OPINION: How the coronavirus outbreak will change life in Italy forever

With Italy now looking toward the next phase of lockdown, we're all asking what the future may hold once restrictions are eased. Joseph F.C. DiMento, who teaches law and urban planning in Lombardy and in California, explains why Italy won't be the same again.

OPINION: How the coronavirus outbreak will change life in Italy forever
Milan's Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping mall stands empty. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

After the devastation in the weeks and months ahead, northern Italy will return to commerce  and social  life, but there will be several changes, some which we all can agree are positive; some, negative; and some just sad.

Just months ago when walking in Milano, I would pass probably ten thousand people as I crossed the spectacular Parco Sempione, under the Arco della Pace past the ever-astounding Castello Sforzesco.

On the way, I walked through crowds of people, young and old, sipping an Aperol aperitif at an elegant outdoor café. I squeezed between dozens of shoppers at a regional food fair to buy cheese from Molise, busiate from Sicily, and sardines from Venice. I checked the size of the line to enter the Duomo, marveled at the thick crowds sipping expensive Prosecco in the Galleria.

Soldiers patrol outside Milan's Castello Sforzesco on March 12th, as lockdown rules were tightened and shops were closed across the country. Photo: AFP

Now on that walk from the Arco to the thousand-year-old church of San Babila, you encounter no one. Yesterday the Piazza had only soldiers carrying rifles.

Here are some of them:The hurt has been so great, so deep, the fear so pervasive, that Italian society – resistant to some changes historically, very innovative in other ways – will see many adjustments.

Tourism will get smarter

Not only Italians but tourists will welcome changes, such as the allotment of entry into public places; small groups will become the norm – as is now done at The Last Supper in Milan. The crowds had become obscene. Restrictions on littering public places will be subject to more severe sanctions including fines.


Warm greetings will return, but with a new style

Hugging is a way of Italian familial life. But it now reveals the role of contact among generations in the spread of the virus. Italians live intergenerationally more than many societies. Grandparents take care of their grandchildren.Young people come home from work and bars in the center and live with the family. 

Recent studies suggest that these ways of living exacerbate the risks of the spread of the coronavirus.This virus will not change Italian society at the core, but generations will consider how they interact with one another: Social distancing from older people by healthy (or seemingly healthy) people will continue.

Italians will socialize differently

In the roaring twenties and in other post-crisis periods,  people tended to party more after things got better. But the coronavirus “attack” is not one for which we can declare:  “the war is over.”

Even as we speak of flattening the curve, scientists are looking to the next outbreak of the virus -perhaps even within a year or so. Italians know that.

Anti-smoking campaigns will accelerate

Most people who have died in Italy have been elderly men. Being older is a vulnerability to be sure. Having been a smoker also heightens the risk. Italians years ago started to smoke less. But those who have died recently are from a cohort that saw about half of men in the 1930s and 40s smoking (some studies put the number at 70 percent).

To make matters worse for respiratory vulnerability, Lombardy has some of the worst air pollution in Europe.


People will comply more with tax and other fiscal regulations.

Italy’s sanitary and public health systems are strong, but taxpayers and former scofflaws will realize that the state needs more revenue to confront crises that take  away their husbands and grandmothers – often  in a miserable way.

Ventilators, a critical item, cost a lot. And all Italians have watched as their countrymen suffered in hospitals waiting for the plastic bubbles that would have let them breathe. Italy is a rare combination of the family-centered and the communitarian. This crisis moves it further toward the common good.

A giant poster reads “#strongertogether, together we will make it” on Milan's Via dei Mercanti on April 9th, 2020. Photo: AFP

The move to the exurbs will ramp up

Although Italians are still moving to cities from the countryside – dramatically so in some provinces – within urban exurbs sprawl is evident.

Added to the greater, for now, affordability in the outer regions, the sense of openness and natural distancing will be appreciated. In Milan the population density is over a hundred  times that of a village an hour away.

Anti-immigrant politics will get louder

The anti-foreigner movement in Italy was starting to wane in recent months. However, despite the fact that the remarkable pandemic was not an outside invasion (the first known cases in Italy were an Italian repatriating from Wuhan and two Chinese tourists) the problem will be depicted as one; we have seen this in many nationalistic movements. Some politicians will build on perception and fear.

When you visit Italy the next time, it will be a different place than it was just two months ago.


Member comments

  1. Hello,
    First of all, I love your publication. Keep up the good work. I was curious if you could provide some context to the furor created by Vittorio Feltri.

  2. There is an opposite argument about immigration and I wonder if anyone is making it. Italy needs young people to care for the sick and elderly and immigration is the only way to increase that population.

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La Bella Vita: Pasta, coffee, and the signs you’re becoming Italian

From how your eating habits become more Italian (without you even realising it) to the best ways to prepare and drink coffee, our new weekly newsletter La Bella Vita offers you an essential starting point for eating, talking, drinking and living like an Italian.

La Bella Vita: Pasta, coffee, and the signs you're becoming Italian

La Bella Vita is our regular look at the real culture of Italy – from language to cuisine, manners to art. This new newsletter will be published weekly and you can receive it directly to your inbox, by going to newsletter preferences in ‘My Account’ or follow the instructions in the newsletter box below.

The longer you spend in Italy, the more you might find yourself adapting to Italian culture in ways you didn’t expect. For Brits like me, that might mean swapping your tea with milk for black espresso. For Americans it could be that your tastebuds have slowly become less accustomed to spicy foods (good tacos are, sadly, hard to find in Italy). And you’ve heard all about the tomatoes, but are you eating more lentils yet?

Once you find yourself eating pasta on an almost daily basis and reacting to the idea of fast food with a heartfelt ‘che schifo!’ you’ll know there’s really no going back. These are just some of the eating and drinking habits you might see change over time:

17 ways your eating and drinking habits change when you live in Italy

With all that pasta in mind, if you want to make sure your favourite recipe is executed in truly flawless Italian style we’ve got some expert advice on nailing the technique for saucing all of your pasta dishes correctly every time – and there’s more to it than you might expect.

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And then there’s the coffee. Whether you prefer yours from an espresso machine or the iconic stovetop moka coffee pot – personally I find it hard to pick a favourite – everyone who’s spent even a short time in Italy knows there’s an art to preparing and drinking coffee all’italiana

This rich tradition comes with a set of rules and norms that can be hard to navigate if you weren’t born in the country, so here’s our complete guide to where, when and how to drink coffee like a true Italian.

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A shot of dark, velvety coffee is more than just a quick caffeine hit: Italy’s espresso is a prized social and cultural ritual the country considers a part of its national heritage. (Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP)

The weather has taken a turn for the worse this week and many parts of northern Italy are experiencing freezing temperatures and snow. It sounds obvious now, but before I moved to Italy I didn’t realise just how bitterly cold it gets, and my first winter in Tuscany was a bit of a shock. Luckily, Italians from around the peninsula share a love of talking – or complaining – about cold and wet weather so there were plenty of people ready to commiserate.

Here are ten Italian phrases you can throw into your weather-related conversations during these chilly days:

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And have you noticed how some Italian translations of English-language film titles bear very little resemblance to the original? I first realised this when an Italian friend told me how they always watched something called ‘Mamma ho perso l’aereo’ at Christmas, and described the plot, which sounded identical to that of Home Alone…

From the very literal to the improbable, here’s a non-exhaustive list of our favourite Italian movie title translations.

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Is there an aspect of the Italian way of life you’d like to see us write more about on The Local? Please email me at [email protected]