ROME—When the eerie silence of the West’s first COVID-19 lockdown swept over Italy last March, no one knew the horror to come. But those of us living here felt the initial reverberations first hand, from those frightening first days of blind paranoia—standing gloved and masked in long supermarket queues to hoard essential supplies before it became normal in the rest of the world—to the wail of ambulance sirens bouncing off the empty cobblestone streets.
This country, which has ground to a halt for tragedy many times before, lowering flags at half mast for earthquake victims and calling for national days of mourning for dead celebrities, was suddenly overwhelmed by a daily death toll that was so vast the number became meaningless—and not just to Italians. In April, Vice President Mike Pence—as head of the Trump administration’s COVID taskforce—predicted that the U.S. was headed down Italy’s wayward path. “We think Italy may be the most comparable area to the United States at this point,” he told CNN at the time. A few weeks later, police were collecting corpses from private houses in New York City and elsewhere.
So why didn’t anyone heed the warning? And why is the world still ignoring the inevitable doom? Italy is now worse than where it started, with the death toll now a daily national tragedy—the second wave far more devastating than the first despite mask mandates and rigorous social distancing. It is hard to imagine what a second wave will be like in places like the U.S. where such restrictions aren’t in place. “We are in a war situation,” public health professor Walter Ricciardi said in early December. “People don’t realize it but the last time we had this many deaths, bombs were dropping on our cities during the war.”
As the virus spread around the world last spring, “lockdown” became a blanket term for everything from stay-at-home orders in California to a ban on indoor dining in New York, all the while the over-80s and severely sick kept dying at a steady rate wherever the virus cases spiked. In the U.S., superspreader events marked the summer, from the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally to massive outdoor concerts, tied to thousands of new infections. And when President Trump was stricken, his fast recovery seemed to vindicate the deniers who talked of the “scamdemic” and hyped up panic.
Meanwhile, entire towns in Italy were gutted of their elderly residents. The grandparents—who mean so much in this country—gone. Doctors and front-line workers were suddenly dying in Italy, too, and yet resistance to restrictions in the U.S. and elsewhere grew despite what was happening here, all closely covered nonstop by the global media.
No one can say they weren’t warned.
At first, Italy and its Draconian lockdown seemed like “somewhere else” and no American would ever agree to the measures put in place, even though what was happening in Italy provided a clear roadmap for the rest of the West. As I spoke with my family in South Dakota where I grew up, which later became its own COVID hellscape, they kept telling me how bad it sounded where I am, despite seeing the wave heading straight for them.
When the daily death toll hit 969 in Italy, a country of just 60 million people, on March 27, it sent shockwaves around the world as images flashed of army vehicles called in to wheel out the coffins too numerous for local morgues and crematoriums to accommodate. The sacrifices of the lockdown suddenly seemed worth it, if they would just stop the death. Italians and those of us who live here dug in for an Easter like no other, everyone—even the pope—stayed home in an attempt to stop the carnage. But a few months later, bodies were literally piling up in the hospital morgues and church parlors again as the second wave hit harder than the first. By Christmas, more people had died in Italy in the second wave than the first.
The hard sacrifices did pay off—or so it seemed. By summer, the daily death toll dropped to single digits and Italy embraced a new normal with face masks and social distancing as the rest of the world reeled out of control— and the payoff was a blissful summer. Americans were kept out of continental Europe due to the way the virus was being mishandled under the Trump administration, though many went to European countries like Croatia and mixed with continental Europeans who returned home and spread it further.
As Italy reveled in its lull, the virus continued to spread in silence. While France, Spain and the U.K. struggled to mitigate the rate of new infections with lockdowns and new measures, Italians sipped aperitivi at the seaside and even held the Venice Film Festival in person. Cruise ships glided around the Mediterranean, and the worst seemed far behind. Schools opened on time in September with in-class learning, and testing was easy and convenient. Everything seemed on track.
But the party was soon over, and Italy was once again the harbinger of what was to come with a spike in new cases more than five times greater than the worst of the first locked-down hell the death toll quickly grew higher than the first wave. But when the daily toll hit 993 on Dec. 3, Italians not directly affected instead complained about new hints of lockdown measures, seemingly preferring an Aperol Spritz or an Alpine ski weekend to another personal sacrifice even if it meant keeping the elderly and weak alive.
Italy’s death rate in the second wave is higher than the rest of Europe and much higher per capita than even the U.S. “Obviously there needs to be some reflection,” Guido Rasi, former executive director of the European Pharmaceutical Agency, said last week. “This number of nearly 1,000 dead in 24 hours is much higher than the European average.”
The cycle continues to spiral out of control with the hard lessons of this pandemic seemingly lost on everyone. The U.K. first eased up on restrictions only to cancel Christmas in many regions as a new COVID-19 variant threatens any sense of calm there. The death toll, now surpassed by Italy, continues to rise unabated. The U.S. seems destined to follow with their own, deadlier, second wave.
The Italian government, when faced with the daunting task of how to lead the nation out of this mess ahead of one of the most festive times of the year in this country, has chosen a hard lockdown for the holidays, too. The first lockdown last spring crippled the economy and left many shops and restaurants shuttered for good. Still, Italy does not want to herald in a third wave of the pandemic to start 2021. As a result, the country is under lockdown from Dec. 24-27 and again over the new year holiday, and people are restricted from moving around the country from Dec. 20 to Jan. 7—the height of the holiday season here—to try to mitigate the spread. We will be standing masked and gloved outside grocery stores once more.
The scars from this pandemic will not heal with a vaccine. But if these harsh measures work, maybe some grandparents and people with compromised health conditions will live to see another, better Christmas. If the restrictions don’t work, no one has the playbook for what happens next.