Stir-crazy Italians were free to stroll and visit relatives for the first time in nine weeks on Monday as Europe’s hardest-hit country eased back the world’s longest remaining coronavirus lockdown.
More than four million people — an estimated 72 percent of them men — returned to their construction sites and factories as the economically and emotionally shattered country tried to get back to work.
The sounds of banging and drilling echoed across Rome and a group of men drank espresso out of plastic cups in front of the Pantheon, the former Roman temple, as cafes reopened for takeout service.
“We can hear more noise now,” Rome grocery story owner Daniela observed. “It’s better than this frightening silence.”
But bars and even ice cream parlours will remain shut. The use of public transport will be discouraged and everyone will have to wear masks in indoor public spaces.
– ‘Moment of responsibility’ –
Italy became the first Western democracy to shut down virtually everything in the face of an illness that has now officially killed 28,884 — the most in Europe — and some fear thousands more.
The lives of Italians began closing in around them as it became increasingly apparent that the first batch of infections in provinces around Milan were spiralling out of control.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte began by putting a quarter of the population in the northern industrial heartland on lockdown on March 8.
The sudden measure frightened many — fearful of being locked in together with the gathering threat — into fleeing to less affected regions further south.
The danger of the virus spreading with them and incapacitating the south’s less developed health care system forced Conte to announce a nationwide lockdown on March 9.
“Today is our moment of responsibility,” Conte told the nation.
The official death toll was then 724.
More waves of restrictions followed as hundreds began dying each day.
Almost everything except for pharmacies and grocery stores was shuttered across the Mediterranean country of 60 million on March 12.
Conte’s final roll of the dice involved closing all non-essential factories on March 22.
Italy’s highest single toll — 969 — was reported five days later.
– ‘Worried about reopening’ –
The economic toll of all those shutdowns has been historic.
Italy’s economy — the eurozone’s third-largest last year — is expected to shrink more than in any year since the global depression of the 1930s.
Half of the workforce is receiving state support and the same number told a top pollster that they were afraid of becoming unemployed.
And some of those who are out of a job already say they do not entirely trust in Conte’s ability to safely navigate the nation out of peril.
Conte’s popularity has jumped along with that of most other world leaders grappling with the pandemic thanks to a ‘rally around the flag’ effect.
But a Demos poll conducted at the end of April found some of Conte’s lustre fading.
“I am worried about the reopening. The authorities seem very undecided about how to proceed,” 37-year-old Davide Napoleoni told AFP.
Confidence in his government has slipped by eight percentage points to a still-strong 63 percent since March.
– Psychological toll –
Italy’s staggered reopening is complicated by a highly decentralised system that allows the country’s 20 regions to layer on their own rules.
Venice’s Veneto and the southern Calabria regions have thus been serving food and drink at bars and restaurants with outdoor seating since last week.
The area around Genoa is thinking of allowing small groups of people to go sailing and reopening its beaches.
Neighbouring Emilia-Romagna is keeping them closed — even to those who live by the sea.
All this uncertainty appears to be weighing on the nation’s psyche.
A poll by the Piepoli Institute showed 62 percent of Italians think they will need psychological support with coming to grips with the post-lockdown world.
“The night of the virus continues,” sociologist Ilvo Diamanti wrote in La Repubblica daily.
“And you can hardly see the light on the horizon. If anything, we’re getting used to moving in the dark.”