People line up to enter a supermarket, keeping the proscribed social distance from one another and entering a few at a time, in keeping with measures introduced by the Italian government to slow the spread of the coronavirus, in Rome, March 10, 2020.
People line up to enter a supermarket, keeping the proscribed social distance from one another and entering a few at a time, in keeping with measures introduced by the Italian government to slow the spread of the coronavirus, in Rome, March 10, 2020.

"Lemon trees, like Italians, seem to be happiest when they are touching one another,” wrote British novelist D.H. Lawrence in his travelogue, "Sea and Sardinia." The lemon trees are still touching, but now the unspoken rule for people is non toccare (no touching).

This month, many Italians started pulling off mesh and plastic covers from their lemon trees, no longer worried that they need insulation from frost — a collective unveiling marking the end of winter and traditionally preluding warm sun and glorious Mediterranean summer days ahead.

But other traditions have been banished by the coronavirus, and the Italian government’s desperate bid to counter its spread, from no touching to no hugging and absolutely no demonstrative light cheek kissing, otherwise known as il bacetto.

Another unusual sight is to see Italians taking their place orderly in line.  

To enter food stores Italians are standing the required one meter apart, and all this standing in line is without the usual feints and excuses to jump ahead.

'Stay at home'

When Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced Monday his restrictive "stay-at-home" measures to halt the transmission of the virus, an Italian neighbor confided to me her doubts that it would work as “unfortunately the Italians are very unruly and indisciplined.”

That so far has turned out not to be the case.

A caregiver (R) keeps her distance from an elderly woman whom she looks after, on the balcony of the woman's home in Rome, March 11, 2020.

When the virus first started to appear last month, many Italians in the center and south of the country deemed the threat far enough away to cause them little alarm. Many looked at what was unfolding in the northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto as though they were observing a distant planet through a telescope.

But as the numbers mounted and the death rate surged, the attitude altered, the mood darkened and the panic shopping started, in spurts at first, depending on the latest case numbers announced each evening by the top officials of the country’s Civil Protection Agency. Their nightly announcement is now the most watched program on Italian television.

Prior to Prime Minister Conte locking down the country, many of the young dismissed the threat as overblown, and continued with carefree lives, going out at night and heading to bars and clubs. Their parents and elders, though, were already taking note, and starting to maintain social distance by reducing their sorties from their homes, except to shop and for the daily run of going to and from work.

But now, even the young are cautious about venturing out — and not only because of the government decree, summed up by Conte as “I stay at home.”

"People are staying in because there’s so much fear,” says Michela Bianchi, a university student studying journalism in the Lazio town of Viterbo, north of Rome. “An atmosphere has been created that goes beyond the fear of contagion. We hope everything will pass quickly, but in the meantime it is right to observe all the provisions they have given us,” she added.

A woman wearing a protective mask stands in front of a notice recommending to keep the social distance of 1 meter between people, at the Leonardo da Vinci international airport, in Rome, March 12, 2020.

Past lessons

No one wants to catch Coronavirus or to be accused of spreading it — inadvertently or otherwise. The lessons of the past are being remembered — lessons about contagion taught them in the books that were required reading at school.

One of the most cited now is Alessandro Manzoni’s 1840 novel "The Betrothed" ("I Promessi Sposi"), which is set against the backdrop of an awful plague that struck the villages around Milan and then advanced into the city itself in 1630. Manzoni outlines the mistakes that allowed the pestilence to spread, from the outlying villages of the contadini [peasants] to the Milanese.

He notes that when news of the sickness reached the city “anyone might suppose that there would be a general stir of disquiet, a clamor for precautions of some kind [whatever their real value] to be taken ... But one of the few points about which all the memoirs of the time agree is that there was nothing of the kind ... Anyone who mentioned the danger of the pestilence, whether in the streets, the shops or in private houses — anyone who even mentioned the word ‘plague’ — was greeted with incredulous mockery or angry contempt.”

Fatally, the city’s governor allowed public festivities and mass gatherings to continue, a mistake Conte has not made, who on Wednesday tightened his measures, ordering the shuttering of all shops, except for food stores and pharmacists, and the closure of bars and restaurants.

A waiter stands by empty tables outside a restaurant at St Mark's Square, which is usually full of tourists, after Italy's government adopted a decree with new emergency measures to contain the coronavirus, in Venice, Italy, March 5, 2020.

Al fresco

So, Italy’s streets are unpeopled — a contradiction of how life is lived in Italy, which, aside from the worst of the winter months, is pursued outside, on terraces with neighbors, and in the piazzas with friends. Now if you dawdle on the streets of Rome or Milan, police demand to see your travel papers and hurry you on, telling you to move quickly as though lingering will invite a viral bombardment.

Conte has tired to keep up the spirits of Italians, while warning them results of the unprecedented lock-down of the country will take at least two weeks to start bearing fruit.

Midweek, he told them in a nation-wide address: “At this moment the whole world is looking at us: they certainly look at us for the numbers of the infection, they see a country that is in difficulty but they also appreciate us because we are showing great rigor, great resistance and I have a deep conviction, I would like to share it, not only will they look at us again and admire us, they will take us as a positive example of a country that, thanks to its sense of community, has managed to win its battle against this pandemic.”

Other countries have followed the Italian model — Denmark shut down this week, Ireland closed all schools and universities Thursday. Most European countries have, or are, moving quickly from a strategy focused on containment and trying to keep the virus from their borders, to one of delay and mitigation in a bid to “flatten the curve” of confirmed cases.  

Passengers sit at distance from each others on a tram in Milan, Italy, March 12, 2020.

Wired world

They hope this approach will avoid large spikes that risk overwhelming hard-pressed hospitals so that doctors have to make shocking life-and-death decisions about who gets critical-care treatment and who doesn’t. Italian doctors say containment is a thing of the past — “the tsunami is coming,” one tells me, “and it will hit America, too, where there’s already evidence of people being infected who never traveled or had contact with anyone who did. Get ready, get prepared,” he says.

The upending of the rhythms of Italian life at least are mellowed by the internet.

“I'm working from home,” a friend said on her Facebook page. “In the end, thanks to that progress that often scares us, you can do everything or almost everything with a click — video calls, conference calls, meetings, shopping, news, pastimes,” mother-of-two Patrizia Miano wrote.

She added: “But the quarantine has just started and I already feel suffocated. We are not used to the limitations. Only now do we understand the value of saying, ‘I am going to the sea,’ or ‘I am go skiing,’ or I am going for a walk.’ I want to smell the grass. I hope this experience really serves to make us human again, to stop believing that we are omnipotent and that nothing can touch us.”

 

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