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11 March 2020updated 03 Sep 2021 1:57pm

Postcards from an infected world: In Italy, people are staying off the streets. Avoiding hand gestures is harder

Italians braced themselves for the worst, and they were right. Now that the lockdown has been extended to the entire country, people are despairing over the harsh measures.

By Ben Munster

It was the morning of Monday 9 March and Rome’s streets were deserted. Pizzerias lining the high streets were shuttered; an empty bus rolled along listlessly in the distance; a stray cat flitted in the cold shadows. Had the coronavirus outbreak in Italy’s north succeeded in grinding even the Eternal City to a standstill?

Not quite yet. “The shops are just closed because it’s early,” explained the cashier at the tobacconist, the only store still open. The countrywide lockdown had yet to be implemented; it would be announced later that evening, after strict measures in the north failed to curb the number of deaths. But even before the draconian measures were set out, Rome, too, was contaminated. 

The tourists had vanished. The faithful did not throng in their tens of thousands in the Vatican; only a smattering turned up to watch the pope’s bleak live stream of his Sunday sermon, usually delivered from a high window in the Apostolic Palace. The Trevi fountain, the Spanish steps and the Colosseum were all depleted of the loud Americans, Britons and Australians who, we now realised, had brought some life to this city. Even McDonald’s was empty. Bar del Cinque, a riverside pub, had managed to attract three customers. “Nobody is going out,” the bartender lamented.

Before the lockdown was introduced across the country, some Romans feared for their families in the north. One man’s grandmother was trapped in a care home that had banned visitors. His younger, healthier relatives had struggled to buy food. Others in the capital worried about the impacts on the city of the quarantine underway elsewhere. At Termini, Rome’s central station, a woman expressed concern at the thousands of Milanese residents who had streamed into the capital. Many were returning to southern homes that didn’t want them, fearing contamination. She was certain that Covid-19 would breach Rome too.

In efforts to stop the virus from taking hold, gatherings were being prevented, even before the nationwide lockdown. Italian teens had been warned against meeting to drink in piazzas. “Enough frequenting crowded places and bars, enough nightlife, enough gatherings,” said the mayor of Bologna, Virginio Merola, urging them instead to help out their families and the elderly.

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Meanwhile, Father Greg Apparcel, a priest from Los Angeles, sat glumly in his rectory in Rome. The Italian government had also suspended all religious services, so he would have to conduct masses via an online live stream. He’d struggle to fill the collection plate. 

Other rules were proving more difficult to enforce. Italians had been urged to be less expressive, to prevent the contagion from travelling by hand gesture. “It’s hard for them not to automatically embrace each other when they greet each other, or shake hands,” noted Apparcel. “Last Friday, someone said, ‘I know I’m not supposed to, but I want to shake your hand.’”

Those who could, left. American exchange students hauled bright suitcases into airport-bound taxis, looking forlorn. One had been relocated from China a few weeks earlier. A lecturer said he had 95 American students in his class; now there were three. 

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Italians braced themselves for the worst, and they were right to be fearful. Now that the lockdown has been extended to Rome, people are despairing over the harsh measures, gutting the supermarkets and staying away from the streets, while Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte urges all citizens to “do their part”. Some still walk the streets, amid confusion about the rules. Do we have to stay indoors, or just within the city? Will we be arrested if we go into a bar? If so, why are they open until 6pm?

“If you have a conscience, you shouldn’t run away,” said the bartender at Bar del Cinque. Romans, and indeed all Italians, have little choice.

Read the rest of “postcards from an infected world” series here

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This article appears in the 11 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, How the world is closing down