I remember the coverage back in March, the news about the toll that COVID-19—then still referred to as the novel coronavirus—was taking on Italy. I remember articles that focused on the country’s aging population and the New York Times story, set against a somber black background of Bergamo, Italy, the byline of which read, “This is the bleak heart of the world’s deadliest coronavirus outbreak.” I remember the warnings from the Italian doctors on the frontlines, and even the Italian people telling the rest of the world what they’d wished they known just ten days earlier.
I remember how those warnings went unheeded, and how even those of us who were paying attention couldn’t quite imagine what we were in store for.
Italy was the world’s first COVID-19 cautionary tale. The country, especially the northern part, was hit hard and fast by the pandemic that soon spread into even the most remote parts of the world. The daily death toll In Italy was staggering, almost too high to truly wrap our minds around—though, we know now that those impossible numbers would soon be eclipsed by our own even more impossible numbers.
As other countries looked on, watching the infection take hold within the borders of its own country, Italy took swift action. The country imposed a strict lockdown, closing down nearly everything including shops, restaurants, and cafes, and imposed restrictions on even regional movement. The government moved to provide aid to workers to make staying home economically feasible. And Italy continued those measures until numbers dropped dramatically. Masks were also mandated, and in some regions, fines were levied against people who didn’t wear a mask.
As a result, the country that was knocked down, mired in death and despair, found a way to stand back up and get itself back on track.
Five months after COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, Italy is once again a model for the rest of the world. This time, though, it’s not serving as a cautionary tale, but as an example of what to do and how to do it right.
As Italy begins to reopen, with drastically low numbers of infections and hospitals that are all but empty of COVID-19 patients, its government is being advised by scientific and technical committees. Italy is not throwing open its doors, as happened in many places in the United States, but rather cautiously creating a balance between reopening and respecting that there’s still a deadly virus to contend with.
Health officials, along with local doctors and hospitals, collect data daily on twenty different indicators. That data ultimately is reported to the National Institute of Health, and the Italian government has a thorough look at the state of the country. This allows the Italian government to act quickly to re-impose more localized lockdowns, if and when a cluster appears.
And Italians have a little bit of what we all crave: normalcy. Maybe not complete, pre-pandemic normal, but hard-won new normal. Given the choice between living in a place where the virus is surging or a place cautiously enjoying a new normal, I would choose the latter.
Back in March, we didn’t learn from Italy’s mistake and we traced their failures—down to the memes. In an opinion piece printed in the New York Times on May 4th, Beppa Severgnini noted that the Italian path has been followed by nearly every other country affected by the virus. “First, the underestimation; then the disbelief, the shock, the lockdown. Next, jokes shared on smartphones, mood swings, the reassurance of the national anthem. At that point, after two weeks of lockdown, reality kicked in. We realized that the challenge was a long-distance run, and we started running.” In the United States, we did the same, only we haven’t really started to run.
Now, in August, we can choose to learn from Italy’s success. We made the same mistakes Italy made, if not worse, and we were (are still) knocked down by the virus. But we as a country could also stand back up and get ourselves on track. We could also have a hard-won new normal. We could start running.
We’d need a national response like Italy had. We’d need the government to make it economically possible for people to stay home—so no one has to choose between risking bringing a deadly virus home or leaving their child hungry. We’d need the majority of the country to embrace masks and accept that social distancing is something that we need to do—a relatively short-term pain for a longer-term payoff. We need testing, a lot of it, and we need contact tracing to have the ability to identify clusters and lockdown areas swiftly before a cluster becomes a surge.
And we would need a widespread, national campaign that puts our national trust back into science. The faith in science needs to begin from the top, with decisions made based on sound logic and numbers.
Yes, there will be mistakes. And no, it won’t be possible to get everyone in the country to jump on board. Even Italy has its anti-mask contingent and purveyors of conspiracy theorists. But the country still managed to claw its way out of the worst of its days.
Italy has provided us with a blueprint to trace, a path to follow to get out of the death and despair we’re mired in. We don’t have to ignore the lessons Italy learned — nor should we.
Maybe this time, this is our chance to learn from someone else’s hard fought battles. Maybe this time, we can do better.