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Life in lockdown Italy: like a creepy summer holiday

Reading the news, you’d think that everything is closed, that everyone is sick or scared. The reality where I live, in Turin, is more confusing.

Claire Provost author pic
Claire Provost
11 March 2020
A woman walks through a largely empty street in Turin
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Claire Provost

Update, 12 March 2020: Shortly after this article was published, Italy announced new measures at 9:45pm on Wednesday 11 March, closing all cafes and restaurants for two weeks. But our reporter says the mood on the ground in Turin, on Thursday morning, hadn't changed much. 

The handwritten yellow sign on the pharmacy’s window – “masks and hand gel out of stock” – has been up for weeks. But now there are many more signs, on shop doors, telling customers that only a few people can enter at a time, and that they must remain a metre apart. Many shops are shuttered entirely.

“It’s just like Ferragosto!” the only other person in my local square this morning shouted to no one. He was referring to the annual 15 August public holiday that is famous for its exoduses from the cities. Around then, those who can head to the beach or the mountains. “There is no one here, it’s crazy,” the man continued.

The comparison with a holiday is striking, because it’s hard to have fun amidst an epidemic. But it’s also apt because while a lot of things are shut in mid-August, cities do not completely close down. And that’s what life is actually like on the ground in Turin, amidst what is now an official national lockdown.

To read the international news, you’d think that everything in Italy is closed, and everyone is sick or scared. But the reality is more confusing.

Turin, where I live, was one of the only parts of the Piedmont region that was spared quarantine until yesterday. We’re about 200 kilometres west of Codogno, the small Lombardy town that was the epicentre of coronavirus in Italy. I’m from Canada, where this is a short distance. Here it’s not: the danger seemed far away,

While schools have been shut in Turin for weeks, and coronavirus has dominated the news, we remained outside the ‘red zones’. Then, as more people were tested, we became almost entirely encircled by quarantined provinces. On Monday, red zones disappeared as the entire country went into ‘lockdown’ as of yesterday.

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A shop door sign restricting the number of people who can enter | Claire Provost

In the run up to this lockdown, the news has been full of stories of people trying to flee red zones, stockpiling and even fighting over tinned goods in supermarkets. For weeks we have been hearing of flights to and from Italy being cancelled, and buses from Italy being stopped, leaving us feeling increasingly isolated.

Now the government has told everyone, nationwide, to stay at home until the beginning of April – at least. They told us online; they told us on social media; they told us on TV: don’t go outside unless it is strictly necessary. Don’t travel outside your city unless you have a clear and approved reason, and a form to prove it.

Alongside the simple request – don’t go outside – are numerous rules and exceptions and threats. Cafés and restaurants can still open but they must close at 6pm. You can still go to the supermarket for basic goods, and to walk your dog. You can also still travel to work (as not all employers have shut down).

But all public gatherings are banned. Schools are closed. If you’re caught travelling between cities without an approved reason, you could risk up to three months in prison or a fine, according to the state police’s colourful but not-so-cheerful Twitter announcements. (Visiting your friends is not an approved reason.)

Since yesterday, more than a hundred people have already been charged with disobeying these rules, according to local media reports. International stories have meanwhile been illustrated with pictures of empty piazzas across Italy. But life also goes on – and it’s hard to square what I read online with what I see in person.

“The soap shelves are sparse, but the cheese aisle is still heavily stocked (otherwise might be a tell-tale sign of apocalypse).”

I work from home and have been limiting my movements for weeks. But I was expecting to see more of a difference on the streets this week. There are probably more people wearing masks (or scarves around their mouths), but my neighbourhood market is still open. People are still drinking wine at some cafés.

The security guards at our supermarket are wearing masks too, and standing at the front door letting in only so many people at a time. Inside, people are moving more efficiently, grabbing what they want. The soap shelves are sparse, but the cheese aisle is still heavily stocked (otherwise might be a tell-tale sign of apocalypse).

Some staff at shops are wearing winter or garden gloves. For every three shops on my local street with a sign restricting access, there is one which seems open to business as usual. Some people cross the street to avoid close contact – while others still congregate, stop to pet dogs and pull down their masks for cigarettes.

We’re not supposed to go anywhere, but public transport is still running. The tram that goes by my flat is still making its routes – and the regular sound of it passing down the street is reassuring, though I haven’t seen more than a couple of people inside its cars, seated at the back, far apart from each other and the driver.

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A neighbourhood bar, still open, next to a shuttered hair salon | Claire Provost

Confusion doesn’t help the anxiety that has been building now for weeks. We haven’t known what’s coming – or how long it will last.

Locally, for instance, Turin’s Egyptian Museum had announced reduced rates for the first two weeks of March under the hashtag #laCulturacura (‘culture cures’). Now, however, it is closed along with many other places for who knows how long.

If you follow the government’s announcements and their promulgation on TV news channels, you’ll know that we’re in the middle of a national crisis. The rising numbers of deaths and reports of overwhelmed hospitals are frightening.

You worry about getting coronavirus but also passing it, perhaps unknowingly, to someone who could get seriously ill and even die. But you also worry about what would happen if you break a leg. Where do you go if an emergency room is closed?

Can you still pay your electricity bill if you’re not working, can’t travel, and the company’s office and call centre are closed? Will your elderly family members in another city, which you can no longer reach, be OK?

It’s not easy to answer these questions despite a deluge of information online. The Piedmont government said internet use by people in this region has shot up by 50% compared to January. This is of course not surprising. What else are you supposed to do, stuck inside? But it is worrying as fake news continues to spread too.

Recently, there was a false story about a plane flying over cities spraying them with disinfectant. But what’s most confusing for me is the clash between the ‘locked down’ narrative from above, and the feeling on the ground. Where I live, it’s more as the man in my local square suggested: like a creepy summer holiday.

Is the pandemic changing attitudes towards migration?

Will Canada give its undocumented essential workers their rights? And where are the immigrants in the country’s policy debates?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 26 November, 5pm UK time/12pm EST.

Hear from:

Daniel Hiebert Professor of geography at the University of British Columbia

Andrew Parkin Executive director, Environics Institute, Toronto

Usha George Professor and director, Ryerson Centre for Immigration and Settlement, Ryerson University, Canada

Keith Banting Professor emeritus and Stauffer Dunning Fellow, Queen’s University, Canada

Chair: Anna Triandafyllidou Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration, Ryerson University

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