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Italy in lockdown:
‘An old reality and its assumptions have slipped away from us’

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Empty streets in Turin, March 2020

Australian author Jennifer Mills is currently under COVID-19 lockdown in Turin, northern Italy. As one of the worst-affected nations in the world right now, the Italian experience could be a sign of what’s to come for Australia – or a lesson in how to avoid it.

Right now, it is six weeks since Italy reported its first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus COVID-19. It is one week since everything except essential services (including supermarkets, pharmacies, food supply, cleaning and waste services) was closed down, and five days since I left my apartment. There is now a form you have to fill out if you go outside, and you might be fined if you’re in the street without a reason, but as with most rules in Italy, the lockdown is unenforceable without the consent of the people. The entire nation is obeying the call: Io resto a casa, I stay at home.

We had so little warning, and yet we could see it coming. It feels like time has sped up, and also as if it has stopped completely. We are home alone, and we are aware of how intimately, vulnerably connected we are to everyone else. An old reality and its assumptions have slipped away from us, left us before we were ready. Now we must adjust to the daily death tolls, the isolation, the fear and anxiety. And above all, the wait.

In hindsight, it feels like containment was always a pipe dream. The virus has moved fast, and with it, the adjustments. It is hard to get this speed across to Australians – on Twitter, I sometimes feel as though I am shouting from behind soundproof glass. Three weeks ago in Italy, we were still wondering if school closures were maybe a little excessive. We were worried about the economy and our own jobs. Should we be wearing masks? Should we have caught the metro home? I wasn’t too concerned. I washed my hands. The known cases in Italy then were about 200; there had been 7 deaths.

Three weeks ago, I walked past a headline on a newspaper hoarding that urged Italians to think of the economy, to carry on with business as usual. I remember thinking that someone must have decided that 3.5 per cent was an acceptable proportion. Then I stopped myself; I was probably being cynical. I was probably being a catastrophist.

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There are few people to be seen on usually-busy tourist hubs like the Vatican

Schools, universities, museums and cinemas closed the following day in the north of Italy, but even two weeks ago (1835 cases, 52 deaths), a Wuhan-style lockdown looked unlikely. Now (24747 cases, 1809 deaths) nothing is more urgent than stopping the spread of this disease, and every decision we make is about buying time for the hospitals so that they have time to fight it.

For us, the lockdown came as a relief. Finally we had clarity from the government about what we should do: avoid becoming a vector by which the virus might be transmitted to those at higher risk. With an aging population, especially in the north, the death rate has become very high here. We are now beginning to see the loss of frontline workers and younger victims too. Each life lost is a tragedy; each death prevented is a triumph. We will never be able to count the numbers of people who died in this period because they could not seek medical care for something else.

It is strange and exasperating to watch other countries go through the same process, a week or two or three later. I can’t explain from behind my glass that your reality will change in a day, and that some of the things you are worrying about now will cease to matter.

“It is strange and exasperating to watch other countries go through the same process, a week or two or three later.”

Italy only had Wuhan as a comparable model for how to deal with this. The exponential rate of infection has now begun to force other nations to take note. Spain and France have now entered similar lockdowns; Germany is close. The new reality breaks over each new country, following the virus like a second wave.

It’s a little like watching the climate crisis in fast forward. Denial is stronger in some cultures than others. Asian nations that lived through the SARS outbreak have reacted quickly to this one, and flattened the curve. Others have preferred to wait until things get considerably worse before they move. Many arguments arise to offer resistance to the fact of that exponential curve, but each one eventually collapses in the face of it.

In Italy, health care is universal and free; all sick leave is paid by the government and not by individual employers. There is a strong union movement and a cultural conviction that the state should take care of people. Europe’s largely socialised healthcare systems have been under a decade of austerity pressure, and each is now being stress-tested. The north of Italy, worst hit so far by this virus, is also one of the regions best equipped to deal with it. Health care workers are now doing everything they can to delay the spread to the south, where hospital systems are weaker. In Lombardy, intensive care wards are being built from scratch at universities and exhibition halls, using volunteer workers and donated funds.

There is a great deal of fear and anxiety as we watch the numbers. The WHO has said it may take two weeks for the lockdown to have an effect on that terrifying curve. It feels as though the whole country is holding its breath. Internationally, Italy’s lockdown has at times been presented as a crisis in itself. With hindsight, the consensus here is that the government should have done more sooner. But the goodwill and pride in this moment are as palpable as the terror and grief. This lockdown will be remembered, in the end, as a national act of solidarity.

Three days into the lockdown, at 6pm, my neighbours began to appear at their windows with musical instruments. A young woman across from me stepped onto her balcony with an accordion and greeted others I couldn’t see. Then another young woman sang a plaintive solo. Eventually, someone cranked a sound system to compete with the reggae from two blocks away. I live in a youthful neighbourhood with a lot of nightlife; Turin is a university town. It’s hard for young people to accept this new reality. The challenge of not seeing family, friends, lovers; the sadness of cancelled trips, lost tickets, closed museums, and shut down festivals; the fear of lost income. None of these concerns have completely fallen away. But they seem immaterial in comparison to what doctors, nurses, and other health care workers are facing. Last week, Lombardy’s president put it this way: ‘We are near the exhaustion of our resources. We are working miracles.’

Italians have come together to defend their health care system and its workers. They are doing this to support the most vulnerable people in society. The well are doing their bit for the sick. Young people, who appear to be least at risk of dying from this illness, are staying home for their elders.

I am worried about Australia’s elders too. I am worried about those with suppressed immunity, existing conditions, complications and disabilities. I know that Australian doctors, nurses, and other health care workers are doing everything they can to prepare for what is coming, and will give everything they have to fight it as the cases rise. I know that many Australians will reveal this same sense of solidarity in the weeks ahead, and I hope that the actions that are taken will be enough to slow transmission and avoid the worst. But after the summer Australia just had, I’m nervous. I don’t know if we, or the state and federal governments that we trust to make the right decisions, are ready for the challenge this dramatic moment presents.

Editor’s note: As of Tuesday 17 March, there have been 32 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in South Australia. Readers are advised to consult the Department of Health website for the latest information.

Jennifer Mills

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Jennifer Mills is an Australian writer whose novel Dyschronia was shortlisted for the 2019 Miles Franklin Award.


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