Letter from Lombardy

by Beatrice Porro

When COVID-19 first came to Italy in March, Italians (like many in others)  faced this new challenge with pride. It was new, scary and like nothing like they had ever experienced, and perhaps that’s what made the initial lockdown so effective. No one really knew what to do, what to think or how to react to the hundreds of ambulances flooding the streets, and so the country came together; I have never seen so many flags flown outside of houses, and by now we’re all familiar with those videos of people singing from their balconies. 

I got really lucky last spring. I was an exchange student in Bergen at the time and so words like curfew, lockdown and military hospitals were an unfamiliar concept to me. I went back to Milan during the summer when things were starting to get better, and the city I found was definitely different from the one I left in January. Many stores were closed, and the way we travelled by subway changed too. What surprised me the most though, is how people were different; they’re now a little more distant, less prone to hugs, and most of my friends are wary of ambulance sounds. The idea of having to stay at home again and having to miss university stresses them out.

And now they’ve put us under lockdown again, this time with different precautions based on how at risk the regions are. There are three zones: a yellow one (low risk), an orange one (medium risk) and a red one (high risk). I live in Milan, which is considered a red zone, and that means that now we can go outside only to go to work or to buy prime necessities. We can’t leave our municipality and most stores must remain closed. These rules aren’t so different from the ones of the previous lockdown but, unlike last time, the morale isn’t so high.

The days of clapping and singing from balconies are long gone, and while the general public still seems to agree with the measures taken by our government, some are starting to lose trust in it and to feel restless. This time people aren’t as willing to stay at home; if I look out of the window I can see groups of people walking without their masks on and the park near my house is full of visitors. Perhaps it’s because by now we’re used to it, but it seems like we’re not as scared as we used to be. People have grown tired, tired and without hope. I’m lucky because as a student my life hasn’t changed much, but most of the workers in my country aren’t so lucky. 

I have talked to my sister, a labour consultant who helps various businesses manage their employees, taxes and insurances. She mainly works with small businesses, which are the ones that got hit worst in the past year and, unfortunately, things are not looking good for the near future either. Many small businesses are now forced to close without knowing whether they’ll ever be able to open up again once the emergency is over. “The main problem is the uncertainty of everything. The new laws were not clear in the first place and then they get added to the previous ones, but since they keep changing from decree to decree no one really knows what they’re supposed to do.”, she says. “And for someone like me, who works with small businesses it gets even more difficult because on top of my usual job, now I have to act as a “counsellor” and try to comfort these family businesses who are facing such an uncertain future”

So when I saw so many restaurant and cafè owners protesting in Italy’s squares, I was not surprised. They are angry, and they have every right to be. The new restrictions are going to hit their businesses and the people who depend on them even harder, jeopardizing their futures even more. To help them out, cassa integrazione (a wage guarantee instrument activated in case of suspension/reduction in working activities) should give them about 60% of their projected earnings, but the bureaucracy is so convoluted it will be months before they get access to the funds.

So what’s ahead for Italy? The Covid cases keep rising and the hospitals are reaching their maximum capacity, while people’s patience is running thin. Our president recently told us not to forget that the virus is the real enemy, but it’s difficult to remain optimistic when the end of the pandemic seems so far away.

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