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March 15, 2020, 5:45 p.m. EDT

‘Pasta started flying off the shelves of supermarkets in Milan.’ Italy’s lockdown hasn’t had much impact on the rapid spread of coronavirus — yet

For the next two weeks, the only places open will be those selling food and pharmaceutical products

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By Alison Fottrell


Getty Images
A quiet street in usually bustling Venice as Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte widened quarantine restrictions to the entirety of Italy.

COMO, Italy — I was midway through my daily commute from Como to Milan when news broke of the first case in Italy of the novel coronavirus. The second semester of the university year was set to kick off. This early, portentous sign of an outbreak was happening in the region where I live.

A 38-year-old man had become ill with respiratory problems. Local reports said he had several contacts with doctors before he was admitted to a hospital and put under isolation in Codogno, a town just southeast of Milan. Still, we never expected to be spared the virus.

The government took swift action. Universities and schools were closed. The change in people’s behavior was almost immediate. Pasta started flying off the shelves of supermarkets in Milan. If such panic buying was any indication, people were taking it seriously. Turns out, they had good reason.

Last week, the Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, imposed quarantine restrictions on the entire country. “There won’t be just a red zone,” he said. It’s an expansion of last weekend’s lockdown that had effectively covered 16 million people in the country’s north.

For all the strict government measures that have been introduced in recent weeks, they haven’t had much impact.

In Lombardy, we were already in lockdown mode. People may now only travel for work, health reasons or emergencies. As a teacher, I was fortunate to be able to work from home , stay in touch with my students, and plan my lessons remotely.

Individual sporting activity is still permitted, and, up until a day or two ago, you would see the lone jogger, but they’re getting fewer and farther between. For the next two weeks, the only places open will be those selling food and pharmaceutical products.

For all the strict government measures that have been introduced in recent weeks, they haven’t had much impact on the spread of this pandemic that is sweeping the world. In less than one week, the number of coronavirus cases nationwide has soared.

As of Sunday , there were 21,157 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, up from 5,800 cases a week ago. Italy is the worst affected of all European countries. There have been at least 1,809 deaths from the virus, according to local health authorities, up from 1,441 on Saturday.

Many are following protocol and taking positive action, and there does seem to be an awareness of how serious the situation actually is; serious in the sense that coronavirus — which now has more than 162,687 confirmed cases worldwide — is spreading fast.

In Italy, hospital staff are under enormous pressure as they don’t have the facilities to deal with the number of critical cases. There’s even talk of the possibility of having to select which patients take precedence, if worse comes to worst and they can’t admit all of the people infected.

Retired doctors have been asked to go back to work , despite being in a high-risk category because of age. It’s the medical staff that are literally pleading with the general public to wake up, and start acting responsibly. Not everyone had an easy time doing that.

Opinion: Italy will need a precautionary bailout — a ‘financial firewall’ — as coronavirus pushes it to the brink

Alison Fottrell, a resident of Como, Italy, writes: ‘In Lombardy, we were already in lockdown mode.’

Some people are in denial, while others are defiant

Take the 71-year-old man who was hospitalized here in Como. He was in isolation for the virus, but he felt fine, so he packed his bags, called a taxi and headed home to Bergamo. The staff discovered that he’d “escaped” when they were doing their rounds, and so the authorities were called in.

Even the unfortunate taxi driver was quarantined! It’s that lack of a sense of social responsibility or, perhaps in this case, simply an unfortunate lack of awareness about the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak in Italy that hasn’t helped. And these are not isolated cases.

Last Sunday, the beaches on the Ligurian Riviera were reportedly full of people — despite the government’s drastic measures — as was the center of the former fishing village of Boccadasse, Genoa. The region’s governor appealed to people to use common sense.

Seemingly, hundreds of people got wind of what they would be waking up to and fled south, storming the night trains.

As Italy’s culture minister, Dario Franceschini, wrote on Twitter: /zigman2/quotes/203180645/composite TWTR +2.03% “Facciamo tutti la nostra parte, rinunciando a qualcosa per il bene della collettività. In gioco c’è la salute dei nostri cari, dei nostri genitori, dei nostri figli, dei nostri nonni. Ho appena firmato il decreto #iorestoacasa.”

Translation: “The future of Italy is in our hands. We all do our part, giving up something for the good of the community. At stake is the health of our loved ones, our parents, our children, our grandparents. I just signed the #istayhomedecree.” His tweet has close to 20,000 “likes” as of Saturday.

At one point, convincing people to stay at home looked unlikely to succeed given the apparent exodus from Milan just as Conte was about to sign the lockdown decree. Seemingly, hundreds of people got wind of what they would be waking up to and fled south, storming the night trains.

Consequently, the carriages were overcrowded, despite the coronavirus-prevention guidance. Not wise under the circumstances. We could have a large number of “portatori sani,” people who feel fine and don’t realize they’re infectious. If they feel healthy, why would they suspect they have a dreaded disease?

The head of Italy’s center-left Democratic Party, Nicola Zingaretti, recently, and publicly, attended an aperitivo event on the Navigli in Milan to show solidarity with workers in the service industry who can’t work from home. His idea was to isolate the outbreaks. But COVID-19 is only getting worse.

And despite promoting life as usual, he later posted on social media that the coronavirus had got him, too. Workers in the community are probably the most likely to get infected. Doctors, priests and service workers, to name a few, have contact with lots of people on a daily basis.

This is the first essay in a MarketWatch series, ‘Dispatches from the front lines of a pandemic.’


MarketWatch photo illustration/iStockphoto

The doctor and the priest

So why has Italy had so many infections? I’ve been asking some Italian friends that very question. Some say that it’s because we’ve been testing for it earlier than other countries and the likelihood is that, over the next few weeks, other countries will be facing a similar situation. I hope not.

A doctor and a parish priest near Como contracted COVID-19 — but how did they get it? At this point, everyone’s connected, and it’s hard to say who’s spreading what. And then there are witch hunters. They hear someone in the community has tested positive, and demand to know the name.

Increasingly, however, there have been many more eerie photographs of empty piazzas, trams, subway stations, restaurants, churches, gallerias and town squares save, in some cases, for the lone tourist wandering around in a face mask, taking photos to capture the moment.

Up until the lockdown was announced in the north, there were people who still seemed to think that we’ve been consumed by a “collective psychosis.” Others are defiant, especially those whose livelihood has been hit hardest with concerts canceled, theaters and exhibitions closed.

Without that continuity of face-to-face interaction in the classroom, some students have the idea it’s one long vacation. But it’s not. It’s a state of emergency.

Some have asked, “Why close museums and cancel sport and artistic events when, in the shopping malls, it’s still business as usual?” Others regard themselves as more intellectual, and set themselves apart from what they regard as the oppressed, obedient masses on their knees in fear.

And as the songs echoing around the world suggest, fear is not something that I have come across. We are all trying to adjust to this new normal, respect the official guidance. Even people who are in isolation, at least those I know of, are taking it well. They are calm and waiting for it to pass.

Thankfully, children and young people are the least affected. But it’s hard on them. We’re into the fourth week of no school, which initially was taken as an extended holiday as it coincided with carnival break. They’re still off school, yet they’re expected to keep up with their studies.

Don’t miss: Spain may be a week ahead of the U.S. in its coronavirus quarantine: Here’s what you can learn from its experience

Without that continuity of face-to-face interaction in the classroom, some young people had the idea that it’s one long vacation. But it’s not. It’s a state of emergency. Still, you can’t blame them for wanting to keep some semblance of normality while stories of more infections just keep coming.

Their social gatherings are slowly but surely being cut down to a walk outside with instructions to be prudent, and to keep the required distance of at least a meter between each other in public. Italians are an affectionate and tactile people. That’s unnatural for them, and very hard to do.

The outings for all of us are getting fewer and fewer, and they are becoming shorter and shorter, while the government’s blunt directives are getting louder and louder: Stop the contagion, and protect the older and more vulnerable. There has gradually been less resistance to the lockdown.

People, finally, are now staying home.

Alison Fottrell is a teacher and writer living in Como, Italy.

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