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Spectre of second wave haunts Italy as government mulls path out of lockdown

Businesses in Milan and other northern cities hard hit by Covid-19 have been pushing for Italy's lockdown to be lifted.
Businesses in Milan and other northern cities hard hit by Covid-19 have been pushing for Italy's lockdown to be lifted. © Flavio Lo Scalzo, REUTERS

The European country worst hit by the coronavirus pandemic is approaching a fateful decision on how to start lifting a nearly two-month-long lockdown on May 4, with experts warning that Italians must learn to “coexist” with the virus for months to come.

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Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is a man under siege, his advisers, allies and rivals pulling him left, right and centre as he prepares to make the most important call of his political career. 

By the end of this week, the leader of Italy’s unruly coalition government will announce a plan to gradually lift the stringent lockdown measures that have been in place for seven traumatic weeks since March 10.

In what the Italian press has described as “phase 2” of the pandemic, Italy will reopen in line with “serious scientific policy”, Conte assured in a Facebook post on Tuesday, stressing that the country will not surrender its policy of “maximum caution”.

“I would like to be able to say, let's open everything. Right away,” he wrote. “But such a decision would be irresponsible (...) and would jeopardise all the efforts that we've made until now.” Instead, the “easing of measures must take place on the basis of a well-structured and articulated plan,” Conte added. “A reasonable expectation is that we will apply it from May 4.”

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte wears a face mask as he attends a session of the lower house of parliament in Rome on April 21, 2020.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte wears a face mask as he attends a session of the lower house of parliament in Rome on April 21, 2020. © Remo Casilli, REUTERS

When the prime minister details that plan later this week, governments around the world will be looking closely to see how Italy charts its way out of weeks of lockdown after having been hit earlier and harder than others in the West.

Earlier this month, the head of the country’s top health agency likened Italy to a “pilot programme” for other nations as they grapple with the various stages of the pandemic.

“There are no studies or literature on this,” Silvio Brusaferro, the director of the Istituto Superiore di Sanità, told a news conference. “We are looking into scenarios that have never been taken before by countries that resemble Italy. Other nations are looking at us as a pilot programme.”

In fact, several European countries have slowly started to ease restrictions this week, with Germany, Austria, Denmark and the Czech Republic among those allowing certain businesses to reopen.

But none of them has been hit anywhere near as hard as Italy or been forced into such stringent lockdowns.

‘The virus is still among us’

With 25,000 confirmed deaths from Covid-19, Italy has suffered the greatest number of fatalities in Europe. Globally, it is second only to the United States.

After weeks of depressingly high daily tolls, more recent figures have shown that the lockdown measures are producing the desired results. The number of people officially being treated for Covid-19 – either at home or in hospital – is now falling in every region, including worst-hit Lombardy. The rate for new daily infections is down to a low of just 1.5 percent.

However, the upturn on the health front contrasts sharply with the increasingly dire forecasts for Italy’s economy, crippled by more than seven weeks of shutdown.

>> ‘Never give up’: volunteers raise hospital, and spirits, in Italy's virus-wracked Bergamo

With economic anxiety mounting, Conte's advisers have sensed Italians' eagerness to get going, especially as other European nations are starting to gradually open up. But they also know the public will not be as forgiving should the virus hit back harder. While the first wave caught most governments by surprise, there will be no such excuses in the event of a second wave.

"We must not run into hasty decisions," Domenico Arcuri, the prime minister's coronavirus commissioner, cautioned on Tuesday. "The virus is still among us — not quite as strong, but it is still there."

And while the safety of Italians is paramount, Conte will know his own political future is at stake, writes the Corriere della Sera.

The newspaper notes that the prime minister’s ratings have enjoyed a bump during the lockdown, while his main rival and erstwhile ally Matteo Salvini, of the hard-right Lega, has foundered. But things could change very quickly once the reality of Italy’s looming economic cataclysm sinks in and Conte’s “promises of help clash with the state’s meagre resources and the many bureaucratic hurdles that render them inaccessible”.

Tug of war

As he mulls Italy’s path out of lockdown, Conte is being pushed into erring on the side of caution by top doctors, while also being asked to think more about the economic toll by big business leaders and some regional chiefs.

Health experts have warned that premature lockdown exits could set off a second pandemic wave, in turn leading to more shutdowns and greater economic pain. Waiting a few more weeks or months could potentially avert that cost.

But many Italian businesses warn that they will not be able to stand idle much longer. The pressure is strongest in the country’s industrious north, where factories are pushing hard to lift a lockdown they resisted in the first place, with catastrophic consequences.

Whether an economic catastrophe can be averted is likely to hinge on Conte's campaign for a comprehensive economic rescue from the European Union, says Maurizio Cotta, a professor of political science at the University of Siena.

“So far, the lack of solidarity from Europe – whether real or perceived – has helped stir patriotic sentiment and unite the country behind Conte,” Cotta told FRANCE 24. “But in the longer run, the fate of Italy and its government will depend in large part on the decisions that are made in Brussels.”

Italy is pushing the bloc to put aside its misgivings and start issuing a form of joint debt dubbed "coronabonds". It hopes that the pooled instruments could lead to either low-interest loans or outright grants from Brussels that his government can use to rebuild the economy once the pandemic subsides.

But Italy's push has run into entrenched opposition from northern countries, chief among them Germany and the Netherlands.

Conte told lawmakers this week that he would accept "no compromises" at a teleconference that EU leaders have scheduled for Thursday.

"The EU and the eurozone cannot afford to repeat the same mistakes they made in the 2008 financial crisis, when it was not possible to offer a joint response," he said, adding: "Either we all win, or we all lose."

‘Redesigning our lives’

Conte could just as well have been referring to his fractious governing coalition and Italy’s regional administrations, some of which have been at loggerheads with Rome since the start of the coronavirus crisis.

“Most regions are now run by the [right-wing] opposition and therefore have little loyalty and affinity with the central government,” Cotta explained, noting that some business leaders have exploited these differences to try to speed up the exit from lockdown.

“Conte, on the other hand, is keen for all of Italy to follow the same roadmap,” he added. “Some regions could open up faster than others, but Rome is wary of losing control over ‘phase 2’.”

The prime minister has convened a task force of health experts and leading economists to weigh the possible costs and benefits of gradually lifting Italy’s lockdown.

According to Italian daily La Repubblica, the task force has not excluded the possibility that some leading export sectors where the risk of infection is lowest, such as the car, fashion and design industries, may start opening as early as next week – though May 4 remains the preferred date.

On the other hand, highly exposed businesses such as non-essential shops, bars and restaurants are likely to remain shut at least until May 18. Confinement rules will also be extended for vulnerable elderly populations, who may be restricted to leaving their homes only at given hours.

Museums, cinemas and theatres will open at a later stage and with special distancing rules to ensure the audience is spread out, though open-air sites such as archaelogical parks could open as early as mid-May.

Conte has warned that face masks will remain mandatory “until a vaccine is available”. Provided they carry one, people will no longer be restricted in how far they walk, exercise and journey from their homes as of May 4 – though a ban on inter-regional travel is likely to remain in place until June.

Looking ahead to the summer holidays, seaside resorts will be allowed to resume business provided they can guarantee social distancing on Italy’s notoriously overcrowded beaches. But there will be no going to clubs for the foreseeable future, with tourism officials warning that “dance floors will be the last to reopen”.

Generally speaking, Italians will have to rethink the way they go about their daily lives, says Brusaferro, the senior health official.

“The keyword will be ‘coexistence’ with the virus,” he explained in an interview with the Corriere della Sera on Sunday, warning that only a vaccine can defeat Covid-19 in the long run.

“Coexisting with the virus means redesigning our lives,” he added. “There can be no more ‘rush hours’ in our daily routine. We must forget about packed streets and crowded transport.”

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