Twelve months on from Europe’s first coronavirus lockdown, restrictions still dominate life in Italian city
On March 8 2020, Italy’s government ordered the immediate lockdown of the wealthy Lombardy region that includes Milan in an effort to stem the spread of Covid-19. The unheard-of restrictions were extended across the whole country the following day, confining 60m people to their homes. It was the moment that Europe finally woke up to the threat from a virus that had emerged in China around the turn of the year.
Within weeks, the entire continent — and soon the whole world — had been brought to heel by the pandemic. “We were confronted with a virus we knew nothing about,” said Francesco Passerini, mayor of the small town of Codogno, an hour from Milan, where one of Italy’s earliest confirmed Covid-19 cases had been discovered in late February. “We didn’t know how to protect our community and we had people who were very ill. It felt like an impossible fight.”
A year on, an end to Europe’s coronavirus crisis still seems some way off despite the hope offered by vaccines. Most of the continent’s 750m citizens continue to endure curbs on their daily lives and the economic and social toll has been enormous. In Italy — as in some other EU countries such as nearby Greece and the Czech Republic — the number of new infections is rising as concerns intensify over the threat from new variants.
Lombardy, still Italy’s worst-affected region, is grappling with thousands of new cases daily and hundreds of deaths each week. On Friday, a new two-week partial lockdown came into force across the region, with offices closed and employees told to work from home. Schools and playgrounds are shut and hospitality and travel are banned, although shops remain open — for now. Yet as cases tick higher, experts fear it is only a matter of time before the curbs are extended. “It won’t be long before the whole country goes back into the ‘red zone’,” said Guido Bertolaso, Lombardy’s vaccine adviser, this week, referring to the most stringent level in Italy’s coloured tier system.
“Unfortunately it’s not over,” said Passerini, the Codogno mayor. “But it’s not comparable with last year because we’ve learned to live with the virus and now we have a vaccine. So we have something to look forward to.” Looking back evokes painful memories. The most vivid was the day he and other volunteers had to empty a church to make room for dozens of coffins. “I remember watching the dead bodies being brought in and the church, a place of hope, suddenly turn into a morgue. I couldn’t believe it was happening,” he said.
Mired in a series of lockdowns, Milan has welcomed only a fraction of the 10m tourists who came in 2019, a shortfall that has put immense strain on its economy. There is hope that the new government of Mario Draghi, an experienced crisis manager who formerly ran the European Central Bank, can bring improvements by speeding up the vaccine rollout and leading an economic recovery.
In a sign of his frustration at the slow rollout, Draghi has moved to block the export of 250,000 Oxford/AstraZeneca doses destined for Australia so they could be used in Italy. As of this week, however, under 6 per cent of Italians had received a first vaccine dose. One Milan-based anaesthesiologist, who did not wish to be named, also warned that intensive care units in hospitals across the region were rapidly filling up again.
“It reminds me of last spring,” she said. “The vaccine makes us hope for the best but we need to plan for the worst, because the rollout is too slow and people are dying.”