On March 9th, Italy set precedent as the first European country to enter a lockdown in the hope of forestalling the coronavirus, which induces the highly contagious COVID-19. As of that date, sixteen million people were affected by movement and transportation restrictions, leaving a quarter of the population frozen. The lockdown is expected to conclude on April 3rd.
The global pandemic has hit Italy hard. Only China and the United States have outstripped the Mediterranean nation in cases reported worldwide, with 81,700 and 82,400 cases respectively compared to the former’s 80,500 as of March 26th. Italy, however, has claimed the dubious honour of having the highest death count, with Al Jazeera reporting more than 10,000 dead on March 28th.
The death toll is bad enough, but both the virus and the steps taken to contain it have been wreaking chaos on Italian stability. Economic output has declined an estimated 15%, with Reuters reporting a drop in the Milan stock exchange of almost 30% since February 20th. The country’s valuable tourism and transportation industries have lost 90% of their normal profits, pushing an already teetering country that much deeper into recession. 43 detainees escaped during riots at more than two dozen prisons over lockdown changes to visitor policies; though most were returned, six detainees died of methadone overdose after breaking into prison infirmaries. The lockdown restrictions are the most severe a Western nation has experienced since World War II, leaving Italians uncertain of their survival and livelihoods.
“It looks like an apocalypse has struck,” Mario Monfreda, a restaurateur based in Rome, told Reuters. ”This will reduce us to nothing … More people are going to die of the economic crisis that this lockdown is going to cause than the virus itself.”
As the world begins to follow in Italy’s example, people everywhere are finding themselves in a similarly apocalyptic landscape. In Johannesburg, South Africa, police have fired rubber bullets at a crowd of hundreds because the queue of shoppers was not following social distancing restrictions. Beaches in the United Kingdom are begging Brits to stay home after the number of COVID-19 cases in the country rose by 2,546 within 24 hours on Saturday, due in no small part to rebellious parties breaking out along the coast.
In Haiti, the ransom-motivated kidnapping of Dr. Jerry Bitar, director of one of the country’s top hospitals, has prompted crowds to rally for his unconditional return. Although the hospital is not currently treating any patients for coronavirus, many Haitians struggle to find the clean water necessary for the frequent hand washings suggested to stop the spread. Limited access to news sources means the streets are still thronged with people – a recipe for rapid contagion, made especially dangerous by the country’s lack of ventilators and threadbare health services.
Though the increasing number of cases worldwide is scary, it is also a good sign. More positive cases found means more tests are being run, allowing infections to be discovered and treated. COVID-19’s greatest danger is that it spreads exponentially, heavily straining healthcare systems. As cases are identified, isolated, and quarantined, we have a better shot at controlling its spread. To that end, free, quick, and easily obtainable testing is required.
In the U.S., the FDA’s emergency use authorization on Friday of Abbott Laboratories’ new ID NOW test seems like a good first step. Those need to be on the ground and ready to go now, without questions of affordability and profitability. As the COVID Tracking Project shows, America has failed miserably to keep up with the rest of the world in administering tests, and the American people have paid the price. The first priority of news media should be informing the people, not increasing viewership or sowing fear.
Coronavirus is real; it is dangerous and it is out there. No amount of sticking our heads in the sand and claims of political conspiracy is going to make it go away. However, it is not an unknowable and undefeatable horror bound to sweep death into every threshold of the world. New and strange diseases have been beaten back before. COVID-19 is not a death sentence, and, according to Al Jazeera, currently ”ver 120,000 people worldwide have recovered…while more than 23,000 people have died.”
The easiest way to prevent coronavirus from spreading is to give people what they need to keep themselves safe. We need paid time off to go get tested, and we need testing to be convenient and nonjudgmental; we need information about whether we warrant a test and what to do with those results; we need an accurate, unbiased news source that does not stoop to fearmongering, finger-pointing or fraud; we need resources, such as soap, clean water and fresh food in every house, to prevent contagion and keep immune systems healthy; we need rents and mortgages to be frozen and decent housing to be provided for those without.
There are so many ways this crisis has been mishandled in the U.S., from Donald Trump disbanding the Global Health Security and Biodefense team in 2018, to racism and xenophobia, to individual citizens disrespecting social distancing guidelines in the name of personal freedom. But even now, silver linings are plentiful. Communities are banding together to take care of each other, the way they always should have. The declines in tourism and daily business commutes have slashed pollution in a way we have not seen in years. Healthcare workers and so many others are putting themselves on the line every day to save and revitalize as many as they can. Warehouse, customer service, and food service workers are seizing long-deserved power and respect from a heretofore unseen position of power.
This is a disaster, but it is bringing together people who would otherwise never have spoken. As much we are losing – strangers, loved ones, moments in time – we are finding each other, every day. And in Italy, from locked balcony to locked balcony, people are singing. They are singing for each other.
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