By Claudio Urciuolo
“It is just some kind of flu”. Media, experts and pundits were all on the same page. Now that I am writing this piece, it seems almost shocking to me. In Italy, one month ago, we were not worried at all. They were reassuring. “China is not transparent about what is happening. We do not know what is actually going on”(*). At the time, our only interest was to know about the conditions of the Italians in China. And even we heard the testimonials from our fellow citizens, which vividly described the emergency…well, we did not completely believe them.
Wuhan is far. “And, in any case, it will not reach us” (0).
Yes: why us?
But all of a sudden, COVID-19 was among us. We got to know about Codogno – a small town some 40 miles from Milan – where “patient” 0 lived. It was surreal to watch this small town on lockdown, the same scene we had watched on TV a few days before. Still, public opinion was unaware of the challenges in front of us. People kept travelling, partying, enjoying life. Apparently, it was just a local issue. Politicians claimed that we should have continued with our lives, not to be paralyzed by fear (1). While the first fake news started circulating on social media, and the condition of the first patients got worse, Italy finally “woke up”, to quote our national anthem. Although, the first prudent measures had already backfired, and did not contain the spread of the virus.
The rapidly worsening crisis spread anger and resentment. In particular, the Chinese community was targeted by racist attacks on different levels: from cowardly acts in the street, on trains, or public spaces (2), up to statements of high-level politicians. Among others, Luca Zaia, the governor of Veneto (a region in the north of Italy harshly hit by the virus), stated that the virus was caused by poor hygiene of the Chinese people, who are used to eat “live mice” (3). He later apologized – but this simply shows the virulence of the attacks against the Chinese community, despite excellent relations between the two governments (4). Luckily, civil society reacted, showing solidarity to those affected (5).
Eventually, Italy became the first country in History to be entirely put on lockdown. PM Giuseppe Conte addressed the nation to calm the spirits in the “darkest hour” (his words) (6). Almost surprisingly, politics showed unity in these dramatic times: a huge accomplishment, given the known animosity among the Italian parties. Not surprisingly, panic spread. Being Lombardy an immigration destination, thousands came back to their family homes in the South. Footages of the Milan train station packed with people went viral. We would see the same scenes later in other countries (7). Thus, the lockdown was complete. The first days, the news showed the major Italian cities as they currently look like: ghost cities. Every day we have news about the latest number of infected people in every region. Almost every broadcast has the COVID-19 as the main focus.
However, the spectacular aspect of the lockdown quickly faded; in its place, a crawling sadness fell over the country. Sure, many VIPs incited the population to stay home, as many are currently doing in many other countries right now. If it might be almost pleasant to be quarantined in a luxury home, the reality is different for the many. In particular, NGOs raised awareness of the needs of elderly people (8) and women experiencing domestic abuses (9), two categories of people very vulnerable these days. Day by day by day, after some attempts to lift the spirits (videos of people singing and playing instruments from balconies went viral (10)), the internet memes, the solidarity from many people around the world…we, as a Nation, faced the cold truth. The death toll kept rising, while the quarantine became not so cool after all. The economy completely stopped. Our healthcare system – ranked the 2nd best in the world twenty years ago (11) – started showing the first symptoms of collapse. A video showing tens of military trucks carrying out of the city of Bergamo the remains of those who lost their battle against the virus…it was simply shocking. Families were neither allowed to mourn their loved ones, nor could they hold a funeral. It showed the reality behind numbers (**).
Not to consider, we have seen our rights of association and movement compromised within a week. The Government used its legislative power – a measure conceived to face emergencies – to bypass the Parliament. It is not against the Constitution, nor a unique event: still, many jurists doubt that every norm included in the decree was lawful. The decree imposed severe restriction movements. Whenever you are outside your house, you should bring with you a self-declaration which states why you are out. It also gave more power to the police. The result: some 46.000 charges after just one week.
Finally, we have now accepted the new status quo. We have yet to win this battle; the way forward will not be easy. Many have pointed out that some factories producing non-essential goods (including weapons) are still active (***). Moreover, the country is suffering from a serious shortage of medical equipment (masks and gloves). Still, we now have clear objectives.
What did shock us in the past weeks was the reaction of other countries to this crisis. Spain, Germany, France and the US all have more cases than Italy did when it ordered the lockdown. An additional 16 countries had more cases than Hubei when it went under lockdown. Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Austria, Belgium, Netherlands and Denmark all have above 1,000 cases (12).
Leaders such as Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro have belittled the problem, perhaps thinking more about the impact of a lockdown on the stock market, rather than on the lives of their fellow citizens.
We must not be overwhelmed by fear. This emergency will affect humanity as a whole on so many levels – and it will certainly leave psychological scars. Getting back to our normal lives will not be easy. And our lives will be different, after all.
The virus might change the way we look at things. Perhaps, we will not take for granted things such as a universal health care system: many are praising the heroic service of the nurses and doctors on the frontline, and are calling for more investments in healthcare.
We have seen how industrial reconversion can be done. Some companies have converted their factories to produce sanitizing gel and medical supply (****). Why not reconvert the powerful arms industry? It is no longer science-fiction (*****).
Furthermore, smart working and smart schooling have finally taken place, and people are appreciating how technology can simplify life.
Italy has a prudent approach to everything new. We had to readjust our perspective in a few weeks. All together.
The time to flourish will come again. In the meantime, we must stick together. A new sense of solidarity can blossom: hopefully, also this cloud has a silver lining.
*New York Times (2020, 22 January) ‘China Silences Critics Over Deadly Virus Outbreak’ (It does not cover Italy, but this kind of news were already circulating in Italy at the time)
** The Times of Israel (2020, 20 March) ‘Record 627 deaths in Italy; military vehicles said used to transport bodies’
*** Free, P. (2020, 23 March) ‘Here are the businesses that can stay open under Italy’s latest quarantine rules’
**** Reuters (2020, 23 March) ‘Italy’s Armani converts fashion sites to produce medical overalls’
***** Maggiolo, A. (2020, 26 March) ‘Più salute e meno armi: la riconversione industriale non è una missione impossibile’
0. Bosco, F. (2020, 10 February) ‘Coronavirus, Galli (Sacco): «In Italia situazione sotto controllo, misure assunte stanno contenendo fenomeno»’
- Visit Italy (2020, 27 February) ‘Italy doesn’t stop, Milan doesn’t stop’
- Liu, Y. (2020, 18 February) ‘Coronavirus prompts ‘hysterical, shameful’ Sinophobia in Italy’
- RepubblicaTV (2020, 28 February) ‘Luca Zaia (president of Veneto Region): “We have all seen the Chinese eat live mice”‘
- Isole 24 Ore (2020, 21 March) ‘China-Italy Cooperation in the Belt and Road Initiative’
- Carrera, M. (19 February) ‘ Italian Fashion Chamber Shows Solidarity With China’
- Ghiglione, D.; Jones, S. and Hall, B. (2020, 9 March) ‘Italy faces its ‘darkest hour’ with coronavirus, says prime minister’
- The Local France (2020, 17 March) ‘France goes into lockdown in attempt to halt coronavirus spread’
- Horowitz, J. (2020, 4 March) ‘Italy’s Elderly Suffer Heavy Toll as Coronavirus Spreads’
- Stolton, S. (2020, 26 March) ‘COVID-19 isolation could create “fertile ground for domestic violence”‘
- Fidler, M. (2020, 19 March) ‘Balcony spirit: hope in face of coronavirus – in pictures’
- The Local Italy (2020, 25 March) ‘What can Italy teach the rest of the world about health?’
- Pueyo, T. (2020, 19 March) ‘Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance’
About the Author:
Claudio Urciuolo has an MSc in International Relations from the University of Milan. Currently, he
follows the relations between the U.S. and the EU for the Italian Think Tank “Trinità dei Monti”.