Italians are known as notorious tax cheats and rule breakers with a long history of distrusting government institutions that have often failed them. Now, the country is at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Europe, and slowing infections has meant asking Italians to place their individual interests at the service of the common good.
Faced with a nationwide health crisis, many Italians appeared to have fallen in line, finally sensitized — and scared to death — into respecting draconian measures aimed at limiting its spread. No, this is no China-style lockdown. Italy is a Western democracy and scofflaws will be scofflaws. At most, Italians risk a fine if they violate the new regulations and it’s likely that if they drag on, violators will abound.
But some train service was cut, and police were out in force checking documents Tuesday and enforcing a strict 6 p.m. closure of restaurants and cafes — evidence that the government was getting very serious.
The new regulations essentially require Italians to stay home except for work, health reasons or other “necessities” such as grocery shopping. The measures extended a lockdown imposed in the virus-hit north over the weekend to the rest of the peninsula.
They became necessary after Italy’s infection rate continued its exponential rise — passing 10,000 on Tuesday — despite the quarantine of a dozen towns in Lombardy and Veneto where the first cases were registered on Feb. 21.
On Day 1 of the national lockdown, shopper Marinella Faccioli, a communications specialist standing in line to buy veal cutlets, said the gravity of the moment hit her with the government’s back-to-back lockdown orders over 48 hours. She suggested their confused and chaotic late-night roll-outs actually lent credibility to the urgency of the moment.
“That changed life completely,” she said, as she directed a shopper to the back of the line. Polls back her up. The SWG polling firm found Tuesday that nearly 55% of Italians were “very concerned" about the virus, compared to 37% a week ago.
Sociologists suggested that Italians will follow the rules when they understand that it's in their own interest to do so. “What is prevailing is the collective interest, the idea that respecting rules is good for me, that taking care of everyone is taking care of me,” said Michele Sorice, professor of political sociology at Rome’s Luiss university. ““They realize that respecting the rules is good for them.”
An obvious parallel to draw is Italy’s 2005 ban on smoking indoors in public places. At the time, the Health Ministry estimated that 26% of Italians lit up. Almost overnight with nary a protest, the air cleared in restaurants, bars and trains — hardly the expected outcome for a people often portrayed in popular culture as law-flouting mafiosi or cheats.
Yet Premier Giuseppe Conte fell into a similar stereotype when he appealed to Italians to avoid “furbizie,” or being clever, in thinking they could skirt the government’s measures. There was some truth to his admonition, since the limited lockdowns in the north failed to contain the virus, even if infection rates were beginning to slow in the initial “red zone” around Lodi, in hard-hit Lombardy province.
Plenty of Italians in the rest of the peninsula had brushed off his appeals to refrain from congregating, and the shopping scene this weekend at Il Fiorentino butcher was evidence that crowds weren't considered dangerous sources for infection. Some families went skiing after school was canceled nationwide. Students took advantage of not having to go to class by partying more.
But by Tuesday, sobriety had set in, along with the economic reality that commerce, retail and even pizza making were grinding to a halt in a country on the verge of recession, and would continue to suffer as long as the virus spread.
“Out of respect, out of seriousness, out of a sense of the collective,” the Montecarlo Pizzeria announced it was closing for two weeks in a sign hung on its door Tuesday. Massimiliano Panarari, a communications consultant and columnist for La Stampa daily, said he believed Italians would comply with the measures, citing the smoking ban as evidence that even notoriously individualistic Italians can adopt a “collective psychology” and enact radical change in their behavior overnight.
“People can adapt because it’s the tendency of human nature to adapt to difficult conditions when the survival instinct becomes the priority,” he said in a phone interview. He said the key would be for the government to communicate efficiently and quickly provide economic relief to soften the blow to businesses forced to close and workers forced to take unwanted, unpaid vacation.
“This isn’t China, and the imposition can only last up to a certain point and must be justified by questions of public order and public health,” he said. And yet for Chinese nationals living in Italy, the government measures failed to impress.
“You call this a lockdown?” was the general sense of the WeChat social media group that Susan Gao belongs to along with other Chinese women living in Italy. “Our husbands continue to go to work and they refuse to wear masks,” lamented Gao, a Beijing native who lives in Milan and is married to an Italian and has an 8-year-old daughter.
“China didn’t allow anyone (to go to work),” she said. “Everyone had to stay home. You had to ground yourself at home to reduce the risk of passing on the virus.” She marveled that Milanese were still going skiing on the weekends — until the government abruptly closed all lifts this week — saying she has friends in Wuhan who still can’t leave their compound.
“Everybody wonders how they (Italians) can be so relaxed,” she said. “In our minds we think they are crazy.”
Karl Ritter contributed to this report.