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Covid Abroad: How Italy was woken up to the first wave of coronavirus in Europe

As Italy begins to ease restrictions, Mario Bowden gathers the perspective of Lombardian and Italian native, Maria Elena Tagliabue who lived through some of Italy’s darkest months
An eerie empty duomo during the Italian Covid-19 crisis. Image by Andrea Lattanzi from Pexels.com
Mario Bowden spoke to Maria Elena Tagliabue face-to-face over Zoom to hear about her experience as an Italian during the pandemic

On the 23 February 2020, Maria Elena Tagliabue read the news that a town 20km from her was going into lockdown after an outbreak of a then-unknown virus imported from China. Back in her hometown of Crema for the weekend, in the north of Italy, an unusual gut feeling came over Maria Elena when her friends asked her to join them in a bar. 

“I texted one of my friends saying ‘I don’t know if we should meet, is it safe?’ and he laughed a bit at me saying ‘Cmon! It’s just a flu. Our friend is a med student and he’s coming. C’mon see you later’. We met up beforehand and we noticed that the town was very eerie. Months later he apologised for pushing me to go out that night,” Tagliabue tells me.

Two weeks later, coronavirus cases were spiralling out of control, and Italy’s hospitals became overwhelmed – especially in the North. The whole country was rapidly instructed to stay inside, without exception. Tourist sites were deserted.

The coronavirus had arrived in Europe – and Italy was its first victim. 

To this date, there have been 2.65 million cases of Covid-19 in Italy – and 92,000 deaths.

Tagliabue calls me from her apartment in Varese, a town 50km from Milan. Varese is not far from Bergamo – a town where the virus hit its community hard and fast. Its hospital became overflowed with patients. Images emerged of mass coffin convoys – amplifying the virus’ threat on our screens.

“I think it made it more real and [us] more anxious and cautious” says Tagliabue.

“The stories people told from Bergamo and even my hometown Crema are heartbreaking. Especially in the first wave when things were more hectic. Hospitals were less organised and doctors had less masks,” she says.

Despite the threat remaining high, Italy is easing its restrictions. Each region operates on a tiered coloured zone system – red being the most severe, orange slightly less restrictive and yellow the most moderate. There is also a white zone – a marker of low-danger Covid world. However, no region is currently there yet. 

A lone seagull at the Roman Forum. Image by Stefano Barbieri via Pexels

At the moment, regions across the country have begun transitioning to a yellow zone. Household visits are allowed, in-person teaching at schools can resume at a reduced capacity and restaurants and bars can open up until 6pm are among the most notable changes. Lombardy has entered the yellow zone.

While it is a welcomed change, Tagliabue remains sceptical about opening up too soon. 

“It doesn’t feel like this yellow zone can last very long.” she concedes. “Especially in Lombardy, which is the most populated region in Italy. There are things to do which leads to crowds. It feels liberating now but at the same time, I’m not confident this can last. Maybe [we can implement it in] March or April when [the] outdoors can be more useful,” she continues.

“It doesn’t feel like this yellow zone can last very long. It feels liberating now – but I’m not confident it can last”

Maria Elena Tagliabue

The pandemic also spun Italy’s ever-controversial political climate into further uncertainty. While popularity was high for Giuseppe Conte after his initial dealing with the pandemic, the Prime Minister was forced to resign after Italia Viva leader Matteo Renzi, pulled his party out of an already unstable coalition – collapsing it in the process.

Renzi’s decision was met with some scrutiny – as it embroiled the unwanted idea of fresh elections. But as a former Prime Minister himself, Renzi saw the need for change – and a pandemic was no excuse to continue on in the same vain. Italy’s economy shrunk by 8.9% in the last year and is experiencing its worst recession since the second World War. 

On Thursday 4 February 2021, Mario Draghi was drafted in by President Sergio Mattarella to become the new Prime Minister. As the former chief of the European Central Bank, Draghi has been hailed for his role in pulling the EU out of the European debt crisis in 2012. He’s hoping that 2021 can mirror a similar, colossal turnaround. For Mario Draghi, it’s now his objective to prevent Italians going to the polls – by smoothly forming a new government and help recover Italy’s economy. 

For Tagliabue, the virus remains an ongoing threat. Despite the lifting of restrictions, she believes sticking to her built up routine will keep herself and others safe. But she is a believer too. She looks forward to the first gig that she can go to in a post-covid world.

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