Italy Shut Down. Which Country Will Be Next?

Europe and the West are in denial about the compromises that will need to be made.

The normally busy Piazza Duomo​ in Milan, Italy on March 5, 2020.
Italy, Europe’s fourth-largest economy, has the highest number of cases of the novel coronavirus outside of China, a figure that is rising sharply. (Alessandro​ Grassani / The New York Times / The Atlantic)

“We are out of time,” Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said yesterday evening. “We have to stay home.” With those words, he announced the most stringent restrictions on freedom of movement imposed in Europe since the Second World War: 60 million Italians can now move around only for pressing reasons of work, health, or other extenuating necessity—and then only with written permission.

Conte’s announcement was a nationwide extension of measures unveiled the day before for swaths of Italy’s north. And it was nothing less than a game changer. Italy, Europe’s fourth-largest economy, has the highest number of cases of the novel coronavirus outside of China, a figure that is rising sharply. These restrictions are an attempt to combat the outbreak, to help the Italian health-care sector grapple with the virus’s growth. Yet they are also an illustration of the test to democracy that this crisis now poses.

What kinds of restrictions can governments reasonably impose on citizens? Who will enforce the new rules? When does denial give way to realism? What types of compromises will countries, and their leaders, be prepared to make? Soon, the rest of the West, the United States included, may have to ask precisely these questions. Italy may not be abnormal here; it may just be first.

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.

If the euro crisis a decade ago showed the risk of economic contagion, the coronavirus outbreak is contagion of a higher order. The nature of the disease is nefarious. Some people have only mild cases. Most deaths in Italy have been people over 70, but one in five who tested positive are ages 19 to 50, according to official data. COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is a viral respiratory infection that takes hold in the lungs. Many patients require intubation and cannot breathe without respirators—more respirators than most public-health systems have. Italy’s “patient one,” an otherwise healthy 38-year-old who fell ill with the virus in January, is now breathing on his own, after nearly three weeks on a respirator.

Doctors in Lombardy, where the virus has hit hardest, say they are performing triage, choosing which patients they believe they can save. The northern Italian region is responsible for more than 20 percent of Italy’s GDP and has one of the best health-care systems in the country. What happens when the disease spreads to the much poorer Italian south, which is starved for resources during the best of times? This is why Rome extended the quarantine measures nationwide.

Last night, just after Conte’s announcement, I got a message from a friend in Milan. She, like many there, had been following the constantly changing statements of the Italian government—which at first sounded the alarm, then told people to carry on as normal, then sounded an even louder alarm. “Tell people,” she wrote me from the ghost town that is normally Italy’s most dynamic city. “All of Europe needs to avoid contagion. At first we were all calm. Now all you hear are the sounds of ambulances and we’re starting to hear cases of people closer and closer who’ve been infected.”

There have been a lot of jokes about whether Italians—so unruly, so skilled at the art of cutting in line, at evading the rules—can be counted on to heed these new measures. The mood across the country is one of confusion and concern, but there’s also a kind of national solidarity, a banding together in the face of “an invisible enemy,” as one newspaper put it. Italy may be disorganized; it may not have acted fast enough to prevent the spread of the virus. But it has a culture that generally puts the human first, in which social bonds are strong—which is also how the virus spread so quickly. There’s an Italian expression: l’arte di arrangiarsi, “the art of making do.” I wonder if other advanced democracies will show such flexibility.