No escape – Italy is locked down to slow the spread of coronavirus | Europe
UGO RUSSO was not killed by covid-19. The 15-year-old was shot dead by an off-duty policeman on a Naples street last week after threatening the officer with a replica pistol, allegedly intending to steal his watch. On March 9th, before taking the young man’s body for burial, his relatives planned to carry his coffin through the streets of the city, followed by a banner reading “Justice for Ugo”. But as the procession emerged from the narrow lanes of the Spanish Quarter, it ran into a phalanx of police. A tense stand-off ended with the coffin being put in a hearse and driven off to a cemetery; the cortège dispersed.
The incident highlighted two of the factors underpinning the Italian government’s decision, on the same day as Mr Russo’s funeral, to place the entire country under lockdown as it battles to contain the spread of covid-19. The first was that the whole of Italy, including Naples, was already subject to lesser restrictions that, among many other things, had banned funeral gatherings. The second was that those restrictions were being blithely ignored by all too many in the south of the country, where the virus threatens to spread next.
In recent days the number of people infected by covid-19 has been rising at a daily rate of at least 25%. The death rate has been going up even more steeply as the virus, which is disproportionately lethal to elderly sufferers, has taken a heavy toll on Europe’s oldest population.
Cases of the virus have been confirmed in all 20 Italian regions. But until now, the sense of crisis had been overwhelmingly confined to the north. Of the 9,172 cases detected in Italy by March 9th, just 303, or 3.3%, had come to light in the mezzogiorno (the southern mainland, plus Sicily and Sardinia).
In the north, the virus had spread out from two linked clusters south-east of Milan and south-west of Venice to infect almost 5,500 people in Lombardy, the region around Milan, and thousands more elsewhere.
On March 8th the rapid diffusion of covid-19 prompted the government to announce nationwide curbs on a wide range of events that were likely to put large numbers of people in close proximity. Weddings were banned; museums, cinemas, theatres and exhibitions were closed; bar and restaurant owners were warned that they would be shut down if they failed to ensure that their customers stayed at least one metre apart.
In parts of the north—the whole of Lombardy and two other areas comprising 14 provinces—additional curbs were imposed on people’s movements. They were not allowed to leave (or, indeed, travel within) these so-called “orange zones”, except for work or emergencies. But, says Fabrizio Pregliasco, a professor of virology at Milan’s state university, “This sort of intervention is more effective and yields better results in areas where the situation is not yet as serious.”
A day later, the government extended the restrictions on movement across the whole country, encompassing more than 60m people. “There is no more time. I will take responsibility for these measures. Our future is in our hands,” warned Giuseppe Conte, the prime minister, at a press conference held late in the evening. The Italian government has also pledged $8.5bn to help the perennially sickly economy during the emergency.
The government is hoping the nationwide lockdown will put it one step ahead of the spread of the virus for the first time since it was detected in Italy last month. But its drastic move is also a recognition that the “orange zones” were not working. Not only was it impossible to police the boundaries of such large areas, it was impractical to expect people to provide objective proof of the need for their journeys. The system of self-certification, requiring anyone travelling from or to restricted zones to fill out a form which could be requested by the authorities, was open to abuse.
The reluctance of people to be cooped up within the “orange zones” was vividly illustrated on the evening of March 7th when several hundred people rushed to board the last trains and planes leaving for the centre and south before the decree took effect. Meanwhile, protests have broken out across Italy’s prisons over the curtailment of visits. Seven inmates were reported killed during riots in jails in Modena and other cities; dozens more escaped from a prison in Foggia.
Extending the scheme to the entire country means that those who fled will now be subject to the same rules as if they had stayed. Amid some confusion over who can travel where, the extent of the restrictions on international travel was also initially unclear. Austria has urged its nationals to return from Italy.
How far the new rules will be respected is open to question. Though the authorities in the south are well aware of the need for rigour, the organisers of Mr Russo’s funeral cortège are not alone in disregarding the risk of infection that comes from physical proximity. A reporter dispatched to the beaches of Ostia, near Rome, found plenty of his compatriots cheerfully walking arm in arm or clustered in tightly-knit groups, indifferent to the government’s pleas for them to stay at home and, if not, keep their distance from one another. The authorities will be hoping that, with their latest move, they can jolt those who still underestimate the dangers of covid-19 out of their complacency. But success is far from guaranteed.