What’s life like in the country hit hardest by COVID-19?
For more than a month, Italians heard about the coronavirus in China and how the government there was handling the crisis. It was all over the news, but it seemed like something from a far-off land that would never hit the Italian peninsula. The kind of situation that only happens to ‘others’, quite a normal response, much like many other populations responded. And thus, people were slow to put emergency plans into place.
At one point in early January, it was suggested that an Italian manager come up with an emergency plan, but this was not the first time this manager had been advised that establishing rules to protect people from the normal flu was in order. And, indeed, the mantra was to think positively rather than live in fear of the coronavirus, which was considered ‘unlikely’ to spread beyond China.
People from all backgrounds, not just Italians, tend to favour looking at life from a positive point of view; however, planning for the best is sometimes the equivalent of kicking the bucket down the road to someone else.
Politicians are now trying to find a solution to help small businesses facing difficulties during this trying period, and money is being allocated to help families with children who need to keep a mother or father at home to watch the children whose schools have recently been closed. On the surface, these seem to be the best solutions to problems facing the country, but the long-term effects could potentially bury the nation in debt for generations to come.
Hugs, kisses and handshakes are banned - something incredible in a country known for kisses on the cheeks. Soccer games open to fans have also been banned for at least 30 days. This has saddened the majority of Italians, although many argue that even soccer players should have the right to keep their distance from one another.
COVID-19 has interfered dramatically with the practice of religion. Recently, I visited the Church of Santo Stefano in Borgomanero, where the custodians had just cleaned the floors and disinfected everything. Not a living soul was to be found, neither a priest nor a tourist, which allowed me to focus on the frescoes and the beautiful stained-glass windows in silence. Anyone who travels across Italy this month will find numerous churches without parishioners, because people are naturally afraid to meet one another in closed spaces, no matter how large and accommodating they might be. It has been recommended that priests remove the holy water from Catholic churches for fear of spreading the virus. Although citizens and tourists can visit holy shrines, church services have to be conducted via television and the internet. Furthermore, churches have been closed because in recent years people have begun to steal religious artefacts from them when they are not guarded.
I have been researching what is happening in the churches throughout Italy; however, there is much more information available about soccer games and the survival of the economy, which seems to be the main focus right now. For instance, in the news there has been talk about saving the reputation of ‘Made in Italy’, so low-level employees are forced to work even harder than before in the hope that there will continue to be a demand for their products in other countries in these times of trouble. And a company that stopped producing face masks 15 years ago (due to Chinese competition), suddenly had to reopen its doors to help meet the needs of Italy, which did not have enough masks to protect citizens from COVID-19.
The shortage of masks is ironic in a country known for its Carnival of Venice celebration. Sadly, Venetian carnival parades had to be cancelled this year for fear of contagion, causing the country to lose many tourist dollars and initiating the current crisis in Italian tourism. According to the tourism authority, 90 per cent of hotel bookings in Rome have been cancelled and the United States has issued a level-three warning to its citizens, stating that they should avoid travel to Italy in March. Travellers who visit Italy are required to stay home for 14 days after returning to the US. A well-known leader of the Five Star Party was worried that such travel restrictions might lead to discrimination against Italians and ‘Made in Italy’. Many members of La Lega believe in a bailout amounting to 50 billion euros.
Citizens who used to hate watching the news, because they generally detest politics, are now glued to the TV to see what will happen next - whether or not they should stock up on food and masks, whether or not they will go to work, and who will help them get over the crisis.
On a positive note, unlike most Americans who have to worry about paying a lot of money to be treated for the coronavirus, Italians know they will not take on a load of personal debt to pay for initial testing and treatment. The national health service aims to heal all Italian citizens as well as those who have the appropriate visa to be in the country.
Despite these good intentions, the health system is already overburdened. For example, on 3 March the Piemonte region announced that simple surgical procedures, where operating rooms are used, be suspended unless urgent. The following day, the government decreed that all schools and universities close for a month and provide lessons online to slow the virus’ spread. It’s a big learning curve for most Italians, who until now have been suspicious of online education. On the flip side, this experience will change the Italian mindset, so that everyone will learn to use the internet for learning, telecommuting, and flexitime.
Citizens are now, by government decree, advised to stay at home as much as possible, particularly if they are over the age of 65, to refrain from shaking hands, kissing and hugging, and to avoid visiting family members in hospices or in assisted living. Citizens have been advised not to go directly to emergency rooms in case of coronavirus infection. There is a number to call for step-by-step advice.
The Lombardy region, having closed gyms and swimming pools, also ordered its citizens not to go to local health clubs. Many interpreted the orders differently, deciding to use the clubs in the nearby Piemonte region instead, causing those to be shut down, too. Likewise, some people have tried to escape the ‘red zones’ of containment in Lombardy to reach their families elsewhere. For instance, two public school teachers from the southern town of Irpinia, near Naples, who defied an order not to leave Codogno and returned home to Irpinia as fast as they could, were forced into quarantine with their families, putting an entire condominium into quarantine with them.
Museums, art galleries and other heritage sites are now closed until at least 3 April. Whether museums should have been kept open during the COVID-19 crisis has been a topic for debate among art enthusiasts. Museums take a great deal of money while also attracting much-needed tourists from across the globe. Tourist taxes, known as the tassa di soggiorno, will be sorely missed by the cities of Rome, Florence, and Venice (as well as many other cities), not to mention the sale of tickets to museums, which are sometimes higher for non-citizens. Italians themselves, who love visiting museums throughout their country, will probably miss these outings most of all.
Since Italians love to eat fresh food, they are less prone to stocking up on food, despite the crisis. While Americans typically stock up on canned vegetables, frozen foods and food in glass jars, Italians prefer to buy fresh at all times - a great habit, but it might be useful in an emergency to have something with an extended expiry date such as dry pasta and rice. According to one Italian shopper, "It was weird that they were buying a lot of eggs and prosciutto."
Italians have approached the COVID-19 crisis in numerous ways: pro-active Italians are helping others face this crisis in an organised and dignified manner, such President Sergio Mattarella, who remains calm while giving suggestions about how to be unified as a nation. But there are those who remain stuck and resist changing their ways of doing business to meet the needs of the crisis. They are unrealistic and unwilling to sacrifice something to protect their employees, and many would like to borrow vast sums of money to solve the problems facing tourism, healthcare and employment. At the same time, some religious Italians (not all) want to put everything into the hands of God without trying to avoid getting ill. Others are fatalistic, only seeing a negative outcome, really scared about having to leave the house and obsessive about cleaning everything around them. Those in denial do not even believe in the existence or dangers of COVID-19; many of them think it is ‘just the flu’ and are taking no precautions. Furthermore, others are simply relaxed about it all as they think they must go with the flow. These reactions are common even in other cultures.
Earlier this month, I could still see people in the local coffee shops and bars having a snack and drink with friends, an Italian tradition, despite the crisis building all around. Now the streets are virtually empty, yet the people in this country haven’t lost their sense of humour, their smiles and the willingness to watch funny Italian TV shows in the evening, especially I Soliti Ignoti with Amadeo Sebastiani. Italy remains a fun place to be.
And Mauro Corona, renowned Italian sculptor, author and Alpinist, still retains his incredible sense of humour, seeing the funny side of a surname now forever linked to the scourge that is ‘Corona virus’.
Dr Laura Gail Sweeney writes articles on communication, life coaching, writing, education, and travel to Italy.
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