Italy avoids Europe’s dramatic Covid-19 surge – but for how long?

The first Western country to be struck by the devastating coronavirus pandemic, Italy is today an outlier in Europe with limited new cases compared with neighbours.

Italy avoids Europe's dramatic Covid-19 surge - but for how long?
Photos: AFP

The question is why, and will it last.

While France reported a record 16,096 new Covid-19 infections on Thursday and Spain over 10,000, Italy's number has for weeks remained below 2,000.

It has carried out fewer tests — some 120,000 per day, versus France's 180,000 — but not enough to explain the sharp difference in new infections.

Experts largely point to the success of a severe and lengthy lockdown, combined with a collective trauma.

“The epidemic hit Italy earlier… and it immediately put in place a very tough containment plan,” Professor Massimo Andreoni, an infectious disease expert at Rome's Tor Vergata hospital, told AFP.

READ ALSO: Why has Italy avoided the surge in Covid cases seen in France and Spain?

 'Radical intervention'

The lockdown enforced in early March was not lifted until May, and that much more gradually than elsewhere, he said.

Massimo Galli, infectious diseases chief at Milan's Sacco hospital, agreed, telling Saturday's Corriere della Sera daily “that radical intervention, a longer and stricter lockdown, produced a sort of protection effect”.

The World Health Organization held Italy up as an example this week, praising its “clear government advice, strong public support to reduce transmission” and information-sharing.

Photo: AFP

Masks are mandatory in all crowded public spaces between 6pm-6am – a precaution welcomed by tourists such as Swedish Louis Tietjens, who said he felt “very safe here in Italy” as he visited Rome's Trevi Fountain.

Rome's Fiumicino International Airport was the first in the world to receive five stars from the Skytrax rating agency for its management of Covid-19, which praised its temperature controls, masks, abundant hand gel and physical distancing.

The country is also running “Covid-free” flights between Rome and Milan for those who test negative.

Businesses say they are trying to go the extra mile to prevent contagion in their stores or restaurants.

'Fear of the other'

At the Green Tea restaurant in central Rome, just steps away from the Pantheon, owner Giacomo Rech explained how clients have their temperatures taken at the door, are given hand gel, and provide their details so they can be traced if necessary.

Many schools reopened mid-September, and since then some 400 have reported at least one case of coronavirus, the Sole 24 Ore daily said. Pupils with any suspect symptoms are obliged to take a coronavirus test before re-admittance.

READ ALSO: What happens if there's a Covid-19 outbreak in Italian schools?

Photo: AFP

Hospitals and research institutes have noted a rise in depression and mental health disturbances, which may also play a part in limiting contagion.

Psychologist Gloria Volpato, who works in Bergamo, Italy's worst-hit area, told AGI news agency Saturday she had seen a rise in particular of a “fear of the other”, with all contacts seen as potential contagion risks.

The smallest uptick in the infection numbers was being watched closely.

The biggest concern now is the reopening of schools this week in five southern regions that had delayed their start dates, as well as the recent admission of fans to football stadiums across Italy — though only 1,000 are allowed in per match.

“We'll be able to see the impact (over the next month), and whether Italy succeeds in maintaining these low levels or if she'll join the levels of France and Spain,” Andreoni said.

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Living in Italy: Five tips to help you survive the local pharmacy

From ear piercings to flu jabs, Italian ‘farmacie’ are among the most useful stores in the country, but they’re also very odd places. Here are our tips on getting through the pharmacy experience.

Living in Italy: Five tips to help you survive the local pharmacy

Italian pharmacies aren’t just stores selling prescription or over-the-counter medicines.

As a customer, you’ll find all sorts of natural remedies, basic health supplies and personal care items on their shelves. 

You’ll also be able to receive basic medical services (for instance, blood pressure checks, Covid tests and flu jabs) and some non-health-related ones (like getting your ears pierced!) in most branches. 

READ ALSO: Reader question: Can I still get the flu vaccine in Italy? 

But, while being extremely useful stores, Italian farmacie (pronunciation available here) are also peculiar places and their set of unwritten rules and solidified traditions may well throw off newcomers.. 

So here are five tips that might help you complete your first expeditions to your local pharmacy without making a fool of yourself.

1 – Decipher your doctor’s scribbles before your trip

Much like some of their foreign colleagues, Italian GPs have a penchant for writing prescriptions that no one else is actually able to read. 

We might never find out why doctors seem so intent on making ancient hieroglyphs fashionable again, but their calligraphic efforts will surely get in the way of you trying to buy whatever medicine you need to survive. 

To avoid hiccups, make sure you know exactly what you need to get. If in doubt, reach out to your GP to confirm.

Don’t rely on pharmacists being able to figure out your doctor’s handwriting because they often have no clue either.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to make a doctor’s appointment in Italy 

Pharmacy in Codogno, near Milan

In most small towns and rural areas local pharmacies have very ‘thin’ opening hours. Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP

2 – Double-check the pharmacy’s opening times

If you’re from the UK or the US, you might be used to pharmacies being open from 8am to 10pm on weekdays and having slightly reduced opening times over the weekend. 

You can forget about that in Italy. In big cities, most pharmacies will shut no later than 8pm on weekdays and will be closed on either Saturdays or Sundays.

READ ALSO: Coughs, colds and flu: What to say and do if you fall sick in Italy 

As for small towns or villages, opening times will have a nice Middle Ages vibe to them, with local stores remaining shut on weekends and keeping their doors open from 9am to 12.30pm and then from 3.30pm to 7.30pm on weekdays. 

So always check your local pharmacy’s hours before leaving home and, should their times not be available online, call them up. An awkward phone conversation with the pharmacist is still preferable to a wasted trip.

3 – Get the ‘numerino

Some Italian pharmacies have a ticket-dispensing machine with the aim of regulating the queue – a concept which is still foreign to many across the country.

All customers are expected to get a numbered paper ticket (the famed ‘numerino’) from the above machine and wait for their number to be called to walk up to the pharmacist’s desk. 

Now, the law of the land categorically prohibits customers from getting within a five-metre radius of the desk without a numerino

Also, trying to break that rule may result in a number of disdainful sideways glances from local customers.

4 – You cannot escape the in-store conversations, so embrace them 

Pharmacies aren’t just stores. They’re a cornerstone of Italian life and locals do a good deal of socialising on the premises. 

After all, the waiting times are often a bit dispiriting, so how can you blame them for killing the time?

Small pharmacy in Italy

Pharmacies are an essential part of Italian life and culture. Photo by Marco SABADIN / AFP

You might think that locals won’t want to talk to you because you’re a foreigner or don’t know the language too well, but you’ll marvel at how chatty some are.

While chit-chat might not be your cup of tea, talking with locals might help you improve your Italian, so it’s worth a shot.

5 – “Vuoi scaricarlo?”

The pharmacist finally gets you what you need and you’re now thinking that your mission is over. Well, not yet.

Before charging you for the items in question, the pharmacist will ask you whether you’d like to ‘scaricarli’ (literally, ‘offload them’) or not, which, no matter how good your Italian is, will not make any sense to you.

What the pharmacist is actually asking you is whether you want to link the purchase to your codice fiscale (tax code). 

READ ALSO: Codice fiscale: How to get your Italian tax code (and why you need one)   

That’s because Italy offers residents a 19-percent discount on some health-related expenses, which can be claimed through one’s annual income declaration (dichiarazione dei redditi) by attaching the receipts of all the eligible payments.

Whether you want to scaricare or not, this is the last obstacle before you can make your way back home.