COVID-19: Italy is slowly waking from the coronavirus nightmare

Streets are quiet, squares are empty, you can hear the gurgling of the city’s ubiquitous fountains in the daytime. The platoons of Chinese tourists are nowhere to be seen; the American travellers — their hats, their sandals, their holiday shorts — have disappeared.

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Only a few German families with young children brave the afternoon heat. Of Rome’s 1,200 hotels, fewer than 200 reopened after the lockdown, some with just five rooms occupied. On the central Via Veneto, only three establishments are open for business. The others are shut — officially for maintenance. The truth is different. Those hotels cater to foreign tourists — and this summer, foreigners are at home, unable or unwilling to travel.

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Only a few Italian tourists roam the streets. The Romans who are not on the nearby beaches (Ostia, Fregene) go for a stroll in the evening; some drive to the top of the Janiculum Hill, where the fresh Ponentino west wind brings relief from the summer heat. Rome glitters down below. The Janiculum is home to the opulent Villa Pamphilj, where the Italian government convened the Stati Generali dell’Economia in June: eight days and more than 120 meetings with companies, unions, associations, academics, writers and artists — 82 of the meetings held personally by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte — in order to find ideas to restart the economy.

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It will be tough. Italy’s GDP is likely to shrink by 11 per cent in 2020, the worst prediction among the 27 members of the European Union. The lack of visitors is a nightmare. The Italian tourism industry, which includes hospitality, bars and restaurants, transport, museums — accounts for 13 per cent of GDP. Half of the travellers in 2019 were foreigners, and they’re gone.

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No vacation for Italians this summer

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But national tourism is also in the doldrums. Predictions have it that half of the Italians won’t take a vacation this summer. Nine out of ten of those who do will choose one in Italy, but they’re staying away from large cities (Milan, Turin, Naples, Palermo) and art cities (Rome, Florence, Venice), and heading for less crowded places like Alto Adige, Friuli, Abruzzo, and also tiny Molise, which is doubling last year’s tourist arrivals.

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Last week I visited Corinaldo, in the Marche region, part of central Italy. Nestled in the hills, 12 miles from the sandy Adriatic beaches, surrounded by 14th-century walls, it’s considered one of Italy’s prettiest villages. At 9 in the morning, tourists — mostly Italians — were already roaming the streets, drinking cappuccino and seeking the replica of the infamous fig cannon — a cannon made of fragile fig wood that exploded in the Middle Ages and killed all of the soldiers attending to it.

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This is the strangest summer. I drove around Italy for a week, with stops in Romagna, Marche, Abruzzo, Puglia, Naples, Rome, Versilia in Tuscany, then back to Lombardy — and noticed how wary fellow Italians are. Normality is frightening, after a while. Most people wear face masks, even outdoors, where it’s not compulsory; some masks droop sadly from the face, instead of covering it.

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We respected the rules during the spring lockdown because we were afraid? So what? In a pandemic, fear is a form of wisdom, boldness a show of carelessness.

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Italy was the first country outside Asia to bear the brunt of the coronavirus. Thirty-five thousand lost their lives, half of them in Lombardy. There would have been many more without the painful spring lockdown, which prevented the hospitals from being overwhelmed.

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The resilience of northern Italy

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Mistakes were made: the area around Bergamo was not declared a no-go area; family doctors were left on their own; patients were brought into hospitals where doctors and nurses were infected; tests for the general population were unavailable for too long.

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But Italy coped.

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Northern Italians showed resilience; Central and Southern Italians stayed at home, even though the epidemic was less visible there. Here and there, young crowds gathered dangerously, with the cover of nightlife, beach life, politics, football, even an air show in Turin. But on the whole, Italy stuck to the rules.

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From early March to early May, the country found itself with its back to the wall; and that’s a position where we Italians give our best. We can be disciplined, but somehow we don’t like to admit it, as if it might damage our reputation.

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Of course some things didn’t work. We were the first in Europe to shut down the schools, and we’ll be the last to reopen them (on September 14, hopefully). For millions of Italians with young children and small apartments, working from home turned out to be a nightmare. And political squabbles, after a lull, restarted. The political parties sniff an early election, and are jockeying for position.

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This slows down all decisions. Despite endless consultations, Conte has not made up his mind about the European Stability Mechanism, whose funds are earmarked for health expenditure. And, more important, he hasn’t decided how to allocate Italy’s share of the EU Recovery Fund. This has complicated negotiations at the recent European Council in Brussels, and has given suspicious northern countries — led by the Netherlands — an excuse to stall. But in the end, predictably, an agreement was found.

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The post-COVID recovery fund

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Last Tuesday, after 90 hours of negotiation led by the European Commission, the 27 leaders of the European Union agreed to look forward. The 2021-2027 budget will be €1.8 trillion: of these, €750 billion will go to the post-COVID recovery fund, called Next Generation EU (€390 billion will be in aid, €360 billion in loans). Italy — one of two countries in Europe hardest hit by the pandemic, alongside Spain — will be the main beneficiary. Each Italian citizen, on average, will receive €500; each German and each Dutchman will shell out €840 and €930 respectively.

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Europe may be hyper-regulated; but in an emergency, rules and regulations help to keep the situation under control. Slowly and painfully, the European Union is getting out of it. Some countries suffered more than others; but none was refused help, nor did any refuse it. As of July 20, 135,000 deaths had been reported among the 445,000,00 people living in the Union. The day before, for the first time since February, Lombardy — where I live, and where it all started for Italy — registered no coronavirus deaths. We are still worried, but we can finally breathe.

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— Beppe Severgnini, an editorial writer and editor at Corriere della Sera, writes regularly about Italian and European politics, society and culture.

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