The coronavirus lockdown in Milan: “Nobody knows how long this is going to last”

It has become apparent that neither the Italian government nor the regional authority had the faintest idea of how to manage a contagion.

The first thing you need to understand about the coronavirus lockdown in Italy is that what is under lockdown and what isn’t is still a matter of discussion. There is a formal ban on moving around the country, which was announced on March 8 for Northern Italy and extended nationwide three days later, but people can go out if they need to go to work or their nearest store. Whether from inability or ill intent, it has taken the government days to clear up its directives, leading to confusion and unrest during the first few days of the full lockdown.

Today, downtown Milan is completely deserted. Duomo Square, the city’s main piazza, is empty; the Brera and Navigli districts, where tourists and locals alike meet for drinks at the end of the workday, are desolate. Milan is one of the most polluted cities in the world, but these days the air is perfectly clean due to the stop of private transport.

On February 27, Milan Mayor Beppe Sala shared a video on his Instagram account labeled with the hashtag #milanonsiferma — “Milan doesn’t stop.” It was an invitation to keep the city going by braving the virus in public, which at the time was seen as already contained. Just 10 days later, Milan was a ghost city. Thousands of students and young workers fled by train the night before the regional lockdown was declared.

It is indisputable that we are now in a crisis. Most people have learned they need to stay indoors and wait for the contagion to peter out, even though it could take weeks, if not months. The country’s health care system is on its last legs, counting every single intensive-care unit bed and asking medical graduates to go straight to hospital wards. Under quarantine, people can’t easily move around to take care of their loved ones, and when somebody dies the family isn’t allowed to have a funeral, as all forms of social gatherings are forbidden.

The pressure to stay isolated and indoors came on gradually. In late February and early March, we could still joke about things. At our coworking space in Milan, we bantered about keeping a safe distance from each other and used hand sanitizer after taking a break at the bar. People exchanged tips on how to skirt the early closures of the bars, and find a place to drink after 6 p.m. Smokers quipped that the virus was coming for them. But already, bartenders were wearing latex gloves. Following the official guidelines, the coworking space closed last week and won’t reopen until April 3, unless authorities further extend the lockdown.

The University of Milan, now closed.

The University of Milan, now closed.

Humor has mostly given way to shock; it’s like the whole nation is going through a collective trauma, and everybody can’t talk about anything other than the virus. Every day, at 6 p.m., the country is united by the daily update from the “Protezione Civile,” the national body dealing with prevention and management of emergencies. In the televised press conference Angelo Borrelli, the head of the Civil Protection, reads the updated numbers of the outbreak, listing new infections, people recovered, and deaths. On Sunday night the numbers were alarming: 24,747 reported cases, with 2,853 new infections. On the same day, 368 people died, bringing the death toll to 1,809 people. More than 1,600 people remain in the ICU. Then, some bright news: Since the beginning of the outbreak, 2,335 people have recovered.

Initially, politicians and the public downplayed the crisis. The hotbed of the outbreak had been located, we thought, and confined inside a “zona rossa” (Italian for “red zone”). Life could go on as usual. Then, the number of daily infections and the death toll started to rise sharply. The media, which had followed the initial crisis with morbid curiosity, swung into full-on fear-mongering — news websites and newscasts have been taken over by coverage of the virus, detailing the most gruesome failures of the system and repeating precautions and trivia about not getting sick. The resulting news cycle is this contorted dialogue between institutional orders sustained by mundane values of “Italian solidarity” and bloodcurdling reports from hospital corridors.

The virus is not the only thing to be scared of. It has become apparent that neither the government nor the regional authority had the faintest idea of how to manage a contagion. In Lombardy, the region worst hit by the virus, the health care system is at the breaking point. Italy has the oldest populations in the EU, and most of our health care must deal with chronic issues.

Nothing works exactly as it’s meant to, and everyone is still working it out.

But the dread of further contagion has consumed all aspects of everyday life. Supermarkets only allow access for one person per family. People can wait even hours for their turn, since stores are trying to keep customers to the prescribed safe distance of one meter. Back when the first restrictions were announced, people went to their local markets in droves, trying to stock up the essential Italian pantry: sugar, flour, pasta, and oil. In Lombardy, eggs are produced mostly around Lodi, one of the first areas struck by the virus, and in some supermarkets of the region, they are still hard to find.

Even the attempted solutions fall prey to contradictions and changing sensibilities. Deliveroo, a food delivery company, has instructed workers on how to deliver food safely — but hasn’t, of course, given them any of the necessary garments. The government maintained that delivery services were the “basic” businesses that could keep going through the lockdown, even though it meant exposing one of the most fragile classifications of workers to high risk. But according to unions, orders are down 50 percent — most people are scared of all human contact, even if it’s just a bag exchanging hands.

The virus has made the tension between health and wealth particularly explicit. When the lockdown was enacted, the government gave little thought to workers that couldn’t work from home. The contradiction between being told not to leave your house and being forced to go to work has ripped through the country, leading to myriad conflicts. Many factories in Italy closed due to spontaneous strikes, protesting against owners who didn’t seem to care about safety measures and the health of their employees. Only after nationwide protests, the government met with unions and businesses to impose more precise safeguards for the workplace.

No facet of the country’s infrastructure was ready for this: Everybody working from home — us included — have discovered that their internet is too slow to keep up with a Zoom video conference. The powers that be have closed all schools nationwide, asking teachers to switch to e-learning, but the vast majority of schools had no framework for such programs. Teachers have to improvise and schools have to self-manage the switch; students have to be online and available, but most have meager data plans. Nothing works exactly as it’s meant to, and everyone is still working it out.

If the steps leading to the crisis can be analyzed in retrospect, wondering what is going to happen next proves challenging. Nobody knows how long this is going to last. As the virus spreads around the world, we notice the same split between panic and skepticism, the same slide toward harsher lockdowns through the European Union, the same fear mounting — just 10 days delay after it happened to us. We’re living in the future, in all the worst ways.

Stefano Colombo is an Italian blogger who writes about Lombard and national politics. Alessandro Massone is an Italian blogger and designer, covering human rights and internet culture. They are two of the co-founders of The Submarine, a news website based in Milan.