ROME—A couple of hours before Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte signed an unprecedented novel coronavirus containment decree around 2 a.m. Sunday, the draft document had already leaked.
Whether it was intentionally given to the press—as most cynical Italians believe—or an honest mistake, it had a predictable outcome. Thousands of people threw whatever they could into suitcases and jumped in their cars or ran for the nearest train station to get the hell out of Dodge (or, rather Milan and Venice) before they were locked in.
The leaked decree may have given cunning Italians a head start, but it is unquestionable many would have found a way around the rules even without it.
The impact on the rest of Italy and surrounding countries was predictable, too. Most of the trains from the north were met in Italy’s southern provinces by protesters and police, telling anyone who got out that they needed to self quarantine rather than spread the virus even further. In Salerno, people tried to block the train carriage doors.
The local governor in Puglia, Michele Emiliano, took to social media to keep people away. “I speak to you as if you were my children, my brothers, my nephews and nieces: stop and go back,” he pleaded. “Get off at the first train station, do not catch planes... turn your cars around, get off your buses. Do not bring the Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia epidemic to Puglia.”
By Sunday afternoon, a full 12 hours after the decree was signed, trains were still rolling south out of the red zone and flights were still leaving Milan and Venice airports and by then the decree should have been in full force. When asked how this could be, a local police officer patrolling Rome’s Termini station, swinging his protective surgical mask around his finger while he smoked a cigarette, told The Daily Beast, “We haven’t been given any orders to stop anyone.”
The enforcement order finally came down late Sunday afternoon, but it confused things more. Italians living in the expanded red zone were supposed to “self-authorize,” deciding for themselves whether their reason to travel out of the zone was legitimate or not. Essentially “lockdown,” like many regulations in this country, comes down to interpretation.
In a country where getting by with things is a survival skill, the impact of “the Italian way” could be disastrous. In the hardest hit region of Lombardy, the wealthiest and most modern of the country, the health care system is close to collapse. With 400 people in need of intensive care, doctors are taking to social media to beg for help. One hospital administrator said they had cordoned off a hallway as a makeshift ICU ward and were desperately short of doctors who were one-by-one coming down with the virus.
Part of the rationale for the lockdown was to keep the disease from spreading to the less prosperous south of the country, where health care facilities are stretched thin at the best of times.
But the struggle isn’t just for the living. With all public gatherings banned, including weddings and funerals, it has been impossible to bury many of the recent dead. In Lombardy alone, 267 people have died.
On Monday in Rome, people were trying to get the hang of the “one meter rule” enacted across the country by maintaining about three feet of personal space. Coffee bars and some supermarkets in the capital had staff acting as bouncers outside, letting in only a few customers at a time to ensure safe distance among patrons. But as the morning wore on, the lines grew and huge crowds of people had soon gathered in the narrow streets to wait their turn for their private cappuccino, thus defeating the purpose of the measure entirely.
Across the southern regions, where all movie theaters, museums, gyms, beauty parlors, and schools are closed, people are trying to do their best to cope. The warming spring days are drawing people outside, meaning the parks and playgrounds are teeming with people, all sitting on the same benches and touching the same playground equipment.
The enforcement decree does come with a hefty fine and even jail time, but if you read the fine print, it is mostly aimed at asymptomatic people who have tested positive for COVID-19, which begs the question whether they were self quarantining at all.
Whether the lockdown will eventually have to encompass the entire country is on everyone’s mind. Italy’s novel coronavirus numbers are the highest by thousands of anywhere in Europe, reaching 9,172 on Monday in neck-and-neck race with South Korea for the dubious honor of the second highest number of cases outside China. If things don’t improve, the measures will surely get tougher. On Monday, Conte channeled Winston Churchill, calling this moment “Italy’s darkest hour,” before pleading with Italians to follow the rules for once in their lives.
What is most troubling about Italy’s nightmare is that it was one of the first countries to ban all travel to and from China on Jan. 30, after registering three cases in Rome—two Chinese tourists and a researcher who worked in Wuhan—who were quickly contained in Rome’s Spallanzani Infectious Disease Hospital. They have since fully recovered, and the virus didn’t spread from there. But three weeks later, a new cluster emerged in northern Italy on Feb. 21, possibly tied to a German auto worker who traveled there from a town where a case had been recorded in Bavaria.
Within three days, that epidemic exploded, and Italy now has at least 9,172 cases despite locking down 11 towns immediately. When that lockdown didn’t work, and rumors that the thousands of asymptomatic patients were defying self-quarantine, the harsher measures were enacted over the weekend.
Now China has decreed that anyone traveling into the country from Italy must be quarantined for two weeks. China now has a moderate increase in cases, just 44 new cases in the last 24 hours. And Chinese media is playing up Italy’s rampant epidemic, as if to say the hard line works. But that cuts inward too—by looking at how the virus is spreading in some other countries it feeds back into how people in China don't trust the official numbers released by Beijing at all.
The lockdown in Wuhan is still in effect—and it is still much harsher than anything Italy is trying to enforce. Groceries and essential supplies are delivered to apartment complexes in bulk-buy formats with each household receiving a bag every day or two and residents redistributing the goods among themselves based on household sizes. People who know food wholesalers arrange for additional deliveries and coordinate them across the city through the Chinese chat app WeChat. In Italy’s lockdown zone, people are still allowed to go into supermarkets and banks.
Some people in Wuhan have even gone back to work, typically on rotation to limit the number of people in one office or hall at the same time. There are measures like temperature checks everywhere–at entrances to all buildings, residential or commercial. Streets are still mostly empty and schools are still closed.
Across Italy, every aspect of life has changed in ways great and small. The Italy of a month ago feels distant, almost lost, for those under lockdown and for those who dread what is to come.
Additional reporting by Brendon Hong.