Eight things the year-long Covid crisis has taught us about Italy

One year since Europe’s first major coronavirus outbreak exploded in northern Italy, and the last 12 months have been pretty grim. But the Italian response to the crisis has also taught us a few things.

Eight things the year-long Covid crisis has taught us about Italy
A year of extremes has shown many things about Italian life in a different light. Photo: AFP

Yes, Italians can follow rules – if necessary

Italy was the first western country to declare a nationwide lockdown, and has enforced some of the strictest rules in Europe. Tough restrictions are still in place; from a ban on inter-regional travel to mandatory mask-wearing whenever out of the house.

One year ago, it was impossible to imagine that Italy would soon live under a 10pm curfew, with family gatherings forbidden and restaurants and bars closed in many parts of the country.

MAP: Which zone is your region in under Italy's coronavirus rules?

Perhaps it was even harder to imagine that people in such a famously rule-averse country would go along with all this.

Of course, not everyone has followed the rules – as we can see from the thousands of fines handed out by police every month – but Italy hasn’t had the sort of mass disobedience or large anti-lockdown protests seen in the UK, USA or Germany, for example.

For the most part, people in Italy are sticking to the rules and taking them very seriously indeed.

As one Italian friend put it: “When rules are actually important, we can follow them very well.”

Photo: AFP

Italian healthcare can be excellent (but it depends where you are)

The coronavirus crisis has shown us that Italy’s national health service can be far more efficient than many people might expect.

As one American doctor based in Rome recalls: “When Covid-19 struck northern Italy like a bolt from the blue, the authorities got their act together surprisingly fast.”

“They isolated the worst-affected areas, set up national and regional telephone hotlines, called in medical trainees and retirees to man them, planned dedicated wards in infectious disease hospitals, instructed practicing physicians in telephone triage.”

READ ALSO: What can Italy teach the rest of the world about health?

The overall medical response in Italy has not been without issues however, and is “also hamstrung by chronic and ever-worsening underfunding”.

And the coronavirus crisis soon highlighted the enormous disparities between the standard of healthcare provision across Italian regions.

Italy has long had a north-south 'health gap' and a problem with inequality in the funding of healthcare between its regions, each of which manages its health infrastructure independently under the country's decentralised system.

As some of Italy’s best-funded hospitals in its wealthiest region, Lombardy, were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of coronavirus cases, healthcare providers in poorer southern regions feared the worst should they suffer an outbreak on the same scale.

READ ALSO: Italy's Calabria region turns to war relief charity as third health commissioner quits

The issue of often large regional differences in healthcare provision is now being highlighted once again, as each local authority organises its own vaccine roll-out.

It is possible to do (some) things online

We think it’s fair to say Italy hasn’t been at the forefront of embracing digital technology. Before the pandemic, remote working and online shopping were almost unheard of, and in many areas, the best (and sometimes only) way to get information was by going somewhere and asking in person.

But all that is now changing, even if not at lightning speed.

One of the biggest changes is that Italy’s notorious bureaucracy is moving online. More processes will no longer require numerous paper forms, as the pandemic pushed authorities to speed up a transformation process that had been in the works for some time.

Cash isn’t always king 

Digital payments are also being increasingly adopted for the first time in Italy during the coronvirus crisis.

As anyone who lives here will know, cashless payments are still not the default option in Italy. Sometimes, especially outside the bigger cities, they’re not really an option at all.

READ ALSO: Italy rated 'worst in Europe' for internet and paying without cash

But while some people have recently switched to card payments due to concerns about contagion, many others have adopted electronic payments as they take advantage of numerous ‘cashback’ schemes introduced in recent months.

The government had long been planning to bring in the incentives for those who pay electronically in the hope of tackling Italy’s widespread problem with tax evasion.

Not everyone in Italy wants to see the return of mass tourism

One of the biggest changes Italy has seen during the pandemic is the loss of most international tourism, which until last year accounted for some 13 percent of national GDP. Most travel into Italy still remains heavily restricted.

Like everywhere else, the Italian economy is struggling, prompting industry calls for tourism to restart as soon as possible. But whle everyone wants visitors to come back, some in the tourism business are unsure things will ever be quite the same again. Others say Italy now has a chance to move away from overtourism and find a more sustainable way forward.

Italy’s plans for spending the billions of euros in EU recovery funds arriving this year include major restructuring of the economy, with the aim of making it more sustainable. There are hopes that Italy could in future rely less on mass tourism and more on its strong manufacturing sector, for example.

Italian political crises are inevitable, even mid-pandemic

Italy goes through governments and prime ministers at a surprising rate, but you still might expect politicians to put petty disputes to one side during a pandemic and focus on managing the crisis.

That’s not what has happened, however. For most of the past month, the country was without a fully-functioning government after a political spat led to its collapse.

The newly-installed prime minister only last week got through the bureaucratic wrangling needed to form a new government. The public is yet to hear the details of his plans for dealing with the pandemic and economic crisis.

Even during a pandemic, the world of Italian politics remains as unpredictable as ever.

READ ALSO: How will Italy's Covid-19 strategy change under the new government?

Italy's new prime minister, Mario Draghi. Photo: AFP

Takeaway coffee is acceptable

One major change to everyday life is that we can now buy takeaway coffee absolutely everywhere in Italy for the first time.

Previously seen as sacrilege, the concept was embraced during lockdown as, with all coffee bars closed to the public, people had little other choice. Now, some bars will even deliver your morning cappuccino and cornetto to your door.


Though coffee in disposable cups may be convenient – and right now, essential to bars staying in business – it's very common to hear people grumbling that drinking coffee from polystyrene doesn't taste right. We'll have to see whether people continue ordering takeaway drinks once the pandemic is over.

There is truth in some of the clichés

The question of what is “essential” shopping has been debated in all countries this year. In Italy, that has been eggs, cheese, flour, and disinfectant. And hair dye, as hairdressers were closed for months during the strict spring lockdown.

No one was expected to forego fresh pastries or a good bottle of wine, either. Enoteche, panefici and formaggerie were among the food shops classed as essential. This is still true now in the highest-risk areas, where hairdressers are now also allowed to stay open. 

At a time when every trip out of the house required filling in a lengthy form you might have thought people would forego their daily food shopping trips, but queues stretching out of the bakery or deli and into the road were (and still are) a common sight. 

There are some things that even pandemics can't change. 

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Why Italy’s All Saints and All Souls days have nothing to do with Halloween

Spooky traditions haven’t really caught on in Italy where strong Catholic beliefs mean the country has its own way of honoring the dead, says Silvia Marchetti.

Why Italy’s All Saints and All Souls days have nothing to do with Halloween

Many Italians gathered last night to celebrate Halloween dressed as ghosts, witches, skeletons and zombies. Hotels, restaurants and pubs organised Halloween-themed events with spooky decor and music.

Each year I’m shocked by how Halloween penetrates Italian culture even though it’s a foreign import from Anglo-Saxon countries.

The real Italian festivities this week are All Saints’ Day (Ognissanti) celebrated on November 1st to remember all saints and martyrs during Christian history, and Il Giorno dei Morti o dei Defunti on November 2nd (the Day of the Dead, known elsewhere as All Souls’ Day) to commemorate the beloved deceased ones, mainly family members but also close friends.

While November 1st is a public holiday (and many Italians exploit it as an excuse for a ponte, a long weekend), November 2nd is a working day.

The entire week preceding All Saints’ Day sees cars queuing up to go to the cemetery, people rush to bring flowers and a few prayers to the tombs of deceased loved ones, and streets are often jammed.

For many Catholic Italians, it’s actually the only time of the year they remember to honor their dead, as if ‘imposed’ by their religion. A bit like going to mass on Sundays; if they fail to do so, they might feel guilty or even fear punishment from above. 

After spending an hour or so at the graveyards – places Italians usually tend to avoid – on All Saints Day, after the spiritual duties are accomplished, they might gather for lunch, bringing cakes and pastries.

People in Italy bring flowers to their loved ones’ graves on All Saints’ Day. Photo: JORGE GUERRERO / AFP

In some southern regions so-called ossa di morto (bones of the dead) pumpkin-filled biscuits and raisin pan dei morti (bread of the dead) are bought, while in the north chestnut pies are baked. 

Ognissanti is a very private event that usually involves little or restricted get-togethers, brothers and close relatives share the graveyard trip but then each goes back home, with little feasting on fine food. 

Catholics don’t have any macabre ritual involving leaving an empty place at the table for a spirit to join us. It is a moment of sadness but also of joy because our dead loved ones have ascended to heaven and are all there waiting for us. It’s the celebration of love, rebirth over doom, and the promise of a future reunion with them in heaven. 

That is why November 1st and November 2nd in Italy really have nothing to do with Halloween, which I call the ‘culture of the grave’ and the celebration of ‘scary death as an end to itself’. 

Even though they may partake in Halloween as a mere consumeristic party, Italians are mainly Catholic and believers do not believe in the darkness of the night, in the damnation of the grave, in being haunted by wicked spirits who long to take vengeance on us, in witches flying on broomsticks and terrifying zombies coming out of tombs. 

Pumpkin is something we occasionally eat as a pasta filling; it’s certainly not a decorative spooky element.

Halloween, which in my view is imbued with paganism and the Protestant belief in an evil superior being and naughty spirits ready to strike down on sinners instead of forgiving them, is celebrated in Italy but lacks a religious or spiritual nature. It’s like the Chinese celebrating Christmas for the sake of buying gifts and acting western. 

Halloween deeply affected my childhood. I’m Roman Catholic and I attended Anglo-American schools abroad where Catholics were a minority and each year I drove my mom crazy by forcing her to sew me a ghost or witch dress. She’d take a bed blanket and cut open three holes for the eyes and nose, annoyed that I should be influenced by a celebration that was not part of my tradition. 

In elementary and middle school my foreign teachers would make us decorate classrooms with spooky drawings, bake skeleton-themed biscuits for trick-or-treating, and tell us ghost stories in the dark to create an eerie vibe. 

Once we were also taken to visit a cemetery and when I told my dad about it he got annoyed and did all sorts of superstitious gestures to ward off evil. 

Halloween has always freaked me out but I did not want to miss out on the ‘fun’ for fear of being looked down upon by other kids. And so I too started believing in vampires, zombies, and ghosts, particularly at night when I was alone in my bed and had to turn on the light. Still today, and I am much, much older, I have a recurring nightmare of an ugly evil witch who torments me and chases me up the staircase.

I soon learned that if for Anglo-Saxons a trip to the graveyard is a jolly event, like a stroll in the park, and ‘graveyard tourism’ is on the rise, for Catholic Italians it is a place accessible only during funerals, moments of prayer, or during the week of All Saints and All Souls days. 

Last time I visited Ireland the guide took us to a monumental graveyard with tombs as high as cars, and lavishly decorated. A few of my Italian male friends refused to enter and spent the whole day scratching their genitals to ward off jinx.

Halloween night is said to be when the barrier between the worlds of ghosts and humans comes down. But Italians don’t usually like to ‘party’ and mingle with the dead or other spirits. We instead honor the deceased with our prayers but the boundary remains firm in place: in fact, this is why our graveyards are placed outside of city centres.