OPINION: How the coronavirus outbreak will change life in Italy forever

OPINION: How the coronavirus outbreak will change life in Italy forever
Milan's Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping mall stands empty. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP
With Italy now looking toward the next phase of lockdown, we're all asking what the future may hold once restrictions are eased. Joseph F.C. DiMento, who teaches law and urban planning in Lombardy and in California, explains why Italy won't be the same again.

After the devastation in the weeks and months ahead, northern Italy will return to commerce  and social  life, but there will be several changes, some which we all can agree are positive; some, negative; and some just sad.

Just months ago when walking in Milano, I would pass probably ten thousand people as I crossed the spectacular Parco Sempione, under the Arco della Pace past the ever-astounding Castello Sforzesco.

On the way, I walked through crowds of people, young and old, sipping an Aperol aperitif at an elegant outdoor café. I squeezed between dozens of shoppers at a regional food fair to buy cheese from Molise, busiate from Sicily, and sardines from Venice. I checked the size of the line to enter the Duomo, marveled at the thick crowds sipping expensive Prosecco in the Galleria.

Soldiers patrol outside Milan's Castello Sforzesco on March 12th, as lockdown rules were tightened and shops were closed across the country. Photo: AFP

Now on that walk from the Arco to the thousand-year-old church of San Babila, you encounter no one. Yesterday the Piazza had only soldiers carrying rifles.

Here are some of them:The hurt has been so great, so deep, the fear so pervasive, that Italian society – resistant to some changes historically, very innovative in other ways – will see many adjustments.

Tourism will get smarter

Not only Italians but tourists will welcome changes, such as the allotment of entry into public places; small groups will become the norm – as is now done at The Last Supper in Milan. The crowds had become obscene. Restrictions on littering public places will be subject to more severe sanctions including fines.

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Warm greetings will return, but with a new style

Hugging is a way of Italian familial life. But it now reveals the role of contact among generations in the spread of the virus. Italians live intergenerationally more than many societies. Grandparents take care of their grandchildren.Young people come home from work and bars in the center and live with the family. 

Recent studies suggest that these ways of living exacerbate the risks of the spread of the coronavirus.This virus will not change Italian society at the core, but generations will consider how they interact with one another: Social distancing from older people by healthy (or seemingly healthy) people will continue.

Italians will socialize differently

In the roaring twenties and in other post-crisis periods,  people tended to party more after things got better. But the coronavirus “attack” is not one for which we can declare:  “the war is over.”

Even as we speak of flattening the curve, scientists are looking to the next outbreak of the virus -perhaps even within a year or so. Italians know that.

Anti-smoking campaigns will accelerate

Most people who have died in Italy have been elderly men. Being older is a vulnerability to be sure. Having been a smoker also heightens the risk. Italians years ago started to smoke less. But those who have died recently are from a cohort that saw about half of men in the 1930s and 40s smoking (some studies put the number at 70 percent).

To make matters worse for respiratory vulnerability, Lombardy has some of the worst air pollution in Europe.

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People will comply more with tax and other fiscal regulations.

Italy’s sanitary and public health systems are strong, but taxpayers and former scofflaws will realize that the state needs more revenue to confront crises that take  away their husbands and grandmothers – often  in a miserable way.

Ventilators, a critical item, cost a lot. And all Italians have watched as their countrymen suffered in hospitals waiting for the plastic bubbles that would have let them breathe. Italy is a rare combination of the family-centered and the communitarian. This crisis moves it further toward the common good.

A giant poster reads “#strongertogether, together we will make it” on Milan's Via dei Mercanti on April 9th, 2020. Photo: AFP

The move to the exurbs will ramp up

Although Italians are still moving to cities from the countryside – dramatically so in some provinces – within urban exurbs sprawl is evident.

Added to the greater, for now, affordability in the outer regions, the sense of openness and natural distancing will be appreciated. In Milan the population density is over a hundred  times that of a village an hour away.

Anti-immigrant politics will get louder

The anti-foreigner movement in Italy was starting to wane in recent months. However, despite the fact that the remarkable pandemic was not an outside invasion (the first known cases in Italy were an Italian repatriating from Wuhan and two Chinese tourists) the problem will be depicted as one; we have seen this in many nationalistic movements. Some politicians will build on perception and fear.

When you visit Italy the next time, it will be a different place than it was just two months ago.

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Member comments

  1. Hello,
    First of all, I love your publication. Keep up the good work. I was curious if you could provide some context to the furor created by Vittorio Feltri.
    Jim

  2. There is an opposite argument about immigration and I wonder if anyone is making it. Italy needs young people to care for the sick and elderly and immigration is the only way to increase that population.

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