Carrots and Sticks

‘If we take these steps now, we will increase our chances of enjoying a peaceful Christmas together’. This was the way Prime Minister Conte chose at the start of this week to sell his government’s latest emergency decree to a weary and restive people, dismayed by the frighteningly rapid increase in the numbers of new Covid-19 cases. As recently as July and early August, numbers were in the low hundreds per day; only about sixty people were in intensive care nationally and daily fatalities were in the teens. Apart from the ubiquitous masks and hand sanitiser and the absence of hugs and handshakes, life felt almost normal. The sun shone, the sea was warm, the beaches full, restaurants busy, families and friends gathered. And as a nation, we lowered our guard.

The small but steady rise in numbers that first became apparent in mid-August was put down to people returning from trips to countries with higher infection rates than Italy and so measures such as compulsory testing within forty-eight hours of arrival were swiftly put in place []. It was just a summer blip, we all told ourselves: as soon as the holiday season was over, numbers would fall again. After all, the comprehensive contact-tracing and quarantine regime was working well. Added to which, everyone was desperate to take the final and possibly most precarious step in the return to normality and get students back to school and university after six months out of the classroom. It had been just as much of a political hot potato in Italy as it had been in the UK and elsewhere, but a reasonably workable set of safety measures and protocols was finally thrashed out. So at the start of term, fleets of yellow school buses could once again be seen trundling about the lanes, picking up and dropping off gaggles of apprehensive yet excited youngsters, all delighted to be back together with their classmates at last.

The thing is, it wasn’t a blip; the numbers didn’t fall. In fact, they continued to grow, and then to grow more quickly. Within the course of a month, numbers were back in the thousands and getting ever closer to where they had been when the country went into the first and strictest lockdown in Europe. Surely it couldn’t happen again? Not another lockdown; we couldn’t go through that again. That same thought circled round the mind of the nation; it was voiced in conversations muffled by masks, which did little, however, to hide that same fear etched in people’s faces. The government shared the sentiment and recognised the mood: a national lockdown was repeatedly ruled out. They knew that neither the fragile economy nor the people, whose goodwill, resolve and savings had been all but exhausted, would be able to bear it. And shaken by victories for far-right parties in a recent series of regional elections, they also knew that the political stakes had seldom been higher. But the government could not do nothing, so little by little, as if testing the water, restrictions started to be tweaked a little tighter. The wearing of masks outside as well as inside became obligatory, and in the regions with the most alarming infection rates such as Campania and in Lombardia (where the virus had first taken hold) a range of non-essential businesses could open only with restricted hours – and in some cases, not at all – and night-time curfews were announced. In major cities from Turin to Palermo, bitter frustration erupted into violent demonstrations, while in other towns up and down the country opposition to the new restrictions was more muted, but no less heartfelt. Still the numbers rose, though, almost doubling by the week and by now far higher than they had been back in spring, with the much slower rise in intensive care admissions and in fatalities providing scant, albeit welcome comfort.

So it was against this backdrop that Prime Minister Conte once more addressed a tense and fearful nation and announced a month-long closure of all entertainment and leisure venues, the banning of amateur sports activities other than individual exercise, the closure of all restaurants, bars, cafés, patisseries and ice-cream parlours after 6.00pm, and a recommendation that at least seventy-five percent of secondary and tertiary teaching move back online. And in light of data indicating that intra-family transmissions account for up to three-quarters of all new infections, he finished with an impassioned plea to show restraint and responsibility when it came to that most culturally and socially significant of Italian activities, the large, family get-together for Sunday lunch.

That was at the start of the week; by the end of the week, however, the infection rate seemed to be spiralling out of control, with numbers now exceeding even those featuring in policymakers’ worst-case scenarios. So the nation is now bracing itself for a much bigger stick and a much longer wait for that promised carrot.

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