory and social distancing has been strengthened, but summer is in full swing in this country. People are going out to dinner at restaurants, enjoying the wine tradition of an aperitif in an open square, going on holiday and generally moving forward. It is nothing short of a miracle, especially compared to nations like Brazil and the United States, where the pandemic is not yet very much out of control.
Before that horrific day in March when nearly 1,000 people died, stories of how the Italians were stripping the blockade were commonplace. The tales of clandestine dinner parties and the blocks of all the apartments that walked with the same dog just to get out, seemed to expose the Italian national team’s passage of curvature of the rules. The blockade by then meant that all but the most essential of the workers were confined to only 300 meters from their homes.
People lost jobs, businesses suffered, and children lost valuable time as the country’s poorly funded education system struggled to adapt to online lessons. But as difficult as it was, the images of the dead, of overcrowded hospitals, of people – busy grandparents – just dying aroused unimaginable national grief and scared the whole country, says Gianni Rezza, director of the National Institute of Health .
“The population reacted quite positively in the first phase, however fear probably played a role,” he told CNN. “Images of coffins transported by military trucks to Bergamo were harsh, and they apparently clarified how leaving uncontrolled circulation of the virus would lead to serious problems.”
‘By the storm’
Slowly, things only got better from that horrible day, with everyday occasions, finally hitting a plateau and falling into a negligible number of daily infections. People took the blockade seriously, wore masks with dignity, as they continue to do today, and the country is gradually recovering.
Police strictly enforced the blockade and civil defense cars patrolled the streets telling people to stay inside the speakers. Then in early May, the place gradually began to open up, first for food intake, then table service. With each new taste of freedom, health authorities controlled the rate of ascent, never allowing more institutions to open if there was a warm-up, and warning that they would retreat if things went back.
The gyms opened carefully and the shops still could not be filled. Trains can only operate at 50% capacity and public transport is limited. Compliance with the mask is strong because it is the law, and hand sanitizer is a feature in almost every business entrance.
The worst, at least for now, is finally over. Now points in cases can usually be attributed to groups in migrant camps or in closed communities that are kept under control through aggressive testing.
On July 23, Italian Minister of Health Roberto Speranza confirmed that the hard work paid off. “I believe Italy has pulled it out of the storm,” he told Italy’s agricultural group Coldiretti. “I’m not thinking about the government, but about the country as a whole.”
Speranza warned though it was not yet time to leave the guard completely. “We were the first to be hit in the world after China, we did not have an instruction manual. We had to learn 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 as Italy celebrated – at a safe distance – he was quick to warn that the worst may not yet end for everyone. “The international situation worries me a lot,” he said, noting that on a global scale we were in “the worst moment of the epidemic.”
So what makes a country like Italy, long known for its skepticism about anything that even seems to be the rule, win this battle that no one else can seem to be approaching? The second wave has hit Spain, France and Germany and the first wave has hardly ended in the US or UK.
Journalist and author Beppe Severgnini told CNN that it was the Italianness of the Italian people that made it happen. “We confronted because we found other sources that were always there: Realism, invention, extended families, solidarity and memories,” he told CNN. “In Italy, the rules are not respected or not respected, as they are elsewhere. We think it is an insult to our intelligence to comply with a regulation without first asking it.”
So when the government launched a draconian blockade on March 10, Severgnini says the Italians believed in rule. “With Covid-19, we decided the block made sense, so there was no need to enforce it,” he said.
Many believe the unelected Prime Minister of Italy Giuseppe Conte, who has no political affiliation or party behind him because he does not play politics. Whenever he imposed a stronger measure, he said the blame was “on me” and not on the government he led.
However, campaigns in the north of the country, where the virus moved unchecked from the first issue reported on February 21st, until the country closed on March 10th, insist he did not take it as seriously as in the beginning. He was questioned by prosecutors in June to determine if the draconian blockade should have started sooner.
Rezza believes that not only fear played a role, but also the government should be congratulated, citing Conte’s respect in science over popularity. “There was once, I would say, a certain clarity and courage on the part of politicians because they listened to the scientists, especially the health minister,” he said, referring to Speranza.
“Politicians also made bold decisions because the blockade means that part of the population may be dissatisfied and have economic consequences. The decision to close at a national level was certainly courageous.”
In the US, blockages have been messy, and in the UK, reopening has been complex and difficult for the population to understand. There are gaps and exceptions to almost every rule. Even in Spain, where the virus was hit hard and the blockade was rigid, the virus has managed to find a new base, in part because the authorities reopened very completely, very quickly. You can go dancing in Spain, but not yet in Italy.
France has also seen a resurgence of the virus, but authorities there imposed only one mandatory face mask rule on July 20th. Italy has continued the demand from the beginning and Speranza says they will likely stay for some time.
Despite the success story in beating the virus, Italy has suffered tremendous economic losses. GDP is expected to contract at around 10% this year and many tourism-related businesses could never open again. But the lack of a second wave – so far – means another stalemate is unlikely and businesses can continue to rebuild without fear of losing even more money.
Severgnini, who has lived in the US, draws the contrast between Italy’s astonishing success so far with America’s apparent struggle to flatten the national curve. “The United States was born of a rebellion and you can still feel it,” he said. “But to rebel, sometimes, is absurd – for example during a pandemic.”
He also believes that fear played a role. “Fear can be a form of wisdom,” he said. “Courage, a show of carelessness,” he said. “Ah, and we do not have Donald Trump, who helps.”