Italy under quarantine: covid-19 epidemic national emergency

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March 31, 2020
Written by: Angelo Colella

These last days, with Italy at the center of a global crisis, the situation of the country is best represented by two strong images of recent events.

Alone in front of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, Pope Francis gave his "Urbi et Orbi" Blessing ("to the City and the World", in ancient Latin) and plenary indulgence before an eerily silent and empty St. Peter's Square under heavy rain.
Just a few days earlier, a video started circulating on the Internet of a woman, owner of a wedding favors shop in the Southern region of Apulia, shouting desperately outside of a bank where she is an account holder and pleading to be accorded at least 50 euros in order to be able to buy something for her family to eat, given the she has been forced to close her business since the beginning of the month as a consequence of the quarantine. Silence and screams, hope and hopelessness.

Pope Fracis gives speech
Pope Francis gives "Urbi et Orbi" blessing (source: Vatican News)

The late evening of Saturday, March 7th, Garibaldi Train Station in Milan was packed full with hundreds of people frantically trying to catch a train leaving the town and, most importantly, heading towards Southern Italy: the draft of a Government decree had leaked which was to isolate one of the most plagued areas of the country, and everybody was in a rush to get away before being confined. Many others had decided to escape by car. This incident was met with a lot of protest considering those travelers to be bringing the coronavirus to areas of Italy previously left untouched.

Milano Centrale Station
Milano Centrale Train Station during normal time

When it was impossible to further deny the dangers of the coronavirus outbreak in the rest of the country, on March 9th Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte held a press conference to announce the imposition of a quarantine, the so-called Italian Lockdown, whose end is been previously announced for April 3rd but it is appearing more and more evident that the period of self-isolation may be prolonged for some more weeks through April. In this occasion a new hashtag was launched that illustrated the new guidelines to be adopted by the whole Italian population: #iorestoacasa (stay at home). Celebrities on TV and on the Internet have played an important role to inform the population and persuade them to bear with the new state of things and inviting to find ways to make it more bearable to stay indoors: while Netflix will definitely register a spike in new subscriptions, many peoples are rediscovering the habit of reading books or the possibility to keep in touch with friends and family through videocalls. It was also essential to educate the population about new individual safety measure to observe, namely: to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds everytime they get back home, to wear gloves when outdoors so as to avoid direct contact with any surface, and to make sure to wear surgical-type masks if showing any symptoms that may be caused by a coronavirus infection.

Rome street full of people
Under the new government quarantine decree, crowd like this must not exist

According to an article from January 31st published by the Italian newspaper "Corriere della Sera" the coronavirus has been unawarely brought in the country by a couple of Chinese tourists, husband and wife from the Chinese province of Hubei, who arrived in Milan, in the Northern region of Lombardy, on January 23rd and arrived to Rome eight days later, where they were hospitalized in Spallanzani Hospital and tested positive to the coronavirus, although in good health. That same day, coincidentally, the Italian Government declared the state of National Health Emergency, and the World Health Organisation launched a global alarm in forecast of a coronavirus pandemic. This couple, however, fully recovered now, and was not the source of the mass infection cluster as established by medical analysis later.

A hospital sign in Turin, Italy
A hospital sign

The region of Lombardy has been home to a huge coronavirus cluster, discovered by chance after a 38-year-old man was hospitalized in Codogno Hospital: around mid-February, feeling unwell, the man visited a doctor who, taking note of the symptoms and not suspecting it could have been a case of coronavirus, gave him prescriptions to treat influenza. Days later, the wife of the patient confessed that her husband had indeed met with a friend who had been to China and returned to Italy towards the end of January (and who later tested negative to the coronavirus): the patient, his wife and another friend all tested positive to the coronavirus and, as they began showing difficulty breathing, everyone who could have been in contact with them was screened. All the elements seem to combine to lead to a disaster: because the main patient was not showing any heavy symptoms, he has been able for weeks to continue living his very busy social life, attending parties and meeting with numerous friends, all while being highly contagious in an area that is known for being very dynamic and densely populated. In Lombardy, the Government banned all kinds of social events and closed schools.

An ambulance in Italy
As new infection cases rise and more people require intensive care, ambulances are working day and night

Another cluster of epidemic occured in the North-eastern region of Veneto where, around the end of February, a 78-year-old died becoming the first Italian fatality caused by the epidemic. The elder was from a municipality in the province of Padua, Veneto, called Vo?where strict measures were taken to create a health cordon around the city.
Both in Lombardy and in Veneto, none of the people infected are believed to have travelled to China.

It is not just the common people who can act irresponsibly, it also happened that some Italian politician have displayed a very reckless behaviour: hosting or joining "Coronavirus-themed" parties and happy hours in order to exorcise fear and chase away worries, while this coronavirus outbreak and especially its effect on society and customs were being compared to the plague described by Italian novelist Alessandro Manzoni in his famous novel "The Betrothed". Without fully realizing the risk of social events like these in a time like this, many people were quick to applaud the decision and the initiatives as important signals everything was still ok and there was no reason to panic. Part of this confusion has stemmed from the differing opinions and point of views of the Italian political establishments, with representatives of some political parties who definitely tried to minimize the severity of the new situation, some of them even inviting foreign tourists not to believe the catastrophic reports issued by the official media and keep coming to visit Italy.

Empty piazza in Caserta
A normally busy but now empty piazza in Caserta, Italy under the new national quarantine law 

On March 5th, a press release from the Italian Civil Protection informs that all of the Italian regions have been struck by the epidemic of corona virus and, about one week later, the health measure were further tightened up: in order to slow down the spread of the epidemic, nearly all commercial activities except for pharmacies and supermarkets were shut down. As for the Italian population, their movements outside their houses have been further restricted to the point where police squads check documents and fine those who don't have a valid excuse to be outside, which is allowed only for those who still work and for those who have absolute necessities, and in any case they must have with them a self-certificate which clearly states the reason for their movement. The final version of this self-certificate, issued by the Government on March 26th, explains that the risk is not only a heavy fine of more than 200 euros, but that one can also incur in criminal charges, especially in the case of someone already undergoing quarantine for testing positive to corona virus.

An empty main road in the city of Caserta
An empty main road in the city of Caserta, Italy (near Naples)

The whole situation has produced clearly visible changes in cities both big and small, and especially in the people: the citizens of one of the G7, one of the most important democracies in Western Europe, suddenly found themselves not being allowed to leave their houses when they want anymore, and have now to wait in line outside of supermarkets for their turn to enter because only a handful of customers at a time is admitted, in order to respect the mandatory distance of 1 meter between each individual.

An empty gym
An empty gym 

Gyms have been closed since the beginning of March as a result of the decree, so many people resorted to go to public parks to do some workout: this led to the closure of public parks all over the country, to avoid gatherings of people. To practice sport in the open is tolerated, albeit rules tend to vary from one Region to another, as long one goes by himself and respects the mandatory interpersonal distance: rather, authorities strongly recommend to work out at home, and this new situation in turn has led to the birth of numerous groups for Yoga video-classes to help handle this stress.

Joggers too, where tolerated, are advised to only run around their blocks and quickly get home, because every activity in the open could potentially expose to sources of contagion that would make one a carrier of the disease to other people. That is why even the simple act of taking the dog out, which cannot be forbidden for obvious reasons, is sometimes harshly criticized for being nothing more than an excuse for the owners to go for a walk themselves.

Alter of fatherland
The government hopes people will adhere to the emergency law and reduce the time to return to normality 

Furthermore, as requested by many representatives of various political parties and Regional Governors, the Army has been deployed to patrol the streets in order to enforce the containment measures ordered for the quarantine. Notwithstanding the exceptional nature of the situation in Italy, giving the military duties of public security during peacetime may appear as a controversial choice: at the very best, it can be interpreted as an invitation by the authorities for the citizen to be more responsible in what they do. In a context where the protection of public health is the main priority, this can be seen as a choice that makes more sense: if this is a crisis where everybody can play their role in slowing the spread of the contagion by staying home and respecting a set of very basic rules, it is vital that people start thinking about what their actions can mean for their communities. That is the greater good we are asked to make sacrifices for.   

Author Angelo Colella is a professional translator fluent in Italian, English and French, you can reach him here.

 

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