Day 32: life in Italy under lockdown. What will the world be like post-crisis?

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Georg Eiermann on Unsplash

Something felt different this morning from the moment I stepped into the corridor to take my dog for a walk. In recent weeks the elevator has remained on our floor from the night before, when I would take my final evening outing with Giada at 9 or 10 pm. But today the elevator wasn’t there. Someone else had used it after us. Not only: the elevator was OCCUPIED. The light was red. Someone else was using it right at that moment. That hasn’t happened in weeks.

We went outside, blinking in bright sunshine and saw FIVE other people walking, two with dogs (OK) and three doing . . . what? One was a grey-haired woman with mask standing in front of a profumeria(cosmetic store) as if she expected it to open at any time. NO, that wasn’t going to happen. Maybe she was waiting to be joined by a friend? THAT is still a no-no. As I walked up and down the viale with my dog, a police car slowly made its rounds. The woman disappeared.

Another was a man with a mask walking deliberately toward the center of town. Headed to the bakery, maybe, or the pharmacy? OK. The third was a 30-something, no mask, dressed for maximum exposure to the sun (shorts and t-shirt), no specific purpose to his step. Where were the police for him? It’s against the law in Lombardia to walk outside without a mask.

I knew one of the dog walkers so we stopped to exchange a few two-meters-distant words as our dogs sniffed. Franco* is a cancer survivor, a diabetic, and something of a hypochondriac, so he was irate about the man without a mask. ‘What are they DOING?” he fumed. “They are too careless. Maybe they won’t get sick but what can they do to the rest of us?”

We agreed that there were more people outside, and more cars on the road, than we have seen in the last month. Maybe it’s the balmy temperatures, the approaching Easter holiday, but the scene seemed almost normal (aside the face masks). “Too many people!” Franco ranted. “Don’t they realize we aren’t out of this yet? Almost a hundred doctors have died in Italy, including four who came out of retirement to help with the crisis. So unfair.”

Unfairness is a word heard more and more in online discussions and in the media. Not only the “unfairness” of physicians dying while performing public service. Not only the uneven application of laws regarding masks, public outings, and shopping stipulations. More importantly, the unfairness of policies with big price tags and long-term implications.

Here in Italy, politicians on the left and right were united in agreeing that public health was a higher priority than private profit. They formed a single chorus of “Conquer Covid-19 first, think about the economy second.” That is what they all SAID. Today our total number of confirmed cases was near 140,000, with almost 18,000 deaths, but the number of patients in intensive care has decreased for the first time, and the number of ICU units available to handle them could be equal to the task. The number of cases and deaths seems to be plateauing, more aid (medical staff and equipment) is arriving from abroad, so maybe, just maybe, the peak has been reached.

Now the knives come out, not surgical scalpels but the old-fashioned Julius Caesar political blades. Who is to blame for the country’s unpreparedness when it has one of the world’s best healthcare systems and more doctors per capita than the US? Is it because healthcare delivery is organized by regions, and some regions were more equal than others at managing the pandemic?

Who will reap the lion’s share of benefit from government stimulus packages? When will business get back to work, and — crucially — HOW will business get back to work? Everyone agrees it can’t be done all at once but how is it to be handled? Piecemeal but how? Which businesses first? And which employees? Should the criteria include age of employees (since the younger are less vulnerable)? Or gender (since women are less vulnerable)? What about geography, since some argue that the industrial north has been harder hit financially than the more agrarian south. Should certain sectors of the economy take priority over others, irrespective of work force factors?

Then there is the minefield of testing. Where and how should testing be concentrated? Should the focus be on prevention: checking asymptomatic people to see if they have the virus? Or on cure: testing patients who have recovered from Covid-19 to make sure they are no longer carriers? Testing a representative sample of the population or primarily healthcare professionals or people working in essential industries? What about testing for the presence of antibodies, especially in “recovered” patients, since they are presumably the most likely to carry immunity in the near (but we don’t know for how long) future? Will the antibody-fortified become society’s favored children?

Politicians aren’t the only ones at odds about these questions. The scientific community, which has considerable clout in determining these priorities in Italy (unlike the US, sadly) is still feeling its way, because so little has been established about Covid-19. Guidelines are up for grabs, which means the outcome could be the result of a power struggle without a scientific framework.

We are living in a script mash between Animal Farm and the 1997 film Gattaca (about eugenics and the state). That thought is scarier than venturing outside without a mask.

* not his real name for privacy reasons

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