ROME—Despite a nationwide lockdown and a coronavirus death rate that has surpassed China, there are still Italians out on the streets. Dogs are being taken out by multiple family members and even neighbors, one by one as an excuse, several times a day. People are buying groceries one banana and loaf of bread at a time just to get out of the house, and suddenly everyone has taken up jogging.
At the same time, an incredible number of people are dying. On Saturday, after Italy’s civil protection authorities confirmed that new cases of novel coronavirus climbed by 6,557 and the death toll by 793 people in a single 24 hour period—that’s around 33 deaths an hour—stricter measures were put in place in the north of the country, which remains the hardest hit.
The novelty of life under lockdown is over in Italy where the days now drag on and the fear that this will never end is on everyone’s mind. The new normal is just beginning in France, where they are still trying to skirt the rules and find reasons to leave the house. At dawn on Sunday, the French parliament passed draconian new laws allowing the government to limit freedom of movement. In the United States, several states are trying a softer version of what will likely be a hard reality very soon.
Lessons should be drawn from what is happening on this side of the Atlantic. If the lockdown is done right, it won’t be as hard, officials keep saying. Yet, even here, many remain deaf to the threat of death.
More than 70,000 Italians have been given tickets for being out of their homes without a valid reason. All of those people could be asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers who are spreading it to the most vulnerable. Each time someone leaves their home, they risk contracting or spreading the disease. Social distancing only works so much. It won’t keep an asymptomatic person from coughing on a newspaper or a can of soda.
This flagrant disregard for life-saving rules by a few is maddening to the majority who are locked up in their homes. Like those in the U.S. watching spring breakers on the beaches in Florida, Italians are also dumbstruck seeing similar scenes at Italy’s seaside towns—and we are now seven weeks into the crisis.
Rule-breakers may keep the whole country locked down even longer. Those who defy the strictures in Italy are shamed from windows by screaming shut-ins in what has become an increasingly angry neighborhood watch. In the U.S., reports of long lines at gun stores beg the question what the neighborhood watch will look like there.
Counter-terrorism troops have been redeployed across Italy to beef up police forces throughout Italian cities. Patrol cars are now circulating in every major city in Italy with a monotone male voice warning citizens over a loudspeaker not to leave their residences or risk a ticket. “Go back into your homes,” the voice warns. “Respect the distance of interpersonal space for safety.”
People are starting slowly to comply, but that’s only since the body count surpassed China by more than 1,000 deaths. In the U.S., which has a population five times larger, it would be nearly impossible to enforce a lockdown in the same way.
Because of the noncompliance in the beginning, factories across Italy not tied to the supply chain will be shut down within 72 hours. Hotels in the north of the country are all to be closed and made available as quarantine centers for doctors and health care workers or patients who are not symptomatic. All outdoor exercise there is now strictly prohibited—meaning no more walks or jogging outdoors—and grocery stores are asked to measure people’s temperatures before allowing them inside to shop. These tighter restrictions will surely soon be in place across the country.
Public transportation has been limited to daytime hours, but it is still running in all cities, and airports remain open with daily flights within the country and limited international flights, mostly to return people to their native countries.
Doctors, nurses and other first-line health care workers are now being infected in shocking numbers. Many of them, if asymptomatic, must stay at work because of the shortage of workers. Too many have already died and many more will perish trying to save this country’s sick before this nightmare is over. A number of countries have started sending doctors to help. Russia is planning to send equipment and personnel, and Italian airline Alitalia is sending a jet to Cuba to bring back 52 infectious disease specialists to work in the northern region of the country.
A video taken by a worker inside a hospital in Bergamo showed patients lying in beds with plastic bubble apparatuses on their heads gasping for breath. They were wearing their own pajamas and street clothes due to shortages of hospital gowns. People who should be in isolation are lined up in corridors and doctors are reusing masks and gloves for days on end.
On Jan. 31, when Italy recorded its first three cases of COVID-19 in Rome, the government banned all travel in and out of mainland China. It took five more weeks before a broader regional lockdown in the north of the country took place, and only after more than 200 people had died. On March 10, the whole country was put on lockdown and may remain so for months.
The staggering economic toll of the lockdown and COVID crisis is now too high to measure. Mortgages, utility bills, taxes and loan payments are suspended for anyone who has been financially impacted which will then put pressure on banks and the power, phone and gas companies. All non-essential health care, including dentists, dermatologists and eye doctors can only see patients on an emergency basis.
Life in Italy is shockingly restricted and authorities warn that the number of cases might not peak for several days, and certainly won’t start to go down until everyone obeys the lockdown.
And people are still walking around outside with no valid reason.