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Streets with few people and closed shops mark daily life at the time of COVID-19 Coronavirus in Milan, Italy, March 11, 2020. © 2020 Carlo Cozzoli/Sipa via AP Images

I am an American living in Milan. That means that my phone and email have been blowing up with expressions of concern and suggestions that what’s happening in Italy is either sensible or excessive or simply unavoidable.

With Italy experiencing the biggest outbreak of coronavirus infections after China – as of March 15, Italy had recorded 27,980 cases, with 23,073 people currently sick and 2,158 deaths – the authorities have adopted the most restrictive measures to contain the new coronavirus of any country outside of China. Now many other countries in Europe, starting with Spain and France, are following suit, and the United States is beginning similar steps.

As of March 11, all bars, restaurants, and most stores in the entire country are closed. Food stores and pharmacies are open, as well as some newsstands and – this is Italy – tobacco shops. With everyone urged to stay home, the streets of normally noisy, polluted Milan are empty. Signs in supermarket windows exhort people to remain one meter (three feet) away from one another, and guards control how many people enter at a time. I recently waited to buy milk and pasta in an orderly line of about 20 people that wrapped around the block because we stood dutifully apart. As a protective, but painful, measure, many young people are staying away from their grandparents.


A lone juggler in a deserted park in Milan. Under the restrictions, people are allowed out to exercise by themselves. March 15, 2020. © 2020 Judith Sunderland/Human Rights Watch

My sons, ages 11, 17, and 18, haven’t set foot in school here in Milan since February 21, and a recent decree shut down all schools and universities across the country until April 3 at least. I have received literally hundreds of Whatsapp messages as everyone tries to figure out what’s going on, decipher confusing distance-learning instructions, and send each other mask-wearing emoji or funny memes. (One of the best shows a young woman all dressed in her winter coat, telling her mom she was going for a walk in the kitchen.)

It’s only now, three weeks into this crisis, that my children’s schools are starting to do online classes in earnest. And even so, it’s very haphazard. My sons have 26 teachers among them. So far, only 9 are trying to hold online classes. As much as they joke about how great it is not to go to school, I’ve seen how my sons’ eyes light up on these video calls with classmates and teachers. I see how this enforced isolation is affecting their well-being, and I worry whether prolonged time out of school will hold them back.

My sons are lucky; they have computers and internet and parents who help them keep on top of schoolwork. I worry about the children for whom school closures is a genuine tragedy. The younger children who will not be getting that one hot meal a day in the school cafeteria. The middle schoolers who don’t have internet at home, or a computer that’s available when they need it, or don’t have parents or siblings who can help them navigate the online platforms their teachers are imposing. The disaffected high schoolers for whom this is the perfect push to give up and quit school.

People standing one meter apart while on line outside a supermarket in Milan, March 12, 2020. © 2020 Judith Sunderland/Human Rights Watch

In the face of the current outbreak, we may need to accept restrictions on freedom of movement to slow down the spread of the infection. In addition to the children who suffer because of school closures, I think of all the people who are disproportionately affected by this crisis. Older people, people with disabilities, working families who are missing wages, and people behind bars are among the hardest hit. Women, who make up the majority of caregivers, healthcare workers, and teachers, are the most likely to have to deal with extra childcare responsibilities due to school closures as well as increased risk of contagion. Undocumented migrants and asylum seekers have no or limited access to health care besides going to the emergency room. The homeless who no longer have anywhere to go as day centers and soup kitchens close.

Detainees in overcrowded prisons and their families across Italy, including in a nearby pretrial prison, are protesting the ban on family visitation and supervised release and asking for increased opportunities for house arrest. People held in crowded, unhygienic immigration detention centers are also at serious risk of an uncontrolled outbreak. Italians of Chinese descent, or Chinese immigrants, or anyone who is perceived to be Chinese have been stigmatized, insulted, and physically attacked, their businesses shunned and shuttered.

The Italian government is considering a raft of financial measures that could help mitigate some of the worst impacts of the lockdown, including for low-income families and those coping with extra childcare needs. Special measures may be adopted to support employers and workers to allow paid leave and prevent people from being fired, though concerns remain about freelance, contract, and seasonal workers who may be left unprotected.

A homemade sign hanging on a bridge over one of Milan’s canals with the slogan, "Tutto Andrà Bene" ("Everything Will Be OK"), March 15, 2020. © 2020 Judith Sunderland/Human Rights Watch

It would be good to hear more about what the government will do to combat racism, protect the rights of detainees, ensure that food and medicines reach those who need it, and ensure that migrants and asylum seekers have access to information and preventive health care, and help keep track of students who may be falling through the cracks.

Yet even inside the dystopian fog that has settled over Milan, there is a sense of solidarity and purpose. On March 13, people here and across the country leaned out their windows and stood on their balconies to sing, play musical instruments, and bang pots in joyful determination. We did it too. People are banding together (by staying apart) out of a sense of duty to protect those most at risk from falling seriously ill, and to support the severely strained public health system and all the doctors and nurses working tirelessly for weeks now. This coronavirus has put the system to a severe shock test while also demonstrating the importance of robust and accessible public healthcare.

It’s easier to say in hindsight, but it’s possible that acting sooner, with consistent and clear messaging, could have meant less draconian restrictions. Getting public health messages out faster and encouraging volunteer social distancing strategies, including having people work from home when possible and prohibiting large events and meetings, earlier might have slowed the spread of the virus and potentially allowed us to avoid the current lockdown.

But this is reality. So like people across Italy, I’ll be staying at home as much as possible, keeping my distance when I go grocery shopping, washing my hands a lot. And hanging out on Skype with friends who live around the corner. 

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