Coronavirus in Italy, another snapshot of YOUR future

The future is already here. It is just not evenly distributed.

Is the italian government doing the right thing?

Back in January, I too did spend some days into the “it’s just a flu” phase, suspecting that italian politicians were studying how COVID-19 could also become an excuse to work around the EU Stability and Growth Pact, and its debt ceiling.

This afternoon, the government finally announced a 25-billion Euros emergency plan.

A degree in medicine, or as nurse, is now enough to work in hospitals, without professional / state exams. Nationwide, this could add as much as 10K people to medical staffs really soon.

Money-wise, besides buying medical equipment the plan should suspend most mortgage and some tax payments, hand out money to families and small businesses, pay unemployment insurance for larger companies and more. Actual conditions, impact and effectiveness will take some days to understand. But someone is surely hoping to use part of that money to patch stuff, unrelated to the crisis, that EU would not let pass under normal conditions. And of course there will be frauds, too.

While full aware of this:

  • a non-negligible parts of those who will see some money sorely needed it even before COVID-19. Period
  • This is not the right moment to balance state budgets
  • in general, I feel that state and regional governments are doing the right thing with what is available and feasible here (see “Dark Side of Family Bonds” below), since 2/3 weeks at least, and this seems the sentiment of the majority. Especially because nobody doubts that this will take months to recover
Coronavirus in Italy, another snapshot of YOUR future /img/medicina-blindata.jpg
<a href="" target="_blank">Carabinieri blocking accesses to Medicina, near Bologna</a>


Personally, the one thing I think the government did wrong is to not close stations and airports immediately before announcing the countrywide lockdown, last week. When they heard that, thousands of Southerners working or studying in hard-hit Northern Italy jumped on planes and trains to go back home, in areas still relatively untouched by COVID-19 but with less hospitals.

I will never know if I would have done the same or not, in their shoes. But rationally, preventing such an exodus may have been a good thing. Today the small town of Medicina has been totally sealed because of a violent local outbreak, that could kill thousands if it reached crowded Bologna, just a few kilometers away. Places like Cingoli in the Marche, and Ariano Irpino in Campania are in similar conditions, for the same reason.

Meanwhile, air in Northern Italy is healthy as it has never been for decades.

Daily life (that could be yours soon)

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Italian street signs, CoVID19 version


As I anticipated last week, coronavirus is bringing out the best and worst in italian people and families.

Street gangs still fight with knives and clubs… but responsibly, that is wearing masks.

Some of those wealthy enough to afford it have run to their vacation homes in Sardinia or the Alps. That, I could understand. But when italian ski runs were shut down, the most resourceful specimens of the latter group drove their SUVs below Mount Blanc, to go breathe on the other side of the border. Social distancing, this is not. Monsieur Macron, could you quarantine those people there, forever? Please?

Those are exceptions, though. The majority of us is doing well, and probably still happy to be here rather than anywhere else.

Yes, those who can, including yours truly, sing together from balconies. Often with embarrassing results, but it’s good all the same. We already have a nationwide “balcony flashmob” schedule of songs to sings for the whole week. Today’s song is “Volare”. One meme making the rounds these days is

“enthusiastic balcony singing: good. SO enthusiastic that makes you spitting over the balcony below you: NOT GOOD, FFS”.

Another meme is the picture above: road directions to kitchen, bathroom, fridge and bedroom, none farther than 5,6 meters.

Besides singing, some lucky people live in apartments facing those of gym teachers, who call everybody in sight to exercise together.

Yesterday my family and my sister’s, kids and all, played a local traditional version of Trivial Pursuit… via Skype.

Italian sitcoms now feel as weird as Soviet movies from the Cold War. Our sincere, collective, instinctive reaction to a scene shot in a crowded, real farmer’s market here in Rome was to grunt “Is public safety so hard to get? A..holes!”

Then we laughed. But the whole thing continued to feel unreal. Alien.

Decluttering is having a field month all over the country. To kill time, families are sorting and throwing away stuff they never knew was in their closets. After respirators, we will have to manage a shortage of landfills. I just hope we remain smart enough to not refill homes with junk.

I’ve asked a dozen of locked down relatives and friends what change in their lives they would like to remain after the pandemics. The one thing they all said is “same time and focus as now for family, friendships, personal growth”.

The dark side of family bonds

(added on 2020/03/17, 2am): When I first read in this report that Coronavirus seems much more deadly for Italian senior citizens than South Korean ones, I immediately tought “could the reason be as simple as italian elders still more closer to sons and grandsons than SK ones?” I just found now two researchers making the same hypothesis. OK. What matters then is to make sure that “limiting the role of elders in daily family interactions” remains a strictly temporary measure, not a structural policy. Lonely people already die younger without Coronavirus.

Crime and (domestic) violence

If it exists, the Italian Home Burglars Union must be studying how to formally ask the government for a bailout, since business has tanked for them too. At the same time, there is an increase in reported domestic violence and concrete worries that more will go unreported, because quarantined victims have nowhere to go.

Coronavirus changed very little for a small, but very important number of people, because they were already locked down. I’m talking of journalists targeted by Mafia, like Federica Angeli.

The (future) larger picture, for Italy and every other country

Let’s now look at some “public” stuff that it is easier to see from here now, about how things will or should be when this is over.

Coronavirus is a digital issue

If, as I feel, Coronavirus is a digital issue, Italy is its ultimate focus group. Sixty millions beta testers working hard, willing or not, on digital culture and real competence. People, governments and businesses worldwide, pay attention.

Coronavirus is finally forcing Italy to become a digital country, says Forbes. Is it? Nah. Not yet, that is. A more appropriate description, for now, could be that Coronavirus is finally forcing Italians to learn basic facts as “the Internet is open even on Sundays”, and make long lists of the many “digital” things that we were not doing right.

A friend of mine begged to telecommute for years, no way. This week she finally got it, thanks to the lockdown… only to discover that all employees have to work in fixed shifts until 10pm, because the company has not enough licenses to allow everybody to work remotely, in the same moment.

All over the place, there are reports of digitized but incompatible versions of old procedures that are really hard to integrate, when it’s possible at all. Coronavirus is strenghtening my pre-existing hopes that the italian administration collapses… in the right way.

But all sectors have something to learn. Supermarket chains offering home deliveries of online orders may deliver them as late as April.

Some media outlets rightly denounce trolls who share dangerous fake news, while still keeping coronavirus information under paywalls:

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Please send a tweet to both @repubblica and @corriere asking them to stop this practice.

Coronavirus is an appropriate technology issue. And before that, a POLICY issue

While I write, there is an ongoing hackaton to design and deploy an open source ventilator. Italian makers are 3D printing spare valves for reanimation devices like this:

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as fast as they can. Good, obviously. But:

Where were we looking in those 10/12 years? To Juicero, dumb smart locks and tons of other NOT “smart” products.

Still, open source, DIY hardware is just a little part of the picture, that matters little at large scales. Italian hospitals need lots of spare valves yesterday. Whoever can 3D print and ship them just do it, patents be damned. But filling hospitals with open source complete respirators may be, as explained on Reddit, “In theory, a great idea, in practice probably not.": they would be of very little use without trained nurses and technicians.

Besides personnel, if not before, this indeed is the time to care for the Grey Matter of Supply Chains, because “Tech tools & open source product toys are useless without them”. Equally important, after the emergency, will be open modeling tools for capacity planning in hospitals.

Take-away lesson: Technology should be open, but it never is a solution. The way to use technology is. Including how it is chosen, regulated and funded. For pandemics, or everything else.

Last but not least: global politics and geopolitics

There is no such thing as free respirators and masks, or bulk purchases of vaccines. Not in forward-looking geopolitics, that is.

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China has sent supplies and experienced doctors from Sichuan. The Chinese embassy in Rome tweeted “Maybe you forgot that you helped China after the Wenchuan earthquake, but we will always remember, and now it’s our turn to help you”.

China is the country that could have contained this pandemic earlier. But it is the one sending doctors and supplies now. The US and their reputation (which around here also means NATO)? Off the radar, except for disbelief for the CureVac fiasco, or happyness for not being US.

Even the EU reputation has seen better days, unfortunately: “88% of Italians say “EU is not helping us” - % who say “EU membership is advantage” has dropped 16 pts to 21%."

The two things that matter with Coronavirus

As the situation evolves, it confirms two things I first said two weeks ago and further detailed last week (including the role I hope to play):

  1. people lives come first
  2. but Coronavirus is a great occasion to reboot what already needed rebooting

Here in Italy, or anywhere else. Wish us good luck, on both fronts. The worst thing we may all do after this virus is go back to live as if it were 2019.