I’m stranded in Italy but feel safer here than in the UK – they’re taking coronavirus so much more seriously

For the past few years, even amidst all the Brexit chaos, I’ve felt more at home in London than in Sicily, where I’m from. Now I feel I’m better off here

Alessandro Mascellino
Sicily
Friday 20 March 2020 10:52
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Coronavirus: Harrowing footage from Italy hospital showing A+E overrun with coronavirus patients

Italians can be quite undisciplined – perhaps it’s the dolce vita.

While that approach typically works fine in the peninsula, in the face of coronavirus, it proved disastrous.

I was born and raised in Palermo, Sicily, but left Italy for London six years ago. I came back to the island last week, to visit my family before going to Japan for a couple of weeks. Not only was my trip to Japan postponed, but I found myself in serious difficulty getting back to London. After a couple of hard days watching the news and thinking about what to do, I decided to stay in Sicily for a while.

Italy is the European epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic. It started on 31 January, when two Chinese tourists in Rome tested positive for the virus. A third case was confirmed a week later in Lombardy, and in just under two months, the virus had spread to every single region in the country.

Part of the reason the virus spread so quickly is that, despite initial government warnings to stay indoors, many people still attended social gatherings for weeks, underestimating the gravity of the situation and contributing to spreading the virus across the peninsula. Several of them operated under the assumption that the coronavirus was just a “bad cold”, and that their civil liberties weren’t worth forsaking for that.

Despite repeated warnings from the government, despite seeing how devastating the disease was in Asia, most Italians only started taking the situation seriously once drastic measures were introduced. On 8 March, President Giuseppe Conte placed all of Italy under lockdown.

Today, apart from urgent work or doctor’s appointments, people are only allowed to leave their homes to go to the grocer or pharmacist. Failing to prove you’re out for either will result in a fine of €206 or a prison term of up to three months. Even here in Sicily, which is so far one of the least affected regions of the country, policemen are now patrolling the semi-deserted streets. Last week, all night trains were cancelled across Italy, and yesterday transport minister Paola De Micheli cancelled 85% of all train services in the peninsula.

Nevertheless, the death toll from the coronavirus outbreak in Italy is the highest in the world. Just yesterday, 427 new deaths were recorded, bringing the total to 3,405; China has so far recorded 3,245 deaths from the disease. But citizens’ naivete is not the only culprit for this catastrophe. Italian politicians’ handling of the crisis was, at least to begin with, characteristically shambolic.

The fact that the Italian government, after witnessing the devastating effects of this novel coronavirus in China, decided to proceed with gradual lockdowns rather than an immediate national one, allowing the virus to continue its rampant spread.

President Conte has realised his mistake, albeit belatedly. Thanks to his realisation, Italian regions are now working together, sharing medical supplies and equipment, transferring patients between facilities, and collaborating on innovative solutions to this emergency.

Just last week, for example, an Italian startup began 3-D printing respirator valves for the ventilators needed to treat Covid-19 patients, of which there is a shortage.

In fact, since the beginning of this emergency, the government measures restricting movement in order to prevent the proliferation of new cases have become more and more stringent.

Italy has paid a high price for its slowness in learning how to deal with this emergency, but finally, it is beginning to.

The UK, on the other hand, seems singularly unwilling to learn.

First there was Boris Johnson’s herd immunity approach, and which the World Health Organization seriously advised against.

Video shows how air pollution over Italy has fallen since country has been in lockdown

Eventually, faced with the fact that this plan could lead to 250,000 deaths, the prime minister finally decided to change course to a containment-oriented approach, closing schools and recommending that people with symptoms and the elderly self-isolate.

However, this strategy reminds me very much of Italy’s fragmented and weak initial response. Suggesting people stay indoors is simply not enough when it comes to a crisis such as this; citizens need to be reassured that those in power have things under control, and mandated to stay indoors.

This lack of firm government action is causing the population to panic, as we’ve seen with the rampant stockpiling that has left many supermarkets empty.

For the past few years, even amidst all the Brexit chaos, I’ve felt more at home in London than in Sicily, where I’m from. Now I feel I’m better off here. Here, where after decades of distrust towards the political class, people have started believing that politicians will act in their best interests. Here, where a global emergency has at last brought out the best in the government, not the worst.

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