25th Sep 2023


Coronavirus: Lessons from Italy

  • To date, no Western government had taken such significant measures: a ban on leaving home except for reasons of work, health and emergency; closure schools, universities, theatres, cinemas, museums, bars, discos and restaurants, churches and sport (Photo: Valentina Saini)

It is often said that Italians are at their best in emergencies.

They are certainly used to handling crisis.

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  • 'Only lockdown can stop the virus, as it happened in China and South Korea. Germany, the UK, and France should follow the Italian way, for once, and put the whole country in lockdown', an Italian government source said (Photo: Valentina Saini)

During the last five years Italy has experienced a severe earthquake, various floods, and the collapse of a bridge in a major urban center.

Now the country is being hit by the coronavirus emergency, which has already caused 1,809 deaths (as of Sunday, 15 March).

To date, no Western government had taken such significant measures: a ban on leaving home except for reasons of work, health and emergency; the closure of all schools and universities, theatres, cinemas, museums, bars, discos and restaurants; the closure of all shops except for groceries, pharmacies, banks and kiosks; the freezing of sporting events, masses and even the Serie A (Italian men's top professional football division).

While the scenes of Italians singing and playing music from their balconies may suggest a certain Mediterranean 'allegria' (cheerfulness), in Rome they are as serious as a heart attack.

"Over 20,000 people have already been reported for leaving home without a valid reason but the vast majority of citizens are abiding the restrictions," a government source tells EUobserver.

"Only lockdown can stop the virus, as it happened in China and South Korea. Germany, the UK, and France should follow the Italian way, for once, and put the whole country in lockdown".

Police officers and carabinieri are looking for transgressors on the increasingly empty streets and squares. And if until a few days ago those who entered a supermarket with a mask attracted worried glances, now there are relatively few people who dare to walk around without a mask, or at least a scarf covering their face.

"The measures currently in place in Italy are very useful to stop a pandemic and completely new virus," professor Giorgio Palù, one of the leading experts in virology in Europe and former president of the European Society of Virology, tells EUobserver.

"There are no vaccines or drugs. This means that the only way to stop it is to limit contagion. Also because we know from Chinese data that every infected individual infects two or three others, which is a high figure".

According to Palù, other hit nations should apply containment measures "not only as soon as possible, but throughout the whole country".

Clogging hospitals

One mistake Italy made, he adds, was clogging hospitals.

"To reduce nosocomial transmission, other European countries should keep positive people without symptoms, or with few serious symptoms, in their homes as much as possible. Otherwise hospitals will clog up and become a boiling pot for the spread, with the risk of infecting the healthcare staff too".

Medical sources confirm the virologist's analysis.

The situation in Italian hospitals, especially in Lombardy, is serious: there are not enough masks and respirators.

As health workers are increasingly exhausted, Italian hospitals are looking for ways to relieve their stress. One of the lessons learned, for example, is postponing all non-essential hospital activities (such as cosmetic surgery).

Army hospitals

To help the healthcare system, the Italian government has just announced the intervention of army health personnel and the creation of two field hospitals run by the military. An unprecedented mobilization in the history of post-1945 Italy.

Citizens are also increasingly stressed, especially in the most affected areas.

"The feeling that has prevailed in these weeks is that life is being put on pause. And the moment we return to press the play button nothing will be the same as before," says Sara Boschiroli, psychologist and psychotherapist from Codogno, a wealthy town in Lombardy where there have been dozens of victims since the outbreak.

"The other day I realised that the panel on which the funeral notices are hung is no longer enough. Now they're also on the one normally used for advertisements. This is a very hard blow on a cognitive level," she adds.

Helping people manage stress (e.g. through remote psychoanalytic sessions, or ad hoc videos on social media or TV) is important, in Italy as well as in France, Belgium or Sweden.

It is also crucial to implement measures that support citizens financially.

The government led by prime minister Giuseppe Conte is about to launch a major economic rescue package to support families, businesses, households, retail and freelance professionals.

Several economists interviewed by EUobserver say that Italian economy is holding up for now, but entire industries such as tourism, trade fairs, event organisation, small shops are struggling.

Online learning

Schools, universities and many companies are focusing on e-learning and smart working. These strategies could also prove useful for other European countries affected by the virus.

"For those who can pass in smart working this situation represents an opportunity, however tragic, to rethink production processes and workflows" explains Alessandro Rossi, an economist at the University of Trento.

While digital transformation can help, it is not a magic bullet. "During events on this scale we see that the e-commerce delivery system is also suffering," he says.

"Not everything can be activated in a few days by SMEs: it requires being equipped for digitisation. The real bottleneck is a cultural one, not necessarily a technological one".

Interviewed by EUobserver in a supermarket in Veneto (the third most affected region, after Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna), Eleonora, a housewife, sends a tip to all mothers and fathers in Europe.

"You should do a good shopping, but without exaggeration. There's no need to loot the store, just buy the essentials to stay indoors for a couple of weeks, so you won't have to go out shopping every two days".

In Eleonora's shopping cart your correspondent sees eggs, long-life milk, pasta, rice, a bag of apples, a helmet of bananas, a large jar of chocolate spread, frozen foods, Parmesan cheese.

Another advice from Eleonora, for those who have young children, is to buy some books, comics, crayons, DVDs in advance.

Toys for kids

"It's not easy keeping two kids at home for two or three weeks," she says. "Giving them a small gift every Sunday, organizing a sort of stay-at-home party, can be useful to calm them down".

This is what Italian teachers, psychologists and pedagogues repeat: children need to be reassured.

Good communication is important to children, but also to their parents and grandparents. After a very confusing and contradictory start, even marked by some gaffes (especially by the governors of two Northern Italy's regions), Italian authorities have learned a lesson about the centrality of good communication.

Campaign such as #iorestoacasa (I stay at home) and videos showing exhausted nurses gone viral, have successfully mobilised the public.

"In contexts such as these, you must succeed in communicating the dimension of the crisis without a dramatisation that is also reflected in the dramatisation in the media," says Giorgia Bulli, researcher in political science at the University of Florence and professor of political communication and analysis of political language.

"I think it is also important to make people understand that this is a European crisis. In my view, all communications that have to do with European management are those that can work best".

Author bio

Valentina Saini is a freelance journalist specialising in Italian social issues and politics, gender issues and the Middle East and North Africa region.

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