Day 30: life in Italy under lockdown. Send in the masks

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photo by Pixabay

‘”Sorry we can’t help you. We don’t know anything about the masks.” The pharmacist was apologetic behind his own mask and his glass barricade.

“But I got this press release from the regione Lombarda yesterday. It says that more than three million masks have arrived here, including 249,000for the provincia di Varese. Ours is the largest city in Varese, so surely some of them are allocated to us? The press release says especially to the ‘most vulnerable,’ and my husband has diabetes.”

“Yes, we know, and he would certainly qualify as among the most vulnerable. But we don’t know WHEN these masks will arrive. We haven’t been told the criteria or process for distribution. We know they will be free to certain customers but that’s all we know for now.”

“How do I find out? What am I supposed to do, camp out here? The police don’t like that. Even if I walk here with my dog, the police aren’t happy seeing me out and about too often.”

The pharmacist shrugged. I imagine he grimaced beneath his cloth protection. “Give us a call this afternoon. Or tomorrow. Maybe we will know more.”

It’s a perfect illustration of the difference between well-intentioned and well-articulated policies, and the scrambling that happens between the two — not only in Italy but everywhere, and especially in situations of unprecedented crisis like this one. The first announcement yesterday from the regione Lombarda had announced the arrival of 3.3 million masks and their respective allocation among the 12 provinces of the region. The distribution channels were announced as neighborhood stores selling essentials, tabaccai (tobacconists, who also sell government forms in Italy), newspaper stands, supermarkets, and post offices. Pharmacies were to receive 300,000 masks to distribute free to “soggetti fragili”(the most vulnerable).

A follow-up announcement today specified that the 300,000 masks destined for pharmacies were already in the region’s warehouse (wow, that’s comforting) and that the regional government was working with three pharmaceutical associations (Federazione dei Farmacisti Lombardi, Federfarma Lombardia, and Assofarm), encompassing municipal and private pharmacies, to determine the best way to allocate and distribute them . . . and to whom. A “minimum number” of masks should be available “by midweek or so,” the communiqué assured us. Not very assuring.

The reason for urgency is that as of today the Regione Lombarda has decided that residents cannot go outside without a mask, or a scarf or foulard that adequately covers the nose and mouth. Doing so risks a minimum fine of € 500. When I was discussing all this with the pharmacist, I unthinkingly removed my mask so he could understand me better. Another client who was standing the requisite two meters away immediately pounced. “You can’t do that. You have to wear a mask in here. You are going to be fined if you don’t put that back on right away.” Of course I did, mumbling my apologies through the cloth.

The client continued his lecture: “You don’t have to wear a mask when you are driving in your car. But a policeman may stop you anyway. My wife got stopped and the policeman told her that she had to remember to put that mask on BEFORE exiting the vehicle, or she would be in big trouble.”

Another ordinance of the Regione Lombarda is that all supermarkets and sellers of essentials (meaning local grocery shops, pharmacies, and parapharmacies) must provide Purell-type dispensers and single-use gloves to their customers when they enter the store. Not clear whether the cost of these services will be absorbed by the stores or the government.

Also not clear: are masks even necessary,if one maintains the appropriate social distance? The scientific basis for one approach versus the other has nor been established. How far can corona virus particles survive when they are expelled by a cough or sneeze? Can it be 20 feet or more, as one MIT study suggests, or six feet or less, as other studies have found? Until a definitive answer has been found, Lombardia prefers to err on the side of caution, reasoning that masks serve two purposes:

1. they protect an asymptomatic carrier from infecting others inadvertently

2. they protect the wearer by reminding him or her not to touch mouth or nose.

The mask versus no mask issue revealingly falls along geographic lines but not precise political lines. Lombardia requires masks, Lazio (for the moment) does not, and the national government is straddling. Lombardia’s president is right of center and the mayors of its major cities are left. Lazio’s president is left of center, and Rome is headed by an anti-establishment party, neither right nor left. The national government is a hazy coalition.

Similarly, in the US, the states with the clearest social distancing rules are east coast (New York, New Jersey), mid and far west (Michigan, Nevada) and Alaska, and the least attentive are upper mid and far west: Idaho, North and South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming. The national government is not straddling exactly, more like shillyshallying. The most effective states are red, blue, and purple; the least effective are all red. The national government is not so much red as bleeding . . . from the lungs.

The lyrics for “Send in the clowns” could be sadly spot-on:

Isn’t it bliss?
Don’t you approve?
One who keeps tearing around,
One who can’t move,
Where are the masks?
There ought to be masks.


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