Pedestrians, many wearing masks, in front of the Duomodi Milano on 8 July 2020, after quarantine from the coronavirus had ended.
Photo: VILTVART / Shutterstock
In her latest opinion piece, Luxembourger and occasional Delano contributor Dr Lilani Abeywickrama, who was based in Milan for some time, looks at the lessons that can be learned from the way Italy has handled the Covid-19 crisis.
In March of this year, I would have liked this August piece to have read “we are half-way through the pandemic”, but as with everything Covid-19-related only hindsight will tell whether our actions were justified and how much of the way through this tragedy we truly are.
In Luxembourg the huge campaign encouraging mass voluntary testing is fully underway, something in March we would have not dreamed of being necessary. As the numbers rise the debate remains regarding which wave, we are now riding. Despite the clear messages, Luxembourg’s population seem to still gather in groups either in home settings or in parks and forests and one gets the sense that the danger of Covid-19 has not fully been grasped in comparison to what shook Italy.
There is an air of detached responsibility. The impression is that the government will look after us regardless of our individual actions and so we can blissfully carry on despite numerous public announcements and some rather hard to miss campaigns.
People think as a single unit not as a group or a compassionate being when they neglect to wear masks or fail to inform themselves of public health announcements. The length of time this situation has gone on for is partly to blame for our increased complacency. We, as humans accommodate to situations, we become accustomed to this new uncertainty and thus a false sense of security has been created despite the fact that the coronavirus has not at all been eradicated and that no country has successfully achieved an R rate of nought for a sustainable period of time. False scientific posts pledging a tiring war on masks leave most doctors wanting to eat their own masks. A shift in faith to vlogs by self-proclaimed organic health gurus this summer season brings with it an odd sense of dolce far niente to Europe.
In comparison to other less affluent European countries, yes, our government is tackling the problem within its capacity. Shops however allow numerous people in without a sense of concern for limiting the number of people in closed spaces and very few establishments make a point to encourage the use of alcohol gel or mask wear lest they offend customers. More worryingly, people seem to equate seeing a group of people on a regular basis with achieving some sort of “best friends” immunity status.
Italy “had so many deaths” is now a tedious rhetoric, as many consider this to be a benchmark and seem to find solace in the misconception that the rest of Europe is much better off. The key word in this sentence is the word “had”. Spain has since surpassed Italy in deaths, the UK is faring awfully at present and France isn’t doing much better.
Granted ,the lockdown measures were far harsher in Italy, but let us not forget they too had a grace period of 3 weeks where the Horeca sector was allowed to partially operate until 6pm and unsurprisingly cases simply kept rising, as everyone blissfully shifted their aperitivo hours to earlier in the day. This natural air of human defiance swiftly evaporated in Lombardy, as the brutal reality of the virus set in. As is the case for the rest of Europe, Milanese too, like so many impatient humans in 2020, went through the same phases of confusion, anger and denial regarding the imposed restrictions. The effects of this robust lockdown, however, would reap its benefits. People no longer simply gazed at the sky with a Spritz waiting for things to end, instead they took matters into their own hands. Weekly decrees were published, from which the public did not shy away. Not being aware of these health decrees was just unthinkable. People actively sought to inform others; not to police others, but to act for their community.
Mask wear in Italy was obligatory for a very long period since March, when the strongest lockdown Europe enforced. There was no leaving the house without a specific purpose, no daily jogs, no cycling aimlessly and no trips for a countryside picnic “to wait for the pandemic to end”. You were allowed 200 metres from your home in Lombardy for a basic needs food shop. Anything that deviated from this resulted in a heavy fine. Stay at home meant you stayed at home and national holidays were cancelled.
Since June, Italian regions have opened for travel nationally, shops opened cautiously, with temperature checks and limited numbers of people entering. Shop assistants and baristas respected the rules vigorously. For an understanding of the Italian example one must delve deeper. Fragmented into regions, Italy’s healthcare systems mirror this variability in their management of Covid-19. So, when discussing Italy as a country in terms of testing strategies you cannot call it a whole as each individual region acted upon each decree independently. The region of Veneto tested, monitored and traced its inhabitants with an iron fist while neighbouring densely populated Lombardy took a different approach. This peculiarity formed the basis of a Harvard Business Review article.
Mask-wear in Lombardy and Veneto is now no longer obligatory outdoors and supermarkets queues are a thing of the past, but people still adhere to rules despite the fact that rates are going down. Post lockdown there was no surge of après-Covid parties or any frenzied rush to celebrate. Northern Italy had been stunned. Italian news reports recently highlighted that, sadly, when it comes to tourism Italians feel uncomfortable educating foreigners on safety measures and as a result many do not respect the rules, leaving locals worried at the prospect of a new imported surge this summer.
What we can learn
Italy is now seeing gatherings of loved ones and friends, weddings, baptisms, dining at restaurants and drinking in bars. The rules are simple and clear for all: wear a mask in enclosed spaces, only remove your masks outdoors once sat at the table and sanitise or wash your hands. Every shop and restaurant measure your temperature and for quite some time restaurants required your full details for reservations.
What we can learn is that there no room for playing catch up here. It’s a pandemic. Whether you choose to believe it or not, the virus is no longer “that country’s” problem. It is global. It is not a virus that “targets old people”, nor does it discriminate. If you choose to exercise your right to not wear a mask, at least have the decency to consider everyone else who is, who chooses to protect their family as they do not wish to risk the possibility of sending a loved one to intensive care. It is a small price to pay to avoid intubation. The government is not forcing you to do anything, it is a plea from the doctors and the nurses looking after those debilitated by this virus asking you to do your part to help them as the hospital systems in Europe will reach a breaking point once again.
Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper is reminiscent of today’s pandemic management. Italy did its work during a period where other countries waited. When difficult moments came for the rest of Europe, few noted that Italy’s hard work and sacrifice had paid off.
“They had it bad”, yet the rest of Europe is already in a second wave.
Dr Lilani Abeywickrama is a Luxembourg ophthalmologist. Her main interest is advocating healthy living and precision technology within her specialty, and she is also pursuing an interest in the field of healthcare management.