Giulia Interesse – SRP International
IF you are feeling in any way confused, biased and overwhelmed with what is happening around the world concerning the new coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, you are surely not alone. The beginning of 2020 has put the entire humanity on a hold, and for any introspective phase that you may facing right now, there is someone more or less close to you who has gone through exactly the same. However, when we all cooperate to achieve the same result – in this case represented by public safety – the mission is worth the effort. In this hyperconnected reality, while facing such an emergency, people’s priorities and behaviors have to be adjusted.
“Getting the story right” has also become a sort of priority these days, especially considering the increasingly important role played by media outlets. With COVID-19 viral disease sweeping into at least 123 countries and being officially addressed as a “pandemic”, peoples quest for answers has quickly escalated to a major scope. Following the Chinese example, Europe and the U.S. also seem to be finally taking steps towards similar resolutions, launching the emergency status. As the Chinese experience has taught the world, the way in which these other countries (and people) will respond to the new crisis, is largely rooted in their own system, history and culture.The starting point to work this all out, is to connect the dots of what is happening at the very heart of the (reportedly) European breakout: Italy.
When the World Health Organization (WHO) finally declared the “global health emergency status” (30 January), as the new coronavirus outbreak continued expanding at a drastically fast pace, it had already become clear to most that the emergency would soon affect many countries, if not the whole world – one way or another. Early signs of the COVID-19 appearance of the new coronavirus disease in Italy date back to the first week of February, when two Chinese tourists had been admitted to the Lazzaro Spallanzani Hospital in Rome – the very same National Institute for Infectious Diseases, where three female researchers had previously managed to isolate the virus in under 48 hours. All the patients – both in treatment and under observation – would have been later (26 February) discharged on the hospital.
Surveillance and Control
Following the drastic increase in the number of cases worldwide, the Italian government launched quick response, activating a surveillance network on the new coronavirus, as well as tightening airport controls and screening, coordinated by the ministerial task force. In an attempt to reinforce the containment measures already implemented by the Chinese government, all the direct flights to and from China were suspended for 90 days. In the meantime (31 January) the Italian government has already declared the emergency status, allocated funds, and appointed Angelo Borrelli, Chief of the Civil Protection, as “extraordinary Commissioner for the emergency”.
Codogno: Europe’s First Outbreak
The eruption of cases in Italy originated from Codogno, a small town of 15,000 in the northwestern region of Lombardy, not far from the busy city of Milan – at the time, in the middle of its international fashion week. On 20 February, an Italian man in his late 30s became critically ill and then tested positive for COVID-2019. When admitted at the hospital, the patient (who did not have a recorded history of contacts with any of the other infected areas) had already come in contact with various doctors, nurses and health workers. From this point onwards, the situation was destined to rapidly worsen. Over a few hours, Italy had jumped from less than 5 cases to over 150 – with the “patient zero” remaining unknown. Within little more than a week, eventually becoming the country with the largest number of cases outside Asia. A figure which should have not surprised the most careful observers, considering that the Italian public healthcare system had been actively looking for cases through intense monitoring ever since the beginning of the breakout – which also confirms why Italy has found itself in such critical conditions prior to many other Western countries.
In an attempt to contain the spread of the virus, the authorities proceeded to stop the worldwide famous Carnival of Venice and limit all sorts of public activities. A block, which hugely impacted the whole region of Veneto, which alone hosts the largest number of tourists from all over Italy: almost 20 million people every year, representing 15% of all customer arrivals to accommodation facilities in Italy. After an extraordinary 4-hours long Council, a decree law was finally approved, introducing urgent measures regarding the containment and management of the epidemiological emergency from COVID-2019. The measure was illustrated in a press conference held by the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte – together with the head of civil protection and the minister of health – who announced the complete isolation of eleven municipalities in the so-called “red zones”.
“All Eyes on Me”
The whole world had now shifted its attention on the Bel Paese. During his prior press conference, Conte had also announced that a second important decree would have been approved in support of the economy. Indeed, the world’s major economists were quick to raise the alarm regarding the Italian situation, precisely because the outbreak had appeared in two of the most productive regions in Italy, Lombardy and Veneto, which alone account for one third of the national GDP. A technical recession then was (and still is) to be expected, also given the prior economic slowdown during the last trimester of 2019. Despite the justifiable concern for the uncertain economic prospects, Conte assumed a firm position regarding the urgency of different priorities: public safety first. He also immediately invited the people not to panic, since the government would “compensate and remedy the economic difficulties caused to the local populations”.
On 28 February the country was already witnessing a sharp drop in economic development, while the foreign press kept feeding the web with alarming headlines, at the mercy of the international community. Predictably, people panicked. Divided between the fear for their own’s safety and that of losing everything, Italians acted accordingly to instinctive behavioral rules in times of crisis – with mass returnees to their hometown and compulsive grocery shopping.
Fifty Shades of Red
As numbers kept levitating, various security measures were ratified in the following days. On 9 March a new law-decree was signed, labeling the whole country as a “protected area”. Under the international public scrutiny, Italy went on a full lockdown, and it still is to this day. So, what is the actual extent of people’s liberty? Here is a list of the main points addressed by the new law-decree, divided by subject:
1. Mobility. Movements both across the national territory and within individual towns have been highly restricted, with the only exceptions of work-related reasons or other emergencies (i.e. doctor’s visits, once-in-a-while grocery shopping). Citizens need to justify their movements by filling out an auto-certification form, to be checked by the local authorities. False declarations can be punished with sanctions, heavy fines and even lawsuits. Public transportation, pharmacies, supermarkets and other basic services (post, delivery) are still running, while all other types of commercial activities have been suspended.
2. Fever and quarantine. Everyone who is showing symptoms such as respiratory difficulties and high temperature (above 37.5°C) is urged to stay home and call the doctor. If home quarantine has been prescribed, it is absolutely forbidden to go out in public.
3. Sports and recreational activities. While championships have been put on a hold, forced closure has been extended to gyms, pools, gated parks, ski resorts, recreative and cultural centers. Other places intended for public amusement and gatherings – cinemas, movie theatres, pubs, clubs, casinos, etc. – have been blocked as well.
4. Cafes and restaurants. With a limited opening time (6:00 am to 6:00 pm), can remain active only through delivery services.
5. School and universities. The entire education system has been put on hold until 3 April (as of today), and only online classes and virtual examinations are allowed – with the only exception being the medical examinations, given the great need.
6. Work. It is recommended to employers to use their vacation time and personal time granted by their work contract. Employers are forced to promote remote working.
7. Churches. Civil and religious services (such as weddings and funerals), are currently inactive.
As of 13 March, Europe has officially become the epicenter of the pandemic “with more cases reported and victims than the rest of the world put together, excluding China” and “more cases are reported every day than reported in China at peak of the epidemic “, announced Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO. After a period of consultations and uncertainty, the EU finally came through with a more decisive response. According to the new agreement, all countries will be assisted in the health sector (i.e. increased research funding, support for hospital structures and national healthcare). The first challenge is therefore to save human lives. The second commitment is to save the market: member countries will be allowed to spend all that is necessary to guarantee safety measures. 37 billion of liquidity have been granted to the houses of the Union: each country’s government will adopt all the flexibility required by the circumstances, paying particular attention to the most crisis-ridden companies and sectors. These new proposals are expected to be approved by the Council and the Parliament in the next few days. Solidarity being the key word, no country will be left alone, and no country will act alone.
Throughout this whole period, people have been constantly trying to figure out their way through the new regulations. The hashtag #iorestoacasa (“I stay at home”) took over social media, along with other supportive messages of public consensus which have shown the world the best side of the country, made of strong, united, resilient people. A number of public figures also spoke out, raising awareness over the issue of social responsibility, including celebrities, social media influencers, artists, politicians, and athletes. Almost everyone whose presence is strong enough online, has stepped up to either digitally entertain the public (digital solidarity) and even more importantly with donation campaigns to support Italy’s public healthcare system. The response has exceeded any expectation. Just think that worldwide famous digital entrepreneur Chiara Ferragni and husband Fedez’s GoFoundMe campaign has raised over 4 million is just five days.
What was initially rejected because of diffused panic and alarmism, has now been gradually incorporated into people’s daily lives, slowly becoming the “new normal”. As history teaches, respecting the quarantine period is the fastest way to ensure a drop in the total number of cases. At the same time, there a rise in the awareness on the need to stop judging and blaming one another. Everyone needs to remember that part of the society which does not enjoy the privilege of staying home – from civil servants, to volunteers, doctors, people working in certain the sectors, and so forth so on. This is where social responsibility towards one another should arise the loudest: staying home is no more a choice, but rather a need. Italians seem to have already reached the breaking point to understand this insidious concept which sacrifices the ego.
The ball is now on the other side of the court, and the new challenge seem to be how long it will take for the rest of the global community to figure it out. In the meantime, let’s all stay home, because at the end #andràtuttobene (“everything will be all right”).
*All the information given was gathered from official sources – Ministry of Health, EU Council, WHO.
Additional data was also collected through an online open survey, which sampled about 300 Italian residents from different socio-economic backgrounds, between 11-13 March 2020.
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