As of Monday, March 23rd, the number of deaths from the new coronavirus (COVID-19) in Italy has surpassed 5,400. As a response to the virus's rapid spread throughout the country, the government has implemented a series of strict measures to slow the pandemic. North-Press interviewed two residents of Italy’s hardest-hit northern provinces about the situation of Italy under the epidemic.
Though the Italian government has faced some criticism over what people saw as slow response, some in Italy feel that this is a mischaracterization of the government’s handling of the crisis. “Some said that Italy responded too slow, that people are going outside…I think this is not true. Italy was the first country to ban flights to China; they were the first country to implement a widespread quarantine. The government response was good considering the circumstances,” Eleanor Finley, a resident of Italy’s northern province of Friuli Venezia-Giulia, said about the Italian government’s action to curb the spread of the virus.
Italy has implemented severe measures, first in the North, and then later in the entire country. On Monday, March 9th, the entire country went into lockdown, with travel banned and all non-essential work halted.
Police have set up checkpoints in the street to enforce the lockdown. “If the police see you, they stop you and ask where you’re going and what you’re doing. If you are traveling a long distance, you have to have an affidavit saying that you are not sick,” Benedetta Argentieri, a journalist and resident of the outbreak’s epicenter of Lombardy province, said of the measures in the region. In Friuli Venezia-Giulia province, vehicles equipped with loudspeakers have been driving the streets and warning residents. “You are responsible for your health and the health of others. For your safety, please stay in your homes.” The message warns. The penalties for breaking the quarantine can include fines of up to three months in prison.
People in Italy seem to be taking the virus seriously, and many are on edge when it comes to continuing their normal lives during the pandemic. “When you go out, everyone looks at you in a wary way. ‘Why don’t you have a mask? Don’t come too close.’ You can feel the fear… the enemy is invisible. Anyone could be carrying the virus,” Argentieri said to North-Press.
Northern Italy: The epicenter of the Italian outbreak
Of all of Italy’s provinces, the North was revealed as ground zero for the outbreak in the country. Lombardy, and its capital Milan, experienced a rapid spread of the disease.
Milan is the center of Italy’s economy, as well as a major economic hub for all of Europe. When the lockdowns began to take effect, many Italians who were working in Milan began to go home to other regions of the country, bringing the virus with them.
“Italy and China also have very strong connections through trade and migration, particularly in the textile industry,” Finley explains. Milan is a center of “fast fashion”, for the production of relatively inexpensive and quickly-made fashion brands like H&M and Zara. This creates frequent travel between Italy and China, which may have contributed to the outbreak.
Tourism has also played a role in the virus’ arrival in Italy. Other cities that were not industrial centers, like Venice, experienced major outbreaks, likely related to the amount of tourism in these areas.
In Argentieri’s opinion, Lombardy province in particular also shares many similarities with Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak in China. Both are major industrial centers, and both have a good deal of pollution – Lombardy is one of the most polluted regions in Europe. Because of this and the high rate of smoking among Italy’s population, many people already have pre-existing conditions of the lungs, making them even more susceptible to coronavirus.
Both residents interviewed by North-Press confirmed that the age of Italy’s population means that it will be incredibly hard-hit as the pandemic rages across the country. As in other areas of the world, the elderly are the most likely to experience symptoms and die from the disease, over 22% of Italy’s population is over the age of 65.
“When it comes to rebuilding Italy, it will be a matter of repopulating entire villages,” Finley says. In a similar vein, Argentieri stated that the virus will wipe out an entire generation.
For now, the lockdown continues. “These draconian kinds of measures are supposed to end on April 3rd, but everyone knows it won’t end then,” Argentieri said about the outlook for the end of the nationwide lockdown.
Whatever the future will hold, it is clear that Italy, and even much of the world, has never experienced a crisis of this level before. Finley told North-Press that she had a message for the people of North and East Syria:
“I know the people of [North and East Syria] have lived through the war, displacement, and even death. You may think ‘we’ll be fine’…but I want to stress the danger of this disease. This is a matter of life and death. Please stay inside.”