Online Comment editor and Italian native Gaia Neiman discusses Italy’s recent coronavirus outbreak, what the possible consequences are, and – why Italy?
The carnival of Venice is a historic event, nay almost a primitive event, predating Italy itself by miles. Almost 900 years old, the festivity is narrated to have started in 1162, and other than a hiatus in its outlawing under Francis II for nearly two centuries, it has a pretty robust, stoic reputation. This year, it was prematurely interrupted, as was the sanity of many of my Italian student compatriots who now see no chance of returning home to their families for the ceremonious Easter break.
The entirety of the North of Italy is on lockdown, and gradually working its way down. Between quarantines and self-isolation, every passenger trying to leaving Italy is being deterred entry into many countries. Although there are currently no border closures, many flights from Italy to the UK, USA and even unexpected places like the Muritius, are being sent right back where they came from. Isolation from other countries is feeding the already rampant unease that all Italians are reminded of on a daily basis due to media bombardment on the topic. So, here is the account of an Italian person dealing with a crisis while seeing it from the outside.
Although Italy has faced this crisis in its typical cosa nostra fashion, with anti-bacteria thefts having become a mundanity, I would argue that it has been exemplar in the face of a crisis that no one was prepared for.
The current death toll is 79 people at time of writing. This means that Italy has a total of 2,502 of COVID-19 cases – placing it as the fourth most infected country by a significantly gargantuan margin. In fifth place, Japan has a meagre 304 infected citizens. Yet, as a good Italian, I know that it is not figures and death tolls that really sends the locals into a frenzy: you know the news has sunk under Italian skin when football is affected.
‘Partite a stadio chiuso’, literally ‘closed stadium games’, were to me nothing but a myth, a dystopic hypothetical situation, or something that may have happened in wartime. Yet despite the post-apocalyptic status of the scenario, the games taken place in these last few days have all been behind closed doors. Italians would probably prefer to catch an incurable viral disease than miss a game, or prefer incubation for days than being deterred from sitting on the stands, scarves in hand, screaming ‘Forza Roma!’ – or whatever team/insult they choose to sport. This, and the fact that even the rest of Europe’s football had begun to open their eyes, banning handshakes as a precaution, allowed outsiders like me to realize that Italy is not joking around.
In such a short time, this crisis has ensued mass repercussions for Italy. Universities, schools, supermarkets, all closed. Entire communities are now ghost towns. My grandmother’s grocery shopping is done by my aunt, as the elderly are the ones to be hit the most by the media craze inducing fear and prohibiting anyone from leaving their homes. Tourists are hit too: virus-related cancellations are already hitting the country’s tourism industry, which accounts for 14% of GDP. Economic effects have, in fact, been treacherously far-reaching already: major trade events such as the Milan Furniture Fair have been cancelled, as have business trips, and there is generally mass uncertainty in areas concerning small businesses. This is more of a direct outcome of the China crisis: parts not arriving from China as of mass closures of Chinese industry will leave not just the small bottegas in Northern Italy destitute, but the West in its entirety. The recession that Italy will soon face, having barely recovered from that in 2008, will be felt on a great scale. We all depend on Chinese labour and goods, do we not? So, why is Italy, a bizarre choice to start this whole crisis, to be dragged through the mud?
Local news has announced to all Italians that from late February, those arriving from the ‘red zone’ (including a lot of areas of Northern Italy from Parma and above) that are flying to the UK are ‘invited’ to isolate themselves into self-imposed quarantines. Isolation should last 14 days, namely the time that symptoms take to manifest themselves. But if many countries like the UK are to spread such brash announcements, why not impose direct restrictions like Italy is doing? Why ‘invite’ travellers to self-quarantine, while Italy is stop-checking everyone arriving at any Italian airport, checking the temperatures of all who have travelled to know with certainty how many carriers of COVID-19 are on their land? The question of why Northern Italy of all places to start this revolution in Europe, may be answered with a contradiction. It pains all patriots like me to admit this, but Italy is not exactly an epicentre for organisation. Therefore, it is strange to think that on this occasion, we got it right: checking everyone coming into the country and choosing to take greater precaution rather than under-alarming our citizens. Isn’t that how all countries should be dealing with an epidemic? Apparently not.
Italy is displaying high figures of infected persons, but they are perhaps the most accurate figures in Europe. The rest of the continent is basking in ignorant bliss, but not testing arriving travellers and, in the case of the UK, giving nothing but a helpline to their people in case of what could be nothing but a guess at a COVID-19 diagnosis, is a risky game. The lack of any pro-active measures in the UK will mean that most of us will be destined to getting the virus: the Economist predicts that 25-70% of people may catch the coronavirus in any infected country. So, the majority of Europe is on the line unless some head-on action is taken.
Although Italy has faced this crisis in its typical cosa nostra fashion, with anti-bacteria thefts having become a mundanity, I would argue that it has been exemplar in the face of a crisis that no one was prepared for. If we follow in their footsteps, we are not causing the numbers of infected people to rise, but are recognising that there is much more we have to do. Also, if Italy continues at the rate of medical progress they are making in the area as the cases pile up, there may be light at the end of the tunnel: after all, the Italian healthcare system is second best in the world.