Once resistant, Italy begins to take coronavirus more seriously

A man in front of the Duomo Cathedral in Milan
A man in front of the Duomo Cathedral in Milan
Image: Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane
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Last week, when the outbreak of coronavirus began to intensify across Italy, some pushed back against what they perceived as an overwrought government response.

“[This bar] didn’t close under the bombings, should it close for collective hysteria?” asked a hand-written sign at Jamaica, an iconic bar in Milan. The Italian government had just begun taking measures to contain the disease. It placed cities under lockdown and demanded that gathering places like bars close early. The sign was a protest by Carlina Cretella, part of the family that founded Jamaica more than a century ago.

The Italian government itself, meanwhile, was also protesting. Italy’s foreign ministry lambasted international journalists last week for what it called “inaccurate and alarmist” coverage of the outbreak. In a note, it defended Italy’s response, saying news stories were failing to reflect the reality of a contagion that at the time remained “circumscribed to some small areas” and “restricted to a few regions.”

Yet the virus was causing the country all kinds of problems. Italy’s economy began to contract and is now heading toward recession. Commerce, tourism, and industry across the country have all taken a hit. New cases were originally concentrated in the north, with the epicenter in Lombardia, home to the largest share of Italy’s industrial output. In Milan, the region’s capital, the virus disrupted fashion week, stores were left suddenly empty, and organizers postponed the city’s furniture fair, the most important in the world. Across the country in Venice, authorities cut short the city’s famous carnival and delayed its architecture biennale.

The disease continued to spread, and is now present in every region of Italy. On Sunday, there was a 50% spike in new cases, and now, there are more than 3,000 people infected with the virus, and more than100 deaths. Complaints about alarmism are finally dissipating.

Pretty much everyone is now sufficiently worried. The government today announced it would close schools and universities for two weeks. Even more surprising, authorities canceled many soccer matches and have ordered others to be played behind closed doors.

Meanwhile at Jamaica, the bar in Milan, there has been a steep drop in foot traffic despite it remaining open and despite the frenzy its controversial sign generated on social media. This week, it added a second note—this one typed instead of hand-written, and posted by order of the municipal government. It advises customers to keep a healthy distance of at least one meter between one another.