A horrifying moment in the Covid-19 pandemic hit Italy on March 27, 2020, when the civil protection authorities announced that 969 people had died in just 24 hours. In the weeks before that, images of coffins stacked up in church parlors and being driven down the streets of the northern Italian town of Bergamo in a caravan of military trucks poured into the homes of Italians, by then locked down for nearly three weeks.
Now, just four months later, life in Italy, the country Vice President Mike Pence once said “no one wanted to be like,” is nearly back to normal, despite occasional spikes in cases that have been attributed to migrants arriving in the country or living in close quarters.
The death toll has levelled off at just over 35,000, with the number of new reported deaths now less than a dozen most days. The total number of cases now at 250,103 with daily increments in the low hundreds at most.
Nightclubs and schools aren't yet reopened, face masks are mandatory and social distancing is enforced, but summer is in full swing in this country. People are going out for dinner at restaurants, enjoying the summer tradition of an aperitivo on an open square, going on vacation and generally moving forward. It's nothing short of a miracle, especially compared to nations like Brazil and the United States, where the pandemic is still very much out of control.
Before that terrible day in March when nearly 1,000 people died, stories about how Italians were skirting the lockdown were common. Tales of clandestine dinner parties and entire apartment blocks walking the same dog just to get outside seemed to expose the Italian national pastime of bending the rules. The lockdown by then had meant that everyone but the most essential of workers were confined to within just 300 meters of their homes.
People lost jobs, businesses suffered and children lost valuable time as the country's ill-funded education system struggled to adapt to online teaching. But as hard as it was, the images of the dead, of the overcrowded hospitals, of the people — cherished grandmothers and grandfathers — dying alone sparked unimaginable national grief and scared the entire country, says Gianni Rezza, director of the National Health Institute.
“The population reacted quite positively in the first phase, however fear probably played a role,” he told CNN. “Images of the coffins carried on military trucks in Bergamo were harsh, and evidently they made it clear how leaving the uncontrolled circulation of the virus would lead to serious problems.”
‘Out of the storm’
Slowly, things only got better from that horrible day, with daily cases, finally hitting a plateau and falling to a negligible number of daily infections. People took the lockdown seriously, wore masks dutifully, as they continue to do today, and the country gradually healed.
Police strictly enforced the lockdown and civil protection cars patrolled the streets telling people to stay inside over loudspeakers. Then in early May, the country gradually started to open up, first for takeout food, then table service. With each new taste of freedom, the health authorities checked the contagion rate, never allowing more establishments to open if there was a spike, and warning they would lock back down if things turned.
Gyms opened cautiously and stores still cannot be crowded. Trains can only run at 50% capacity and public transportation is limited. Mask compliance is strong because it's the law, and hand sanitizer is a feature at nearly every business entrance.
The worst, at least for now, was finally over. Now spikes in cases can generally be attributed to clusters in migrant camps or in closed communities that are kept under control through aggressive testing.
On July 23, Italy's minister of health Roberto Speranza confirmed that the hard work paid off. “I believe Italy has made it out of the storm,” he told Italy's Coldiretti agricultural group. “I'm not thinking of the government but of the country as a whole.”
Speranza warned though that it was not yet time to let the guard down completely. “We were the first to be hit in the world after China, we didn't have an instruction manual. We had to learn about the virus,” he said. “I think we need to be honest with each other: these have been the most difficult months in the history of the country since the Second World War.”
But while Italy celebrated — at a safe distance — he was quick to warn that the worst may not yet be over for everyone. “The international situation worries me a lot,” he said, noting that on a global scale we were at “the worst moment of the epidemic.”
So what makes a country like Italy, long known for its skepticism for anything that even looks like a rule, win this battle that no one else can seem to come close? Second waves have hit Spain, France and Germany and the first wave isn't nearly over in the US or the UK.
Journalist and author Beppe Severgnini told CNN that it is the very Italianness of the Italian people that made it happen. “We coped because we found other resources that were always there: Realism, inventiveness, extended families, solidarity and memories,” he told CNN. “In Italy, rules are not obeyed, or disobeyed, as they are elsewhere. We think it's an insult to our intelligence to comply with a regulation without questioning it first.”
So when the government instituted a draconian lockdown on March 10, Severgnini says that Italians believed in rule. “With Covid-19, we decided the lockdown made sense, so there was no need to enforce it,” he said.
Many credit Italy's unelected Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who has no political affiliation or party behind him, for not playing politics. Each time he instituted a stronger measure, he said the blame was “on me” and not on the government he led.
Still, campaigners in the north of the country, where the virus swirled unchecked from the first reported case on February 21 to when the country locked down March 10, insist that he didn't take it seriously enough at first. He was interrogated by prosecutors in June to determine if the draconian lockdown should have started sooner.
Rezza believes that not only fear played a role, but also the government is to be congratulated, citing Conte's adherence to science over popularity. “There was for once, I would say, a clarity and a certain courage on the part of politicians because they listened to the scientists, in particular the minister of health,” he said, referring to Speranza.
“Politicians also made courageous decisions because the lockdown meant that a part of the population can be unhappy and have economic repercussions. The decision to lockdown on a national level was certainly brave.”
In the US, lockdowns have been erratic, and in the UK, the reopening has been complex and hard for the population to understand. There are loopholes and exceptions to almost every rule. Even in Spain where the virus hit hard and the lockdown was rigid, the virus has managed to find a new footing, in part because authorities reopened too fully, too fast. You can go dancing in Spain, but not yet in Italy.
France, too, has seen a resurgence of the virus, but authorities there only instituted a mandatory face mask indoor rule on July 20. Italy has continued the requirement since the beginning and Speranza says they will likely stay for some time to come.
Despite the success story in beating back the virus, Italy has suffered tremendous economic losses. GDP is expected to contract by around 10% this year and many businesses tied to the tourism sector may never open again. But the lack of a second wave — so far — means that there will likely not be another lockdown and businesses can continue to build back up without fear of having to lose even more money.
Severgnini, who has lived in the US, draws the contrast between Italy's startling success so far with America's obvious struggle to flatten the national curve. “The United States was born out of a rebellion, and you can still feel it,” he said. “But to rebel, sometimes, is absurd — during a pandemic, for instance.”
He also believes that fear played a role. “Fear can be a form of wisdom,” he said. “Boldness, a sow of carelessness,” he said. “Ah, and we don't have Donald Trump, which helps.”