As COVID cases spike in Europe, Italy stands out—but this time for doing things right

October 15, 2020, 3:15 PM UTC

Italy without its beloved calcetto—pickup soccer game—would have seemed a cruel and unusual punishment not long ago. In the age of the novel coronavirus, it’s the new normal.

On Monday, the Italian government decreed a new series of measures to combat a rise in COVID-19 cases. The list included a prohibition on contact sports for amateur athletes and no school-organized trips. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s government also mandated smaller wedding receptions and said it may unveil a new range of fines for households that throw big dinner parties. That last one caused a bit of a stir on Twitter.

Despite the zingers from Italian speakers on Twitter, the new restrictions came as little surprise to those who were paying attention. The government has been pushing hard data on the population, reporting last week, for example, that 77% of new infections had occurred between family members who picked up the virus at social gatherings such as birthday parties, weddings, and baptisms.

Elsewhere in the latest emergency decree, benign tweaks were made to existing rules, including the move to trim the coronavirus self-quarantine period from 14 days to ten.

In all, the measures looked methodical—tame, even—compared with elsewhere in Europe. Strict 9 p.m. curfews go into effect this weekend in Paris along with eight other French cities.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is going a step further, dividing the country into three tiered zones: hot, hotter, hottest. Johnson’s handling of the crisis is also dividing his biggest allies, and, more worryingly, his scientific advisers. The government’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, pronounced very publicly that he was “not confident” the latest U.K. plan could stop the disease’s spread.

A diss heard across Europe

In Italy, they’re watching Johnson’s crisis management skills with concern and a bit of bemusement. The U.K. and Johnson himself have been fairly critical of Italy’s handling of the pandemic since the outset. Johnson caused a big stir when he leaned on a bit of jingoism to explain why the U.K. is falling behind Italy and Germany in keeping infections down. (Because, he said in Parliament, Britain is “a freedom-loving country.”) His diss came through loud and clear across the Channel to Germans and Italians—that somehow, in Johnson’s mind, they are not.

That kind of criticism rankles the Italians. In early March, Italy was the first country to impose a nationwide lockdown, closing businesses and schools as deaths spiked in northern Italy. Officials had to choose between the health of an already vulnerable economy and the health of its citizens. It chose the latter, a choice it continues to defend.

In no way “did we abrogate the democratic rights of the people when we decided the lockdown measures,” says Franco Locatelli, the head of Italy’s supreme health council, a team of researchers, scientists, and doctors who have advised the Italian government throughout the COVID-19 public health crisis. “There is no violation of democracy in trying to protect the health of the people.”

Fortune spoke to Locatelli, who is also director of oncology-hematology and cell and gene therapy at the Bambino Gesù Pediatric Hospital in Rome. “We were convinced it was the only way to win the battle against COVID-19,” he says of that national lockdown order in March that drew attention from around the planet.

“From global pariah to a model”

Within days, Italy’s groundbreaking move seemed less and less extreme. Other democracies around the world soon followed the Italian model. And, in almost all cases, the effects have succeeded in blunting deadly outbreaks, giving health care officials precious time to assess what worked, what didn’t, and prepare for future waves.

By late summer, Italy was being lauded by the international public health community and by the press, including the New York Times, saying the country had “gone from global pariah to a model.”

Italy has hardly dodged the latest autumn wave of contagion hitting Europe, but it’s holding up better than neighboring countries. The number of infections per 100,000 in Italy is less than one-third the rate seen in Britain, Spain, and France.

As infection numbers climb across Europe, the region is once again splitting into two groups: those who are managing the latest wave with some level of efficiency (Germany, Denmark, and Italy) and those that are seeing alarming numbers (France, Spain, the Netherlands, and Great Britain).

In Italy, this latest wave comes as testing (rapid testing facilities are now operational at airports) and contact tracing (there’s an app that’s seeing a boom in downloads) have kicked into high gear across the country. It’s also come as schools and businesses have fully reopened. If there’s a silver lining in the latest numbers it’s that there are far fewer hospitalizations and deaths, always a lagging indicator. So far, that is.

The Immuni app is the tracking system managed by the government to counter the COVID-19 emergency. It’s been downloaded more than 8 million times. (Wire photography: Stefano Guidi—Getty Images)

Locatelli believes the Italian playbook—lock down quickly, open gradually—was effective in restoring some level of normalcy to everyday life by the early summer. The country reopened its borders to tourists in June along with much of the rest of the European Union. The usual cast of German, Dutch, and British tourists were easy to spot in Italy’s town squares this summer, though fewer in numbers.

Locatelli attributes the diminished wave of COVID lethality to the work they did on the fly in those hectic early months. Resources and staffing at hospitals and testing centers have increased, and there’s still a strong working partnership between scientific advisers and government officials—between those who suggest the safety measures and those who ultimately inscribe them into law. It’s helped that the messaging between the experts and politicians has been more or less in lockstep since day one.

No hyped-up cures or U-turns

Italian politics can seem like a zoo sometimes, but during the COVID outbreak government officials have looked clear-eyed and coordinated. There have been no rambling endorsements of untested COVID cures like hydroxychloroquine or embarrassing U-turns.

“Let me put it this way,” says Locatelli, “some decisions taken by other countries would not have been taken in Italy.”

That might explain why the level of public trust remains relatively strong in Italy, which you can see on the streets. More than four in five Italians are “very or quite willing” to wear a face mask (they have to; it’s the law). That level of compliance is among the highest in Europe.

To be sure, there are plenty of signs of fatigue. The negazionisti movement of COVID deniers have held a series of public demonstrations. But the last one, held on Oct. 10 in Rome, was so poorly attended, the media branded it “un flop.” It now appears destined to fade into the fringe.

Italy is hardly out of the bosco (woods). An Italian doctors’ union on Tuesday warned that Italian hospitals would quickly get overwhelmed should the number of COVID hospitalizations in Italy spike to the levels currently seen in France. But so far, that’s not a concern. On Wednesday, the number of Italians in the ICU stood at 539. In April, there were more than 4,000 in intensive care.

And then there’s the always shaky Italian economy. Italian GDP is expected to shrink 10.6% this year as the pandemic has devastated the twin engines of manufacturing and foreign tourism. It’s a slump the highly indebted economy could ill afford.

But the markets see something in Italy’s handling of the crisis that gives investors reason for optimism. For the first time in living memory, the Italian Treasury this week sold Italian bonds that carried a zero coupon.

It was oversubscribed, astounding market watchers.

Even with the tables turned, and Italy no longer considered Europe’s COVID hot zone, Locatelli still preaches caution. Until an effective vaccine arrives, he cautions, the public will have to adhere to strict social distancing rules and hygiene guidelines.

“We don’t want to underestimate the numbers,” he says. “That would be a great mistake.”

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