People wear masks as they line up to enter a pharmacy, in Rome, March 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
People wear masks and practice social distancing as they line up to enter a pharmacy, in Rome, March 16, 2020.

For a country that thrives on sociability, life without bars and restaurants, and little social contact, is a test of will and a breaking of entrenched habits. 

While touring Italy in the early 1900s, American author Henry James noted that Italian life is street life. Now, with the unprecedented nationwide lockdown because of the coronavirus, life has been restricted to two poles — home and the regimented lines at the nearest food store, where people are spaced 1 meter apart.  

This is slowly being repeated elsewhere, from France to Ukraine. 

As ever, there are good neighbors and bad — those who cherish their communities and those who don't. The duel between the solipsistic and the altruistic. 

But the COVID-19 lockdown brings the difference into greater prominence, and the risk to others is much greater now than with past thuggish infringements or the chafing at rules. 

A woman lights a candle on her balcony as faithful across Italy say a prayer for people suffering from coronavirus disease, in Rome, Italy, March 19, 2020.

The lives and well-being of everyone rest in the hands of all, and most Italians — and Europeans — know that. Most are showing a notable sense of civic solidarity, obeying lockdown measures, looking out for neighbors, washing their hands. 

From small hilltop Italian villages to large towns, local mayors and volunteers have been scrambling to ensure the old and vulnerable get food and attention.  

But it isn't clear if everyone understands — or cares. 

Lockdown loopholes 

Italians are devoted pet owners, but the amount of dog-walking going on during the lockdown has raised eyebrows and is prompting disputes between neighbors, sometimes rightly so. 

Dog-walking is one of the allowable activities in Italy, the coronavirus epicenter of Europe, and a justified reason to be outside the home when challenged by police. Many feel the dog-walking exemption is being abused, as with other exemptions, like going for a jog. Infringements have increased, police across the country are reporting. 

A man wearing a mask sits with his dog as Italy remains under a nationwide lockdown in a government decree that orders Italians to stay at home, Naples, Italy, March 19, 2020.

Mauro Vinciotti, the police chief of the small Lazio town of Viterbo, north of Rome, says most people, but not all, are "responding positively."  

His officers recently fined two men in their 50s and 40s for infringing the lockdown after they offered "the excuse of dog-walking."  

The Italian government is poised to tighten restrictions as officials warn that the lockdown is almost certainly going to be prolonged beyond the original end date of April 3. All open-air sporting activity is likely to be banned after too many people have continued to leave their homes to go jogging or engage in other open-air fitness activities, according to Sports Minister Vincenzo Spadafora. 

With anxiety high, being cooped up at home risks fraying more tempers. Police are expecting a flood of complaints by neighbors denouncing each other to the local police for this or that infringement. Often, this is just a playing-out of past grudges, one Carabinieri officer complained to me in a Facebook message. 

But most Italians are showing a commendable spirit.  

Rallying together 

As in other locked-down countries, Italians are turning to the internet to socialize, coining such terms as "Skyperitivo" (Skype + aperitivo), and coming up with different themes to gather on group video calls.  

Doing daily Skype workouts is a favorite. The country's musical flash-mobs have, of course, gone viral. The Italian national anthem – "Il Canto degli Italiani" – is among the most frequently sung collectively, and tearfully, from balconies. 

Institutions are also trying to come up with activities. Scuola Normale University in Pisa has organized an online reading of Giovanni Boccaccio's classic book "The Decameron," finished by the author shortly after the conclusion of the 14th century Black Death, which struck Florence with enormous ferocity.  

A woman runs in downtown Rome, March 19, 2020. Italian officials are warning they might impose tougher restrictions on mobility, such as jogging.

In the book, a hundred tales are told by a group of seven young women and three young men secluded in a villa outside Florence to escape the bubonic plague. 

One tale from "The Decameron" notes the reaction of Florentines to the plague in their midst.  

"One citizen avoided another, hardly any neighbor troubled about others, relatives never or hardly ever visited each other. Moreover, such terror was struck into the hearts of men and women by this calamity, that brother abandoned brother, and the uncle his nephew, and the sister her brother, and very often the wife her husband. What is even worse and nearly incredible is that fathers and mothers refused to see and tend their children, as if they had not been theirs," it says. 

That puts excessive dog-walking into perspective. 

For a reporter who likes to be on the ground and to see everything firsthand, who likes to conduct lengthy interviews and look people in the eye, lockdowns, travel restrictions and social distancing are frustrating. 

But as I gather news, conduct online interviews and listen to people's tales, I am fascinated with the price-gougers and profiteers, the scammers and the peddlers of fake news. And there are those who would risk the lives and well-being of others by carrying on carelessly, even recklessly. 

Midweek, I viewed videos and read reports about the behavior of vacationing Britons defying the lockdown in Benidorm, a seaside resort on the eastern coast of Spain, part of the famed Costa Blanca.  

About 50 of them — some topless, others holding alcoholic drinks — chanted, "We've all got the virus, na, na, na, na," at Spanish police, as officers tried to break up their party and get them to go inside. 

Spain has the highest number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Europe behind Italy and has declared a 15-day state of emergency. One of the vacationers swore that the virus was just the flu and, anyway, beer would keep it at bay. 

Front-line heroes 

But there are true heroes in this desperate fight against the coronavirus — the doctors, nurses and first responders, risking themselves for those stricken with the disease, desperately trying to save lives, without the necessary resources or reliable treatments. 

The Milanese daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera, on Wednesday carried an interview with a 50-year-old surgeon working in one of Italy's hardest-hit hospitals, in Bergamo. She described how the medical staff is close to collapse and giving up.  

Medical personnel at work in the intensive care unit of the hospital of Brescia, Italy, March 19, 2020.

"We doctors resist – we must – but we are already close to psychological collapse due to fatigue, anxieties, and because we are losing close friends," she said. 

The hospital is full. "There are patients in the bathroom to isolate them. Or they remain in an ambulance, and we visit them there," the surgeon said.  

They have run out of protective gear, and as the medical staff care for the severely sick and dying, they are also falling ill to the virus. 

In his book "The Plague," French novelist Albert Camus wrote about the "quiet courage" of doctors and other professionals struggling to contain a cholera epidemic that struck the Algerian city of Oran in 1849. 

"There's no question of heroism in all this. It's a matter of common decency. That's an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is common decency," Camus wrote. 

Sales of the book, first published in 1947, have soared in Italy. The characters are fictional, but their living embodiments are in the hospitals in Italy, France, Spain and now the United States, fighting an invisible foe with little more than decency. 

Special Section