From: Lamezia Terme (Italy)
I'm now in Milan, helping my eldest daughter.
Last week I took the step of closing my restaurant in Calabria - before it become mandatory. During the previous week I had only a trickle of customers anyway. I gave to my employees two weeks of paid leave; not much but I hope it will help during the first days. Being free, I asked my eldest daughter if she needed help in Milan (where she lives with her boyfriend). Of course initially she said no (an emancipated daughter asking her father for help? sacrilege!!) However she is following her classes via internet, her boyfriend is smart working and her sister is under mandatory quarantine in London (she had three cases in her workplace - and I'm going crazy). The last hit on the nail: every family must now choose one person authorised to go out for shopping and other needs. End of the story: both of them have their days full and so they accepted me. My wife remained in Lamezia to manage things and stay close to our parents (we both still have mom and pop with us, all four in their 80s).
I arrived in Milan in the nick of time: in the following three days the World changed. That very evening the Lombardy lockdown was declared, then the whole of Italy, then an even more stringent lockdown. And then, unavoidably, two reported cases in this group of condos (luckily in another wing, on the other side of the inner park).
For a couple of days I lived and slept in the guest room of my daughter's flat; meanwhile I contacted a friend of mine who works in the Hotel industry. She is obviously crying blood these days (100% cancellations), but she managed to find me a room in a hotel near my daughter. This way I give back her privacy while staying close. I currently do have my laptop with Steam installed and a developing case of cabin fever. We daily chat via Skype with my other daughter in London.
This is the situation as I see it.
- Me, on the ground:
My first trip was to downtown, to one of Milan's largest banks, where my daughter urgently needed to get some documents (the e-mailing service of digital documents is still catching up). You must always have with you a paper where you "auto-certify" your identity, from where you are coming, where you are going and why. The police can stop you, ask to produce your paper and, if needed, ask for explanations. Then they can do some checks. Lying is a criminal offence that can land you in jail. Lying and being sick will land you in jail (once/if you recover). Having said that, the actual controls are sparse - and yet people do seem to comply.
I wore surgical rubber gloves (masks only work if you are sick, to prevent for you to pass the virus around) and I just walked to the bank (I wanted to avoid crowded public transit - only later I discovered that buses and trams are almost empty). It took one hour. The feeling was eerie. There is almost no traffic and the air is quite clean. The impression is truly similar to a zombie apocalypse. For some reason, the (very sparse) people in the streets walk slowly, weaving to avoid each other. There is a strong feeling of stillness and silence. Basically, a zombie apocalypse where the zombies do not moan and do not chase you...
The bank building is very big. Think big halls, marble, old money and echoes. On a normal day it is full of any kind of people (the Milan's Stock Exchange is nearby). When I arrived I was alone with two employees. I got my documents from the teller and exited the building; nobody else arrived in the meanwhile. Out of curiosity I did the short walk to "Piazza del Duomo". The vast plaza in front of the Cathedral was empty. I had seen both videos and pictures of the place (which is becoming a symbol of the situation in Italy) but seeing it with my eyes hit me in a way I didn't expect. I took a cab and asked the driver how the situation is for them. "We lost about 80% of our normal work" he told me - adding that he kept working at a loss "just to do something".
BTW, that was the first time that I was asked for "plastic money" (debt and credit cards) because it is believed that cash can carry the virus. I can't comment on the veracity of this, but I'm now paying all services with my card. At least once a guy sprayed alcohol on the card before touching it (we were both wearing rubber gloves!)
Ah, well: I do spray disinfectant on my clothes when I return home, and I keep the casual clothing strictly separate.
My second walk was two days ago, around our block, to get food, medications and other stuff enough for two more weeks (I had to compile a new auto-certification, of course). I heard all kinds of judgement re: "Italians capability to maintain discipline", but personally I'm seeing a lot of discipline in my current corner of the World. People stay in queue outside the shops, maintaining the 1 meter mandatory distance and entering only when invited by the owners. There is only a (serious) exception that I will mention later.
Anyway, almost everything is in lockdown. The empty streets show stretches of closed shops, even those (like groceries) that could legally be open: the number of customers is too low to make it worth. Luckily I discovered that shops that sell printers and inks cartridges are (legally) open as "work support outlets" - so I was able to buy two refills for my daughter's printer, which is the most used commodity in the flat. One day it will be interesting to have a study about "The unexpected economic realities under a lockdown".
Now for the exception: supermarkets have a cap on the number of customers that can be in the building at a given time - which is fine. Everybody respects the 1 meter separation while in the queue. Good! Pity that, once inside, people streak crazily around like mad bees, not respecting the mandatory distance, touching everything and, generally speaking, trying to ensure that, if you are sick (possibly without knowing it yet) you cover every square meter of the supermarket at least once. I guess it is impossible to avoid a roll of the dice every then and now.
Lombardy has one of the strongest healthcare systems in Europe - and yet it almost on its knees. The problem is that "waves" of new infected arrive all at once, overwhelming both medical and supporting personnel. Each wave is higher in numbers than the previous. People are now admitted in beds placed along the hospitals' aisles. There is a lack of everything: from simple face masks to the crucial respiratory aid devices. People with "lesser aliments" are moved to other, smaller hospitals around Lombardy. These lesser aliments range from broken bones to non-urgent surgery. There were rumbles that even chemotherapies for "non-serious" cancer cases were being postponed, but the reaction against that was obviously strong - and the government denied that it was true anyway.
The personnel in the hospitals is tremendously tired. They work seven-days-a-week without leave. Many do just sleep at the workplace. Some do sleep with their head on a pillow on their work desk. Tiredness causes mistakes, with overexposure to positive cases compounding the problem. Some unavoidably get sick, further reducing the workforce. They are now calling in the people in training, but they have to receive further, specific, training and are inexperienced anyway. This applies to both doctors and nurses.
Blood's supply is dwindling. Calls are being made for healthy people to donate. I plan to do this tomorrow. The problem is that a lot of healthy people these days is scared by the sheer idea of entering a hospital. I hope they can organise places where people can donate outside the hospital.
Help is coming from China, in the form of both trained people and medical items - including respiratory aid devices. We, of course, will need to pay for this down the road. However, Italy helped China when the epidemic still looked contained to that country, so part of the help comes for free as a "thank you" package. Or so I'm told.
Both the EU and the US are silent about this form of help. Way to fight anti-European movements.
And now, for some real chaos. For some reason no one thought about them. As the Coronavirus news spread inside jails, revolts happened (some of these sparked by the prohibition to meet the relatives - a bad fumble by the government). The peak was 27 jails in chaos at once. Prisoners escaped from jails in Rome and Foggia, stealing cars and taking hostages. Relatives surrounded the areas, protesting, causing further disruptions and tying down the already stretched police forces. About ten prisoners died after storming the infirmaries and overdosing by ingestion of random medications. I'm not making this up. Finally the government made some simple rules, allowing meetings without personal contacts (the irony being that this is what already happened). Most of the escapees then just returned willingly to their jail (!) and only a few are still at large.
Another thing that blindsided a lot of people: dental services are closed. Woe if you have a bad toothache (I shudder at the thought). Having said that, some dentists do accept clients on a phone call-personal basis, but you have to find them.
- The Government:
I'll be brief and I'll try to be a-political too.
Our government made many mistakes. When they put Lombardy in lockdown the news leaked three hours before the official announcement. The result was a "rush for the last train to the South" which only helped the spreading of the virus in the peninsula. Two more decrees (all of Italy in lockdown and an even more stringent lockdown) followed (ironically making the rush to South useless). The permission for "only pharmacies and supermarkets" to be open was later amended to include "sellers of tools for working" (whatever it means) with further "clarifications" regarding the permission to be open for "sellers of beauty products" (?) newspaper kiosks and other activities.
Some sport events were canceled, some were held without public and some were held with a disregard for the emergency. Only with the "total lockdown" decree the state took the power in its hands and canceled everything.
I mention sports because, once again, they underline the problems at European level. The various European sport governing bodies do seem unable to take any form of measure. European Cups matches were still held while the single countries were cancelling everything. There is still no clear answer to what will happen with the European Soccer Championship - even if it is obvious that it will be postponed/cancelled. Please, note how such an event involves much more than a football and a full stadium: industries ranging from merchandising to tourism will be deeply affected by the developments.
There is nothing like a pandemic to bring incompetence to light.
However the Italian government was the first (outside China) forced to tackle the Coronavirus pandemic on a national scale. For a while it fell behind the "decision cycle" and was forced to react instead of acting. I'm not a fan of the current coalition and of our PM Conte. Still, my impression is that they strained to do the best in a developing situation that moved the whole of the country into uncharted waters. This virus spreads so fast, it is scary. We had to learn and adapt as things happened, and with no specific experience to look at - except for what China showed to the World. In a way, Italy is "leading the wave" for the West. Which brings me to...
- My final two cents:
Our Premier Conte said a very important thing: "We can write laws and decrees, but the responsibility and the behaviours needed to tackle this crisis are in your hands".
Looking around I do see people adapting. Supermarkets are better stocked, staffed and organised. In a few days people learned to go out shopping at different hours; this avoids super long queues. Maintaining social distance is becoming second nature. There always is (and will be) a percentage of stupids, but it can be done.
Looking at other countries from inside Italy I'm stunned at unpreparedness and - even worse - complacency shown by most of them. I cited jails as a potential problem, but no one in the media outside Italy does seem to even talk about them. Vetoing "events with more than 500/250 people!" is useless: to spread, the Coronavirus only needs to people with one of the two being infected. And yet I saw this futile "measure" being taken in a well known country. BTW, what about homeless people? These are just examples.
Italy is your country 7 to 10 days from now. Learn from our experiences, our mistakes and the things we did right. Use this window to prepare. Use it. We hadn't this luxury. You can see the results.
"Yes darling, I served in the Navy for eight years. I was a cook..."
"Oh dad... so you were a God-damned cook?"
(My 10 years old daughter after watching "The Hunt for Red October")