Reflections on the Second Wave of COVID-19

As we head towards the so-called “second wave” of COVID-19, Italy is no longer at the forefront of the disease. Indeed, while back in March we led the sad tally of infections and deaths, we were also the first to enforce a country-wide lockdown. That, coupled with the shock from what we were seeing, made people accept and follow the rules. This is not something anyone took for granted: Italians have a strong tendency to disregard authority, but the worst that happened at the time was that couch potatoes claimed they needed to go out for a run, or something to that effect. We didn’t even hoard toilet paper, undoubtedly thanks to the ubiquitous presence of bidets, however we did hoard flour and baker’s yeast; pizza and bread were made and eaten, for if life is short, then carbs are the way.

The serious lockdown worked wonders for Italy, but then came the summer. As businesses slowly reopened and people were let out of their alleged houses-turned-cages, many forgot that the virus was still going around. I remember the day we had less than a thousand new cases: it did feel like victory, and I recall writing something like “Can we not mess this up, please?” on my personal Facebook profile; heart reactions only. We had made it. We had beaten the virus, scores of deaths notwithstanding. It felt good. Almost too good. People started traveling, meeting up, partying. Yet that dreaded word we had learned during the lockdown, assembramenti, echoed and lingered. It means gatherings, but with an ominous undertone of a shapeless mass of people all clustered together, the kind of thing that could turn into a stampede in the blink of an eye.

But it felt good to be out, and life was good. We had won. We watched the news reporting from other countries, and we felt good about ourselves. Look at the United States, how they managed to politicize even something as basic and obvious as face masks in the middle of a planet-wide pandemic. We conveniently forgot that several of our own politicians had been politicizing everything about the pandemic as well, but hey, we had won. Look at Brazil, how many people are getting infected because they believe the lies that Bolsonaro spreads. Look at the United Kingdom, bet they didn’t see this mess coming on top of Brexit, now did they? Look at Sweden, with their crazy plan for herd immunity. Why doesn’t everyone else enforce a full lockdown? We did it, and we won. It’s so easy. Campioni del mondo, campioni del mondo.

Then the summer season did that annoying thing that it’s been doing for time immemorial: it yielded to autumn. A few countries in Europe began counting more and more cases. Spain and France, especially, but not just them. They had all entered lockdown after us back in March, and in some cases left it earlier. Of course they’re having more cases, many of us thought: they didn’t learn the lesson. They didn’t win like we did. To tell the truth, they didn’t lose either: they did manage to flatten the curve, unlike other countries where the first wave effectively never ended. But they were falling for it again. That surely won’t happen to us, we told one another, to reassure us that the newly-rediscovered “old world” would not be taken away from us once more. After all, we won. We had won.

Come September. Schools reopened. People went back to work full time. Buses and trains and subways and trams were ridden. Like the first few snowflakes that slide over one another before eventually turning into an avalanche that destroys anything along its way, we dismissed the early signs. It’s inevitable, it’s expected. It’s physiological, a word we commonly use in Italian to describe something typical and unsurprising, completely oblivious to the irony of using it in this context. But as more and more calls for caution came from experts, louder and louder grew the complaints from both leaders and everyday folk. We can’t afford another lockdown, some said. We can’t let people die in the name of the economy, others replied. If we don’t die from the virus, then we’ll die from starvation, others still interjected. Those who had been pushing hoaxes and conspiracy theories, whether through ignorance or malice, or perhaps both, were having a field day spreading uncertainty and fear.

All the memories about the reasons behind the spring lockdown suddenly seem to have been forgotten by most. Many only remember that we went through that, and that it was difficult. But they forgot why we did that in the first place. They now feel that they were the true heroes for staying home watching Netflix all day, yet at the time they cried for the front-line doctors and nurses who risked their own lives to fight the actual fight. They now feel sick at the thought of being stuck inside for a few weeks again, yet at the time everyone’s biggest fear was for a relative to be hospitalized, because that meant not being able to even say goodbye if things were to take a turn for the worst. They now want their old life back because they had one more taste of it, yet in March they dared not even think about the future, as the news on TV mercilessly showed military trucks carrying the dead from hospitals to cemeteries.

As I’m writing this, Italy has had just below 20,000 new cases a day for two days in a row. Certainly a far cry from France and Spain’s situation, but these numbers double every week or so. Restrictions are coming, and a Christmas lockdown cannot be entirely ruled out. A few politicians are already going for it, which I personally find baffling — I have long given up any religion, but I distinctly remember being taught that God is everywhere (for better or worse), so that not being able to go to church really makes no difference if you’re a true believer. But that is beyond the point. The point is that things are going to take a turn for the worse soon, as more cases in general mean more serious cases, and more serious cases mean more hospitalizations, and more hospitalizations means more people in intensive care, and more people in intensive care means that eventually someone will not find a spot, and not having enough spots means that choices will have to be made about who gets to take those available spots. Some readers will undoubtedly be thinking that I am perversely enjoying writing such things, but believe me you, I find absolutely no enjoyment in saying these things, and indeed am extremely concerned about my own family. There is nothing I wish I could do more than reboot this timeline. But I learned long ago that pretending that everything is fine when everything is actually on fire only prevents proper planning and action. It’s just how it is, and me not liking it won’t make one iota of difference.

It would be easy to blame the young who want to meet their friends, or say that schools should have been reopened more carefully, to explain the current situation. But there’s no single cause of fault here. The simple fact is that the world has changed, and that until a vaccine comes out, things are going to be different. And that is assuming that a vaccine does come out and is effective in the long term. It’s not the first time that something comes along and changes everything for everyone. The World Wars, the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11 and more all come to mind. Yet those were all things that we, humans as a species, brought on. This is different, this is us that we were all collectively forced to deal with, and we don’t even know how long it will take. That’s what makes it hard to accept. (I won’t even entertain the concept of this virus being made in a lab, any more than I entertain the idea of airplanes leaving “chemtrails”: just like all pilots must eventually land, so has this virus hit everywhere.)

It is only natural to crave and pine for what we lost. Yet what needs to be done is to look ahead, even though it may not be easy, and it certainly is not. Had we accepted all of this sooner, had we not deluded ourselves into thinking that the worst was behind us, we may have avoided this. We thought that we had won, and we had; but we mistook the battle for the war, and cheered way too soon.

What concerns me is that, even as the numbers climb, many are still acting cocky. Just one example: a rule was made here for businesses to close at midnight, to prevent those alcohol-fuelled gatherings that are more likely to happen at night than during the day. A few businesses owners shut down at midnight as expected, and then opened again at five minutes past midnight. Perfectly legal, for sure, since the decree did not set up a time for reopening, but what does that accomplish beyond a few headlines and pats on the back for “standing up against the system”? What these people fail to see is twofold: that this is not a game of force, rather a game of strategy; and that this is about everyone, not just them individually.

Things are going to get worse before they get better, and if history has taught us anything, is that any pandemic’s second wave is usually worse than the first. We do have one huge advantage, however: we have statistics, science and data on our side. That’s unprecedented, and could make the difference in getting this disease under control more effectively and quickly than any other. We could coordinate efforts on a global scale. All it takes is to look beyond petty interests and disagreements, and work together on all levels: from governments sharing information and planning responses and reactions, to all of us wearing masks and practicing basic hygiene, if we really cannot avoid going places.

This virus, this enemy, this thing that we cannot see yet has managed to overthrow our sense of normalcy, it can only spread if we physically stay within reach of one another. That is its strength, for losing that makes us feel like we are not ourselves anymore; we are social animals, after all. And even thought our global, small world has sped up the spread of this virus, it also means that we have our cumulative, global knowledge to use against it.

Let us not fool ourselves: this winter — or summer, if you’re south of the equator — will not be easy. During the (first?) lockdown, Italians loved saying and writing “andrà tutto bene”: everything will be alright. It will, eventually. But they also kept saying “io resto a casa”: I’m staying home.

This is not something that the governments, the powers that be, the big guys can handle on their own. Our very actions can and do make a difference.

So I’ll ask for a favor once again.

Can we not mess this up, please?


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Toward Phase 2 in Italy: thoughts and reflections

I haven’t posted in a while, and for that I apologize. Many people have been asking me how things have been going here in Italy, but the truth is that there’s been little to talk about. We mostly stayed inside, mostly followed the rules, and the curve was mostly flattened.

Over the last few weeks, however, a certain sense of restlessness took over the country. Politicians began complaining about the government’s rules still being too tight, which in itself is a glimpse of normality, which in turn both echoed and triggered people’s complaints. Many were expecting the 4th of May to bring a broad start to the so-called “Phase 2”, that is a wide removal of restrictions, but the government is still very cautious: starting tomorrow, a few people can go back to work, mostly those who work in manufacturing, and a few restrictions will be lifted, such as those currently limiting where individual sports can be practiced. Further restrictions will be lifted in one and two weeks, with even more (notably allowing hairdressers and beauty centers to reopen under certain conditions) in early June.

All of this, of course, provided that the numbers don’t go back up; if they do, we’re back into lockdown, and who knows for how long.

Getting here hasn’t been easy and there were certainly mistakes in how the whole thing was handled. The healthcare system in Italy has been severely underfunded in many areas for decades, and the fact that each Region handles healthcare separately also prevented a swift response; a few memos also leaked showing that the risk was known, but apparently ignored. Furthermore, in some areas more than others, proper testing is still not at scale, and many retirement homes have an almost 100% fatality rate, either because non-critical covid patients were moved there to make room in already overwhelmed hospitals, or just because all it takes was an asymptomatic visitor to have it spread like wildfire in an area where everyone is at risk. Still, time — and courts of law — will tell who is responsible for what.

While waiting for the upcoming slow reopening, a few governors (aka Regional presidents) and mayors have begun overridding the rules set out by the government. Depending on the area, restrictions may be tighter or looser. It makes sense on theory, but in practice it has led to the point where nobody has figured out what is or is not allowed. Many online newspapers are scrambling to post and update bullet point lists on that very topic, with readers being more and more confused.

The problem is that the latest decree on this reopening used very ambiguous verbiage, such as saying that people can now go and visit “congiunti”, a somewhat unusual word in everyday Italian that originally meant “relatives”, but can be intended to more broadly refer to “loved ones”. The immediate reaction was that it ignored non-standard relationships (such as civil unions as opposed to marriage), then people started wondering if that would include boyfriends and girlfriends in general. And what about friends? Or friends with benefits? How do you even certify that, anyway? A memo about that was posted by the government late last night: “congiunti” refers to relatives, partners and significant others as long as a “stable emotional bond” is in place between two people, explicitly excluding friends. I jokingly asked on Facebook: does that include people I’ve hated for the past twenty years? That’s a pretty stable emotion, if you ask me…

Then you have catholic bishops claiming that, since catholic mass is still not allowed except for very small funeral services in the open, this is an attack on religious freedom. Even the Pope himself said that health comes first and that there’s no such attack on anything, but in a country like Italy, where most people claim to be catholic despite not really caring until it’s about showing off crucifixes everywhere, that quickly snowballed into a few politicians demanding that churches be reopened in spite of the still pretty big health risks of putting together a bunch of people in small quarters.

In his speech outlining the provisions for early Phase Two, the Prime Minister said: “If you love Italy, keep your distance from others”. That also means following all the requirements that are still in place, such as wearing masks when inside shops and the like, avoiding unnecessary travel and contacts, and so on. And yet, the early and very cautious opportunities to go out granted by a few mayors were welcomed by hordes of people acting like not only this is were all behind us, but like it was never an issue in the first place.

Inevitably, all of this has split people’s opinions on what to expect in the next few weeks. Many are giddy and excited about Phase Two, about being able to go out again and resume their lives, and moving on. Others hope to be wrong but fear that in two weeks’ time we’ll back to another long-term lockdown.

Personally, I’m sorry to say that I lean more towards the second camp: I’m old enough and I’ve seen enough that makes it impossible for me to trust people on such a grand scale. I’m not necessarily anticipating another full lockdown, but I do think that numbers will go back up at least a little bit and, most importantly, I do not share the delusion of things going back to “normal” any time soon.

In fact, and this may sound gloomy to some but I just call it being pragmatic, I think that the world has already changed, whether we like it or not. I’m not saying that we won’t ever go back to being shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers, or to packing stadiums to the brim for concerts, or to boarding a plane like it’s no big deal; but it’ll take a long time until we’re reasonably sure that this thing is not a risk anymore.

Contact tracing systems, despite all the privacy concerns surrounding them, could be very helpful if developed reliably and used properly, but would still only be a temporary stopgap. Until a vaccine is found, provided that this virus does leave a trace of immunity, this is going to shape our daily lives and, in a sense, force us to reconsider our role in the grand scheme of things, both individually and as humans as whole. It is scary, and it is perfectly normal to feel uneasy. Going through the five stages of grief is pretty common, if you ask people around. Sky News UK has posted an article about how the country generally feels, and it’s well worth a read.

I honestly don’t know if the original hashtag of this thing, #andràtuttobene (i.e. #everythingwillbealright) still applies. Two people I know have lost their fathers to this disease, and that was a slap-in-the-face reminder that the daily numbers tell stories of thousands of family tragedies, as I was mentioning in my other post. But I do know that overall, maybe not individually but as a species as a whole, we’ll get through it and, hopefully, learn from this. Just think about how many things seemed so fundamental for every single one of us just two months ago, and how everything has changed now. It’s scary, it really is. But maybe it’s also a very rare opportunity to change things for the better.

It’s up to us.


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Making sense of the Covid19 Italian numbers

As promised on Facebook (for the few who follow me there), here’s a look at the latest numbers coming from Italy about Covid19.

Those numbers are being used as a reference in many countries to warn people: look at how badly Italy is doing! And yes, it’s a mess, but not for the reasons that may seem obvious at a glance. Numbers mean nothing without some context, and that’s what I’ll try to provide here. Keep in mind that I’m not a statistician and this is all my own work, so any mistakes you may find are to be blamed exclusively on me.

First of all, this table in the official GitHub repository by the Prime Minister’s Office is updated daily, so it’s worth a bookmark. The field names are in Italian, so for those who don’t speak the language:

data date (Italian time zone)
stato country (always ITA)
ricoverati_con_sintomi hospitalized with symptoms
terapia_intensiva in intensive care
totale_ospedalizzati total hospitalized
isolamento_domiciliare isolated at home (under medical surveillance)
totale_attualmente_positivi current total positives
nuovi_attualmente_positivi new total positives (compared to yesterday)
dimessi_guariti discharged and recovered
deceduti deceased
totale_casi total cases
tamponi tests

Let’s first look at what we have. At the time of writing this, the latest data is from 21 March. There’s a handy table for that, further split by Region. We’ll only look at the bottom line, which looks at the country as a whole.

Covid19 Italian data as of 2020-03-21

  • The number of active cases is 42,681, of which:
    • 22,116 (~51.8%) are isolated at home, likely because they show mild or no symptoms
    • 20,565 (~48.2%) are hospitalized, of which:
      • 17,708 (~86.1%) are not in intensive care, likely because they show mild or non-life-threatening symptoms
      • 2,857 (~13.9%) are in intensive care

What the data doesn’t immediately say is that 6.6% of current registered cases (2,857 out of 42,681) is currently in intensive care, while the 93.4% does not require that. We clearly cannot tell how many currently in intensive care will die, or how many will worsen to the point of needing intensive care.
Let me put that another way: over 9 out of 10 registered cases are not in intensive care, and indeed half of them are not even hospitalized. Of those who are, about 1 out of 7 requires intensive care; if that’s scary, flip it into hope: 6 out of 7 people hospitalized do not need intensive care.

The total number of registered cases is 53,578, meaning that 10,897 cases are “closed”. Out of those, 6,072 recovered and 4,825 died. That is admittedly scary, and this is the part where people generally get upset, because it seems insensitive. So, before I even present some data, let me preface that by saying that I mean no disrespect to anyone, and that I have many relatives (including my parents) who are approaching the demographics I’ll discuss, so of course I am personally worried. With that disclaimer, let’s look at the numbers.

The National Health Institute keeps daily statistics here, another page worth bookmarking. The latest infographics shows that the average patient age is 63, with 36.2% of all cases being over 70 and 37.5% being between 51 and 70. Let’s flip the numbers again to get a better picture: confirmed patients of any age between 0 and 50 are 26.3%, while cases over 50 are 73.7%. That’s three times as much. And before we look at what that means, let’s throw in some other numbers: the extended report, last published 3 days ago, shows that the percentage of deaths by age group is less than 1% for each range up to 40-49, increases slightly to 2.7% for ages 50-59, grows to 10.2% for ages 60-69, then jumps to 35.8% for ages 70-79 and becomes a whopping 40.8% for ages 80-89. It then decreases to 9.4 for people over 90+, most likely because there aren’t as many people that old to begin with.

Before we make sense of all those numbers, let’s look at the general demographics of Italy. We only really need one dataset, that is the population pyramid. This is from the UN’s World Population Prospects:

Italian population pyramid for 2020

The median age in Italy is 47.3 years, but that alone doesn’t say much. You really need this graph to realize that there are more elderly people than young people. Italy is pretty old, and Covid19 attacks older people more easily. That is one of the reasons why our numbers are so high: it’s simply more likely for our aging population to be affected, and older people are also more likely to have pre-existing medical conditions — technically called “comorbidities” — that are exacerbated by Covid19 and ultimately lead to death.

If that weren’t enough, there are also some social and cultural factors coming into play: the “sense of family” is pretty strong here, and many people here live with their parents until they’re in their 30s or even later. Even if they don’t, family gatherings are a common ritual, so there’s a lot of inter-generational mingling. Other countries may have a more “compartmentalized” society, which may help reduce the risk of infection across different age groups.

One last factor complicating the Italian situation doesn’t affect just the numbers themselves, but also all the percentages being thrown around. Many people who test positive to the virus are completely asymptomatic, and testing centers across the country are already at capacity. As a consequence, in many areas only people with serious symptoms are tested, in order to move them to the newly created “Covid hospitals” (i.e. hospitals or parts thereof that have been dedicated exclusively to Covid19 patients, in order to aid in containment). Many people with mild symptoms are being told to isolate at home under medical surveillance, but are not counted as positive, simply because they are not tested unless necessary. Furthermore, it’s unclear how many people are dying at home from Covid19 complications, and those are not officially counted among the infected either, for the same reason: they were never tested.

Note that I said “many areas”. That’s because the healthcare system in Italy is run independently by each Region, so the choice on whom to test varies in each location. The decision is usually based on how dire the situation is, how many testing labs are available nearby, and ultimately how much money is available. As a side note, and I’ve said this before, it’s almost a blessing in disguise that the worst affected areas are in the north; had the epidemics started in the chronically underfunded south, things would be way, way worse.

Still, the net result of all this is that the numbers you see are making less and less sense as we go forward. Ultimately, we have no clear idea how many people are effectively infected, with some estimates saying that for each confirmed case there are at least five unconfirmed ones; we don’t know how many people are dying from Covid19 complications, because some may die before being tested; and, consequently, the mortality rate is also meaningless, since both the numerator (deaths) and denominator (infections) are unreliable.

So, is it just total mayhem? Sort of. As someone who’s living through this on a daily basis, I think that the best thing we can do, and I believe that this should be the case in other countries as well, is not to focus on the numbers. I know it sounds like borderline blasphemy, but hear me out. We saw this above: even in an old country like Italy, over half of all confirmed patients have symptoms so mild that they just ought to stay at home, and out of the other half that’s hospitalized, 86% is not in intensive care. And most of those who are more seriously affected and die are either older people, or those with serious pre-existing conditions. Once again, I am not dismissing that are mere statistics, and I’m well aware that each unit in those numbers is actually a personal tragedy and a broken family; really, I am not dismissing that in the slightest, but I think it’s important to look at the bigger picture if we want to get through this without going crazy.

The combination of being locked inside and being constantly exposed to growing numbers, especially as those numbers are thrown around by the media without absolutely any context or explanation, are freaking people out. It’s probably hard to explain to non-Italians right now, but it will start happening elsewhere as well. You can’t leave the house unless you have a valid reason due to the pandemic (something that’s been abused so much by some people that last night the government tightened that requirement even further), and all you hear about the pandemic is how every day more and more people are catching and dying from it.

It’s not just the evening news on TV, it’s the online news as well, that you can read in real time whenever you want; it’s the Google alerts, it’s the posts on Facebook, the tweets, the group chats and chains on WhatsApp. Italians in particular were hit like a freight train by the social media revolution in the last few years, but were not prepared for it. Most people simply fall for clickbait and fake news, often spreading it further in good faith. Even I struggle to make sense of all this, despite being quite well versed into reading through the lines and not taking raw numbers at face value, and with over six years of experience as a search engine evaluator. I find myself reassuring my parents that things are not as bad as the numbers suggest, and urging them not to fixate on the numbers they hear on TV, or the absurd titles such as “It’s a global war”. Is it really surprising that people feel hopeless?

Just yesterday I had to help a relative through figuring out whether an “call for action” she had gotten from a contact via WhatsApp was real or not, and it took me over 40 minutes of sifting through web pages to tell her what to do; and again, I’m someone who evaluates web pages for a living, and who’s been online for the last 24 years, long before Google even existed. Most people have no such tools or skills, get overwhelmed by all they hear, have no idea whom to believe, and either get depressed, or panic, or both. And they can’t be blamed.

But, once again, and this is for all my foreign friends who keep reading those numbers with even less context on their own national media: take them with a grain of salt and keep in mind that there’s always more to things than raw figures. Don’t let that freak you out. The situation is serious, and it will likely get serious in other countries as well. There’s no point in hiding that. But rest assured that, as bad as it is in some areas, this is not the apocalypse. There are no corpses piled up in the street, there is no shortage of groceries, and most people at home are simply bored at this point.

Do your part to prevent this thing from spreading. That’s the best thing you can do. You’ve heard this a million times but I’ll give a quick recap:

  • stay at least one meter / three feet away from others, even if you share an apartment… you can never be too careful
  • don’t go out unless absolutely necessary and always following your local regulations
  • wash your hands regularly and thoroughly with soap, or use hand sanitizer as an alternative
  • don’t touch your face unless you’ve just washed your hands
  • only wear a mask if you are showing symptoms, otherwise it’s useless or even counterproductive
  • keep in mind that the virus is not airborne
  • in case you develop symptoms, follow your local regulations on what to do; as a rule of thumb, call your doctor (don’t just go!)
  • when buying groceries, buy a little more than you normally would but for the love of all that’s holy, do not hoard anything! doing so simply prevents others from getting their fair share of things and is causing more trouble than the virus itself

And, if I may add one personal suggestion: stay away from social media and from the news, or at least don’t spend too much time on them. It changes absolutely nothing about what’s going on, yet it alters your perception and fuels the sense of gloom and doom and impending armageddon, and that’s really the one thing we should avoid. Mass hysteria never led to anything good. Things will get worse before they get better, but — and this is the one key takeaway — the more we stick to doing our part, the sooner that will happen. That’s really all there is to it. We’re in this together.

On a lighter note, the forced lockdown is pushing many social gathering to become streaming events, and that includes religious functions. However, not everyone is completely at ease with technology yet. For instance, this catholic priest accidentally celebrated his Sunday mass with face filters on, and the result is quite amusing…


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Concerned, not panicked

I’m being asked by many people to post a follow-up to my previous post, especially as most news outlets abroad keep mentioning Italy as the place with most covid19 cases, without explaining in detail what’s going on. This is hardly surprising, considering that at this point most countries in Europe and beyond are starting to have their own considerable amount of positives and the media attention inevitably shifts to the local situation.

I will try my best to post more often, and to provide some additional information “from the inside”. I’m not committing to any posting schedule, however. As I said in the previous post, I’ve been working from home for years now, so at this stage nothing has changed for me; if anything, there’s actually more work than usual with one of the companies I work for, as the virus itself has become central to what we do. Time for writing, therefore, is limited.

A recap about the numbers themselves. As I’m writing this, at 11 pm on 19 March, the official figures report a total of 41,035 positives, with 4,440 recovered and 3,405 dead. The vast majority of positives (that includes those who recovered) are in Lombardia with 19,884, followed by Emilia-Romagna with 5,214 and Veneto with 3,484. For those who ask about me specifically: my Region, Abruzzo, has 385 positives.
The curve is still climbing, with the steepest 24-hour increase so far (4,400+ for the whole country). I’m not going to explore the numbers in depth, but anyone wishing to do so can use this official recap or even access the full dataset in this GitHub repository. Another source is Worldometers but keep in mind that day-to-day numbers across various sources may vary, as each dataset is updated at a different time.

To be clear, I do not have any new first-hand accounts of what’s going on around the country, or even in my town. Since I went to buy some groceries for both my parents and myself last Saturday, I haven’t gone anywhere other than for brief walks with my dog. As some know, I live in the outskirts of my town, where it basically turns into a countryside, so it’s hard to even tell that anything is different at all. Fewer cars on the road, sure, but you almost have to pay attention to notice that. The only thing that’s distinctly different, and kind of odd, is that after sunset someone blasts loud music, allegedly to cheer people up. I’m not sure how long that will keep happening because at some point someone is bound to force them to stop doing that — I can hear that from half a kilometer away, and I can’t imagine what it must be like to go through that every day when it’s coming from your same building. Especially as it’s terrible music.

Many asked me if it’s true that everything is descending into chaos. No, not exactly, but I suppose it depends on what your definition of chaos is. As the numbers show, there is a wild disproportion of infections across various parts of the country. It is worth pointing out that the big issue with this disease is not how much it kills, but how many people are hospitalized. Especially in a country full of elderly people like Italy, the situation can quickly become dire. Remember that hospitals always work on the assumption that only a certain amount of people will require a specific kind of medical care, and while there’s some wiggle room in terms of reorganizing wards, moving beds and acquiring more equipment, there’s only so much that can be done. What would happen if everyone withdrew all their money from the bank? The whole banking system would collapse. That’s pretty much the problem with this virus, and why everyone’s telling you to try and do your best to flatten the curve.

So, it is true that the healthcare system, especially in Lombardia, is at its wit’s end. New intensive care units have been built from the ground up, and temporary hospitals have been set up as well. The problem is that the actual medical hardware equipment needed to treat these people, namely ventilators and other similar tools, are simply not aware. There has been talk about the central government — each Region runs its own healthcare system — taking over at least for procurement, but I am not entirely sure how that effort is going, or whether it’s actually been implemented. As much as I love to stay informed, there’s a threshold beyond which even the best-intentioned brain just shuts down and everything turns to white noise. I’ll provide updates in upcoming posts. For now, the silver lining is that the most cases are in one of the best-equipped Regions, as things could have been much worse if the infection had started from the other side of the boot.

Some provinces, in particular Bergamo and Brescia (both in Lombardia), are doing pretty badly, objectively. The outbreak has flared up, and there have been several things that are just hard to stomach. Not only patients have to be moved across the country because hospitals are running out of bed, but the Army had to pick up coffins and move them elsewhere because the crematoriums just can’t cope. As I said many times, I live quite south of that, but seeing those images is suddenly making the whole thing a lot more real. There have also been specific gut-wrenching instances of people not being able to do anything about relatives dying inside their house, as was the case of actor Luca Franzese, whose 47-year-old sister died in Naples and he had to resort to calling for help on social media, since funeral homes were lacking specific instructions on how to handle potentially dangerous cases like that and were refusing. Ultimately the situation was resolved with a waiver, some hazmat suits and whatever else was needed, but that’s definitely not the kind of thing anyone should have to deal with right after a loved one passed away.

Still, that also made the whole virus more real, because while we patiently wait for the daily press releases or look for updates online, it’s sadly easy to forget how each unit in those numbers is a real person with a history, a family, a past and, unfortunately not always, a future. So, am I concerned? Yes. But am I panicking? No.

I know I described a pretty bleak situation, but then again, if I am going to do this, I’ll just be honest. And in all honesty, despite that subconscious sense of uneasiness which I dearly hope it’s not really just denial, I’m not panicking, not at all. I’m doing all I can to protect myself and others, and I keep telling my parents to do the same; it’s obviously them that I’m concerned about, more than myself, as they’re older than me. But panicking, what is it good for? There are no zombies in the street, food and water are available, and this is not the apocalypse.

Yes, the numbers are going up, and yes, it’s a little scary because people keep defying the lockdown, to the point that the government is considering even tighter restrictions. Thousands of people have so far been questioned and reported by police for being away from home without a valid reason, and more keep being caught every day (it’s an exponential curve of its own, the logarithmic graph of idiots). With the end of the lockdown nowhere in sight, I wouldn’t be surprised if all the edge cases that had been allowed are eventually cancelled and this were turned into a full-blown curfew.

This is why we can’t have good things, as the saying goes, but then again, it’s worth keeping in mind that the numbers we know about are only the confirmed cases. And a case is confirmed when a test was done, and tests are only done when symptoms show up. That means that there is likely a huge number of people carrying the virus with either no symptoms, or symptoms so mild that they may not even be aware of it. While completely asymptomatic patients are only slightly dangerous to the community, as they are unlikely to cough or sneeze, it’s those very mildly symptomatic patients who have the potential for spreading it further: a tiny sneeze here, a little cough there, and it turns into a mess. Sure, if we all stayed home and, when we absolutely must go out, kept our distance from one another, then it wouldn’t be an issue. Always keep in mind that this is not an airborne virus, so you can’t get it just by walking around. You either have to be sneezed or coughed on, or pick it up from some surface where someone had sneezed or coughed, and then touch your face. It would be easy to stay safe, it just requires us just staying home and limiting our exposure to others. Yet so many people are defiant, and come up with all sorts of excuses to just stay outside.

I really don’t get it, I mean— yes, it’s easier for me: I’ve worked from home for a long time now, and I’ve never been a particularly social animal. But is it really such a horrible hell to spend a few days at home, when you have running water, electricity, broadband internet, access to free video games, free books to read, free things to watch (Youtube, RaiPlay and Mediaset Play are all free; and most people have Netflix, Amazon Video and/or Sky on top of those), and there’s even free multi-way video calling available if you feel lonely. Is it really such a terrible nightmare to put up with it even for a few weeks? Especially when the alternative is the risk of spending weeks or months in a hospital with a pipe down your throat, potentially leading to life-long complications if not flat-out death? I honestly don’t get that kind of attitude, but that’s just how it is. As far as I and everyone I know are concerned, thankfully, we’re doing our best to control what we can, and just hope for the best for the rest.

The peak is expected to hit in a few days; don’t ask me why it’s been moved ahead, probably due to all these idiots thinking they’re being smarter than others. Keep in mind that “the peak” refers to the daily increase in new cases. After that, we’ll still have to be careful to avoid turning the descent into another climb. That likely means that the lockdown will continue for quite a while. Schools were supposed to reopen on 4 April, and it’s a given that it won’t happen. In fact, as I was mentioning, is likely that the rules will become stricter for the time being, and in general things will likely worsen a little more before they start getting better. It’s just the way it is.

So there you have it, a new recap on what’s going on. I realize the mood of this post is darker than the previous one, but to be honest I’m not that worried (yet?) and this would have been less bleak if I had written it during the day. I always become a little gloomy at night, and I have for as long as I can remember.

We ought to remind ourselves that in the end it’s a game of numbers: there have been 41 thousand confirmed cases so far, sure, but there are well over 60 million of us who are just fine. We all plan to keep it like that.

Stay strong, wash your hands and to my foreign friends: for the love of all that’s holy, stop hoarding toilet paper! After all, you can always do headstands in the shower. 😉


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Tales from a country in lockdown

As everyone on this planet probably knows, Italy was put into lockdown as an attempt to limit the diffusion of SARS-CoV-2 (“coronavirus” for friends), and the related COVID19 infection.

As I write this, in the evening of March 14th, there have been over 21,000 confirmed cases in the country, with almost 18,000 active ones. The daily increase in new cases is still exponential and so far there seems to be no sign of hitting the inflection point yet, though the peak is expected to be around March 18th; that’s because the lockdown was enforced on the 12th, and the incubation period is 7±2 days according to most estimates. An increase especially in the South is also expected in the next few days, because the news of the impending lockdown last week led a bunch of idiots many people from the South who work or study in the heavily affected North to flee back to their hometown, taking the virus on a cross-country trip with them.

It is an interesting social experiment, that’s for sure. A few people are having a hard time adjusting to the new forced routine (or lack thereof), and are already struggling; personally, I’ve been working from home for years now, so the disruption isn’t as bad as it is for others. Others still seem defiant, but police forces have been stopping and fining anyone who’s out and about with a valid reason. And most people seem to be completely oblivious to the fact that the virus is not airborne: aside from the fact that masks and gloves often do more harm than good as people have no idea how to use them effectively, they only make sense if you’re around others. Yet you see people walking in the middle of nowhere wrapped up mummy-style as if they were trudging on through a haze of dark matter particulate.

Generally, though, people seem to be discovering novel ways of doing things online: the amount of catholic masses being broadcast via Facebook is starting to approach the amount of catholic saints on the calendar, actors of varying levels of fame have started live-streaming shows from their living rooms, and “flash mobs” events are encouraging people to “make noise” from within their houses… which makes sense if you live in a populated area to encourage others to stay strong, but at the same time sounds absurdly creepy if, like me, you live at the edge of town and someone suddenly starts clapping their hands or screaming at the top of their lungs.

It is also eerie to see so few people around. I went to buy groceries earlier today (and brought my signed self-certification with me, as required by authorities) and even though there were a few other cars here and there, it was strange to see virtually nobody on foot. The average age in my town is about two million years old, which generally translates to stopping at almost every zebra crossing to let the elderly crawl to the other side (I am allowed to joke about that because I plan to never become old). That didn’t happen today, and it just felt odd. Ironically, on my way home I had Siri play random music and the first thing she came up with, while I was still pulling out of the parking lot, was a live rendition of Dream Theater’s “Afterlife”, which seemed darkly coincidental. Being the cynical person that I am, I obviously raised the volume to eleven (cit. Scottish lift) and sang along on my way home.

In all seriousness, everyone I know is fine so far. So far there have been 112 cases in my Region (what Americans would call a “State” and Canadians would call a “Province”) and 25 in my Province (what Americans would call a “County” and Canadians would call an “Eh, not all our provinces have those”). I’ve not been following social media much as I’ve been dealing with a few personal things, but I’m in touch with people from all over the place and nobody I know is even panicking so far: some are more concerned than others, yes, but we know better not to give in to panic. It’s just a matter of waiting it out and doing our best to protect ourselves and prevent spreading it further to protect others.

!این نیز بگذرد‎


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Italian luddites: the downfall of a country living in the past

If you were to describe my country, Italy, as a country fearful of change, you wouldn’t be too far off from the truth. If Italians could live under a bubble preventing time from passing, most of them would jump at the opportunity. I have come to the conclusion that most of my fellow countrymen are luddite by nature.

Technology is seen as something to be feared, rather than embraced. Something new comes along, and people of all ages — including part of the youth — will complain that it’s unnecessarily complicated, that things worked just as fine before, and that “back then” nobody was forced to learn anything new. I have wondered why people think this way for a few years now, and I think I’ve come to the conclusion that it has to do with history.

Even today, a hundred and fifty-one years after the unification of the country, most Italians don’t really feel like they are Italian. They are more likely to label themselves as coming from a certain region, city or even neighborhood. The North has been blabbering about independence for decades now, and the South is still stuck in the grip of organized crime, the mafia and its cousins sometimes being more popular and better-considered than the State. Indeed, the roots for such criminal organizations can be traced back to the bandits who fought against the forced “Northernization” of the peninsula — more specifically, the so-called Piemontesizzazione, as the first King of Italy just exported the bulk of Piemontese laws to the rest of the newborn country — immediately after the unification.

In a sense, that’s why Italians still today consider “the State” to be inherently evil and that it should leave people alone instead of meddling with their lives. You seldom find someone who thinks that s/he, as a citizen, is him/herself part of “the State”. Rather, most people will complain about “the State” and, why not?, rip it off if possible: after all, from their point of view it’s just reciprocation.

For this reason, each and every change is perceived as preposterous, required by the evil State for the sole reason of complicating the citizens’ life, not unlike the way a big, seemingly almighty cat plays with a tiny mouse solely for its own amusement.

But it’s with technology that Italians show their chronic opposition to change. Most people over 50 have no clue whatsoever about computers. Unless they are introduced to them by some younger member of the family, or through some mandatory course on their workplace, most senior citizens will be completely oblivious to computers. Even among those who do use them, most of them will remain antagonistic to the machine.
Even more worrying is the fact that many young people are virtually as uninterested to computers as such, save for the fields in which they are deemed useful from their point of view: (illegal) file sharing, homework (and plagiarism), social networking, porn and the like. The interesting thing here is that the same young people spend most of their time with a smartphone in their hands, yet refuse to learn the basics of computing. I personally know an eighteen-year-old who claims that she never really learned how to use a computer because she never found a use for them.

Most of my foreign readers are probably shocked at this point, but see, the sad truth is that in Italy the internet is not necessary to carry on with your daily life. Nobody expects you to have an email address, or to submit documents online. I know doctors who proudly take note of their appointments on a dear old paper calendar, rather than using a computer, an iPad, a smartphone or even a measly electronic “data bank” from the 90s. They are completely oblivious to the capabilities that a digital system can provide — such as keeping an easily searchable long-term log of appointments, or cross-referencing notes — because they are not familiar with the possibilities, and even if they were, they wouldn’t want to spend/waste any time learning how to use the system.

In this country, most companies don’t even have a one-page website. Those who do, seldom update it; it quickly turns into a stale flyer, but they don’t care. Who goes to the website, anyway? After all, if clients want some information they’d better just call: writing to a company’s e-mail address almost invariably results into never receiving a reply, or immediately receiving a notification that the recipient’s mailbox is full, a clear sign that it’s been left unchecked for the longest time.

When it comes to money, Italians’ fear for change goes into overdrive. Given the incredible level of corruption in the country, there have been feeble attempts at reducing the maximum amount that can be paid in cash, forcing any higher-value transaction to be carried out through means that leave a trail. Recently, this limit has been lowered to a thousand euros. One would expect that the strongest opposition to this would come from lobbying entrepreneurs, but no: the ones who complained the most were retired senior citizens. The new limit would prevent those among them who make enough (and the numbers are getting fewer and fewer) from picking up their whole pension in cash in a single visit to the post office. Of course, having it deposited to a checking account would solve the problem immediately, but many people in Italy do not have a checking account altogether, in part due to the fact that they have the highest fees in all of Europe. Indeed, many people only open up one when they are required to, such as when their employers insist that they are paid with a direct deposit, or when they need to purchase a house and need a mortgage.
Credit card usage is also lower than most of Europe, as many people simply don’t trust them (or lack access to them, if they have no checking account). I know people who only use them at ATMs to withdraw cash, which — albeit useful in emergencies — is quite a silly thing: why not just use them directly to pay in stores?

When I read that Sweden is starting to consider the wholesale (pun intended) elimination of cash as most Swedes use other means of payments and micropayments, I was stunned. That will never happen here. The people, the commoners if you will, would object too strongly, failing to see that it would actually lead to a greater accountability that would reduce most of the corruption. It would not make it entirely impossible to use money for bribes, of course, but it would require more careful planning than just not releasing an invoice or a giving out a receipt to clients. That alone would be an immense improvement, but then again, it requires a paradigm shift that most people are simply not willing to take out of laziness, rather than out of genuine concerns about privacy and tracking.

About a month ago, my region switched off all analog TV transmissions, finally entering the all-digital era. This was supposed to happen two years ago, but it kept being postponed over and over, in part due to the political agenda, and in part due to the fear that people would not be able to survive — metaphorically speaking, of course — the switch. It’s not hard: if you have a new TV, you’re already set; if not, you need to get a cheap converter box that you connect between the antenna and the TV. In some cases, as ironically happened to my very own household, you may need to call and pay a technician to replace and/or re-aim your antenna to improve reception. The government, years ago, even started a controversial campaign that allowed people to buy converter boxes at a discount, effectively semi-subsidizing the purchase of these devices. Yet, even today, many people are incredibly confused about the whole matter, and the refrain is always the same: why does my grandma need to learn how to use a converter box with a different remote? why does my grandpa have to spend money to get his antenna replaced? And mind you, these are the same people who complain that there’s nothing on TV. They may have to shell out some cash in some cases (though for most households the expense is simply the cost of the digital receiver, which retails for prices as low as €15), but they would get many more channels to watch for free after that. In most cases, moreover, the switch would be so simple that any nephew or grand-daughter can explain the eldest how to proceed.
The people who complain about how “the government did this to make us spend more money” (without realizing that the money spent, if any, goes to private companies, such as stores and antenna technicians) also fail to realize that the frequencies that get released will be auctioned off for mobile broadband, which will improve the availability of Internet access in areas currently not covered by DSL.

But, then again, who needs the Internet in Italy? The “Internet use in households and by individuals in 2011” report by Eurostat tells a fairly discouraging tale. A note for non-Europeans: “EU27” refers to the whole European Union, which includes 27 Member States (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom) as opposed to “Eurozone”, which refers to the 17 Member States currently using the Euro as their currency.

Whereas 73% of the households in the EU27 had Internet access in 2011 and broadband availability was at 68%, only 62% of Italian households have Internet access and barely 52% have broadband. This is in stark contrast with other Western European countries such as France (76% and 70%, respectively), Belgium (77% and 74%), Germany (83% and 78%) or the Netherlands (94% and 83%.) What’s most amazing is that Greece jumped from 25% and 7% in 2007 to 50% and 45% in 2011, and Romania jumped from 22% and 8% to 47% and 31% during the same time span. Italy’s increase is still remarkable (43% and 25% to 62% and 52%), but we remain steadily behind the average.

It gets worse when the actual usage of the Internet, rather than its bare availability in households, is taken into account. An average of 71% of EU27 citizens used the Internet within the 3 months before the survey, 73% used the Internet within the 12 months before the survey, and 24% never used the Internet. The report doesn’t state whether this means never used it at all, or never used it within the past 12 months; in any case, this is only marginally relevant for the sake of the analysis.
In Italy, only 54% used the Internet within the last 3 months and 57% within the last 12 months, while 39% never did. Comparatively, in France these values are 78%, 80% and 19% respectively, in Germany they are 81%, 83% and 16%. Scandinavian countries lead the chart, with Sweden chiming in at 93%, 94% and 5%, and Norway at 93%, 94% and 5%. Iceland shows an even higher Internet penetration, but I’m concentrating on mainland Europe here.

The important fact here is the number of people who never used the Internet. Italy’s value is 39%, the highest in Western Europe after Greece (45%) and Portugal (41%), while the EU27 average is 24%. That’s almost half as much.
Moreover, only 51% of Italians access the Internet at least once a week and only 49% do so daily, while in Germany these values are 77% and 63% respectively. Unsurprisingly, 82% of Norwegian users access the Internet daily, and 91% do so weekly.

Italians are also not very keen on purchasing goods or services over the Internet. Compared to an EU27 average of 43% over the past 12 months, only 15% of Italians carried out economic transactions over the web. This is an incredibly lower value compared to France’s 53%, Germany’s 64%, the Netherlands’ 69% and Norway’s 73%.
The report doesn’t tell the reasons for this negative achievement, but I think I can elaborate a little bit on that. As I’ve said in the first part of this article, Italians are somewhat afraid of change and are particularly opposed to payment methods other than cash. However, while you can enter a store and pay with notes and coins, you cannot do so over the Internet unless you choose cash-on-delivery options, which are normally more expensive. This, together with the ancestral fear of frauds, lack of widespread Internet access — Italy had one of the strictest law on public wi-fi that simply killed the so-called “Internet cafés” —, generalized computer illiteracy, very high shipping costs and incredibly complicated bureaucracy, effectively hinders any possibility of widespread adoption of electronic commerce. This is not to say that e-shops cannot thrive in Italy; many of them do (and I have first-hand experience of this, because in 2008 and 2009 I worked in a small store that also sold its products online), but most of the buyers are usually returning customers. It’s hard to make a company grow in such an environment, and online businesses shut down daily.

All of this unfortunately triggers a chain reaction: since few people use the Internet and therefore few people will buy online, few companies will be eager to make business online (and the few public authorities will invest in letting users deal with them over the web, given the investment required and the current state of the economy.)

In the EU27, 41% of people interacted with public authorities over the Internet in the last 12 months, but only 22% did so in Italy. The pattern repeats again: France chimes in at 57%, the Netherlands at 62% and Norway at 74%.
Italy’s percentage is only about half of the average, and that’s frankly not surprising. Our bureaucracy is so heavy and complex that moving even if new material were handled digitally, old certificates will probably never be transposed to the 21st century.

Again, I can provide first-hand experience: my parents live in Chieti but they married in my mother’s town, Vasto, which is located about 75 kilometers away. They need a marriage certificate, and the only way to have it is to go to the city hall in Vasto and request it there. There is simply no way to request it at the local city hall and have them get it via fax or something like that, let alone obtaining it directly online. Moreover, since it’s a semi-private act, the request cannot be delegated to some relative who lives there, so they have to be there in person. The most ironic part of this is that not only this will take the better part of a day and money to pay for gas and highway tolls, but the certificate itself will not even be free. But, once again, since very few people would request this kind of data online, there is no reason for public authorities to invest into a massive digital upgrade.

This whole chain reaction leads to an unpleasant conclusion: one of the reasons for Italy’s economy downfall is this country’s inability to change and become modern by embracing technology. What’s even sadder is seeing hordes of youths, the same youths who fiddle with their parents-funded smartphones all day long, puzzled in front of a computer screen. How can we expect things to improve if our future doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs are confused by paragraph styles in word processors?


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