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‘A mix of joy and fear’: Italy takes its first steps out of lockdown

Stir-crazy Italians are free to stroll and visit relatives for the first time in nine weeks on Monday as Europe's hardest-hit country eases back the world's longest nationwide coronavirus lockdown.

'A mix of joy and fear': Italy takes its first steps out of lockdown
People returned to parks in Milan on May 4th for the first time in two months. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

More than four million people — an estimated 72 percent of them men — returned to their construction sites and factories as the economically and emotionally shattered country tried to get back to work.

The sounds of banging and drilling echoed across Rome and a group of men drank espresso out of plastic cups in front of the Pantheon, the former Roman temple, as cafes reopened for takeout service.

READ ALSO: Phase Two: What changes in Italy from May 4th?

“We can hear more noise now,” Rome grocery story owner Daniela observed. “It's better than this frightening silence.”

But bars and even ice cream parlours remain shut. The use of public transport will be discouraged and everyone will have to wear masks in indoor public spaces.

“We are feeling a mix of joy and fear,” said 40-year-old Stefano Milano in Rome.

“There will be great happiness in being able to go running again carefree, in my son being allowed to have his little cousin over to blow out his birthday candles, to see our parents,” the father-of-three said.

“But we are also apprehensive because they are old and my father-in-law has cancer so is high risk.”

READ ALSO:

Italy became the first Western democracy to shut down virtually everything in the face of an illness that has now officially killed 28,884 — the most in Europe — and some fear thousands more.

The lives of Italians began closing in around them as it became increasingly apparent that the first batch of infections in provinces around Milan were spiralling out of control.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte began by putting a quarter of the population in the northern industrial heartland on lockdown on March 8th.


Disinfecting Piazza Duomo in Milan. Photo: Piero Cruciatti/AFP

The sudden measure frightened many — fearful of being locked in together with the gathering threat — into fleeing to less affected regions further south. The danger of the virus spreading with them and incapacitating the south's less developed health care system forced Conte to announce a nationwide lockdown on March 9th.

“Today is our moment of responsibility,” Conte told the nation. “We cannot let our guard down.”

The official death toll was then 724. More waves of restrictions followed as hundreds began dying each day. Almost everything except for pharmacies and grocery stores was shuttered across the Mediterranean country of 60 million on March 12th.

Conte's final roll of the dice involved closing all non-essential factories on March 22nd. Italy's highest single daily toll — 969 — was reported five days later.

LATEST: Italy's coronavirus deaths fall to lowest since lockdown began

The economic toll of all those shutdowns has been historic. Italy's economy — the eurozone's third-largest last year — is expected to shrink more than in any year since the global depression of the 1930s.

Half of the workforce is receiving state support and the same number told a top pollster that they were afraid of becoming unemployed.

And some of those who are out of a job already say they do not entirely trust in Conte's ability to safely navigate the nation out of peril.

“I am worried about the reopening. The authorities seem very undecided about how to proceed,” 37-year-old Davide Napoleoni told AFP.

READ ALSO: Here's how to apply for Italy's 600-euro emergency bonus payment

Conte's popularity has jumped along with that of most of other world leaders grappling with the pandemic thanks to a rally around the flag effect.

But a Demos poll conducted at the end of April found some of Conte's lustre fading. Confidence in his government has slipped by 8 percentage points to a still-strong 63 percent since March.

Italy's staggered reopening is complicated by a highly decentralised system that allows the country's 20 regions to layer on their own rules.

Venice's Veneto and the southern Calabria region have thus been serving food and drink at bars and restaurants with outdoor seating since last week.


A closed beach cafe in Ostia, near Rome. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

The Liguria region around Genoa is thinking of allowing small groups of people to go sailing and reopening its beaches. Neighbouring Emilia-Romagna is keeping them closed — even to those who live by the sea.

All this uncertainty appears to be weighing on the nation's psyche. A poll by the Piepoli Institute showed 62 percent of Italians think they will need psychological support with coming to grips with the post-lockdown world.

“The night of the virus continues,” sociologist Ilvo Diamanti wrote in La Repubblica daily.

“And you can hardly see the light on the horizon. If anything, we're getting used to moving in the dark.”

Member comments

  1. Those who criticize or question Conte should walk in his shoes for a few days. He has done an amazing job – measured, thoughtful, thorough. I am grateful he is in charge!

  2. I agree. I still miss Berlinguer, but this pandemic has forced me to see the benefits of government by non- political technocrats. Never mind that the poor man didn’t want the job in the first place. Just imagine what would have happened if there had been snap elections and the fascist had won.

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POLITICS

Italy’s deputy health minister under fire for questioning Covid vaccines

Opposition leaders called for health undersecretary Marcello Gemmato to resign on Tuesday after the official said he was not "for or against" vaccines.

Italy's deputy health minister under fire for questioning Covid vaccines

Gemmato, a trained pharmacist and member of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party, made the remark during an appearance on the political talkshow ReStart on Rai 2 on Monday evening.

READ ALSO: Covid vaccines halved Italy’s death toll, study finds

In a widely-shared clip, the official criticises the previous government’s approach to the Covid pandemic, claiming that for a large part of the crisis Italy had the highest death rate and third highest ‘lethality’ rate (the proportion of Covid patients who died of the disease).

When journalist Aldo Cazzullo interjects to ask whether the toll would have been higher without vaccines, Gemmato responds: “that’s what you say,” and claimed: “We do not have the reverse burden of proof.”

The undersecretary goes on to say that he won’t “fall into the trap of taking a side for or against vaccines”.

After Gemmato’s comments, the president of Italy’s National Federation of Medical Guilds, Filippo Anelli, stressed that official figures showed the Italian vaccination campaign had already prevented some 150,000 deaths, slashing the country’s potential death toll by almost half.

Vaccines also prevented eight million cases of Covid-19, over 500,000 hospitalisations, and more than 55,000 admissions to intensive care, according to a report from Italy’s national health institute (ISS) in April 2021.

Gemmato’s comments provoked calls for him to step down, including from the head of the centre-left Democratic Party, Enrico Letta.

“A health undersecretary who doesn’t take his distance from no-vaxxers is certainly in the wrong job” wrote the leader of the centrist party Action, Carlo Calenda, on Twitter.

Infectious disease expert Matteo Bassetti of Genoa’s San Martino clinic also expressed shock.

“How is it possible to say that there is no scientific proof that vaccines have helped save the lives of millions of people? You just have to read the scientific literature,” Bassetti tweeted. 

In response to the backlash, Gemmato on Tuesday put out a statement saying he believes “vaccines are precious weapons against Covid” and claiming that his words were taken out of context and misused against him.

The Brothers of Italy party was harshly critical of the previous government’s approach to handling the Covid crisis, accusing the former government of using the pandemic as an excuse to “limit freedom” through its use of the ‘green pass’, a proof of vaccination required to access public spaces. 

But since coming into power, Meloni appears to have significantly softened her stance.

Her appointee for health minister, Orazio Schillaci, is a medical doctor who formed part of the team advising the Draghi administration on its handling of the pandemic.

Schillaci, a former dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery at Rome’s Tor Vergata University, has described the former government’s green pass scheme as an “indispensable tool for guaranteeing safety in university classrooms”.

Speaking at a session of the G20 on Tuesday, Meloni referenced the role of vaccines in bringing an end to the Covid pandemic.

“Thanks to the extraordinary work of health personnel, vaccines, prevention, and the accountability of citizens, life has gradually returned to normal,’ the prime minister said in a speech.

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