Read: Italy’s coronavirus response is a warning from the future
Italy has always been a harbinger of shifts, whether political or otherwise, in Europe and beyond. Countries around the world will also likely make decisions that try to balance protecting the health and welfare of citizens with protecting the economy from grinding to a halt, decisions that balance lives and livelihoods. In some ways, Italy and Europe are well positioned to face this crisis. They have good universal public health care. In other ways, the region is decidedly ill-suited to do so, because of the very reason the European Union exists in the first place: the principles of free movement of people, goods, and information. This virus knows no borders.
The list of sites that are closed is long: day cares, schools, universities; museums, cinemas, theaters. The Italian soccer league has canceled all matches; public gatherings are banned—no weddings, funerals, or religious services. Public transportation and trains are still running and airports are open, though with restrictions and a sharp reduction in frequency. The measures are stringent, but the language of the decree is somewhat flexible. To leave their immediate areas, people will need to fill out an “auto-certification”—a legally binding document stating what crucial need requires them to get on a plane or train, and why they can’t defer the trip—or risk arrest and a fine.
Goods are still circulating and essential services still functioning. Grocery stores are open, and so are restaurants and bars, but with a 6 p.m. curfew and only if they can ensure that guests remain three feet apart. Today, some Italian politicians from the right-wing opposition League party are calling for even more drastic measures, including closing all shops except grocery stores.
Italy is offering some cushions to soften this blow. Mortgage payments will be suspended. The government is exploring proposals to let people delay paying their bills and other taxes, as well as tax breaks for businesses and vouchers for child care. There has been unrest—some runs on supermarkets and riots at prisons after visits from relatives were banned, resulting in the deaths of several people.
These measures are testing the contours of what is possible in a democracy balancing freedom with public safety. “China put in place efficient, but not democratic, measures. Iran, which also isn’t a democracy, didn’t manage to do that,” Matteo Renzi, the former Italian prime minister, told La Repubblica today. “Europe is being tested now and Italy, unfortunately, has been the guinea pig.”
The rise in the number of cases and deaths in France and Germany suggests that those countries are where Italy was about 10 days ago. Yesterday, French Culture Minister Franck Riester announced that he’d tested positive for the virus, and the Élysée Palace said that the French government was following the country’s health protocols—officials are taking their temperature and isolating themselves if they have symptoms. French President Emmanuel Macron’s chief of staff, Gaëtan Escorbiac, is working from home after coming into contact with someone who tested positive, the Élysée said.