But now that Italy has been caught up in Europe’s second wave, startled by the virus once more, pride has given way to recriminations and a crisis of confidence. There’s a growing sense that the country and the continent misplayed their second chance.
“You can’t treat the coronavirus like a hurricane,” hunkering down and expecting the problems to be gone, said Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London. “It’s intimately tied with the contacts in society. No European country got close to New Zealand-like levels. The virus was always sitting there, ready to resurge if contact rates increased.”
Government advisers and those who study infectious diseases say tight lockdowns in the spring tamped down virus transmission in Europe for months, while covering up shortcomings that have now come fully into view. Those experts say the outbreaks now engulfing the continent were seeded by a summer of borderless travel, with countries such as Italy eager to salvage lost tourism earnings.
In the rush to reclaim normalcy, creative ideas for how to remake society for the pandemic failed to take hold. Experts advising the Italian government had recommended that factories and other workplaces stagger start times to eliminate rush-hour peaks. They said shops should consider longer hours to reduce crowding. Apps would track infections and perform contact tracing in a way humans never could.
But too few people downloaded the apps to make them useful. Contact tracing collapsed as cases again started to surge. The buses in Rome and Milan were crammed during rush hour.
Italy is now among more than two dozen countries in Europe that are faring worse than the United States, with more per-capita cases and deaths. Several European nations have returned to shutdown mode. Italy has instituted a nationwide curfew and sealed off several major regions — the kind of economy-wrecking measures it had hoped were over. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte had said in August that the country would be able to deal with any future increases in cases without limits on “economic activity.”
All along, some degree of resurgence was inevitable — especially as the weather cooled and people began to socialize more indoors. But Italian health officials had reasoned that a second wave wouldn’t be nearly as severe as the first. Hospitals were more prepared. Treatments had advanced. And, crucially, it was inconceivable that the virus would lay the same kind of trap it did at the outset of the pandemic, when it spread undetected for weeks.
“In the summer, the virus was, to some extent, yesterday’s news,” said Flemming Konradsen, director of the school of global health at the University of Copenhagen. “It became very difficult to communicate persuasively to all groups in a society that we should keep our guard high, because it was less seen, less acute.”
Several European scientists, including in Italy, made the case that the virus had weakened, a minority scientific position that nonetheless captured attention with summer hospitalization rates so low.
Italy had given itself one of the best chances among European countries to sustainably contain the virus after the spring crisis. Its emergence from the March and April lockdown had been anything but swift or reckless, with new reopenings coming at two-week intervals to gauge their riskiness. Life, initially, was dominated by caution. Even stepping into a coffee shop felt risky — and bars instead offered at-the-door takeaway in plastic cups.
But week after week, things relaxed, fed by the encouraging daily case numbers that seemed to confirm that a little socializing wasn’t so bad. By midsummer, even the nightclubs were open, applying fanciful social distancing rules. As in other European countries, the second wave took shape first with the young, who then passed the virus to older generations.
Hospitals now have more protective gear, more ventilators and more intensive-care capacity than in the spring. But Italy’s breakdown came in an earlier line of defense: Contact tracers increasingly struggled to identify and isolate infected people before the virus spread through communities.
The contact-tracing system “crumbled as soon as we exceeded 1,000 cases per day,” said Andrea Crisanti, a virologist at the University of Padua who advised the Veneto region in the spring.
Crisanti said no country can keep pace with contact tracing when it is seeing 35,000 cases per day, as Italy is now. But Italy could have given itself a better chance to contain the wave if it had built more labs across the country, performing granular surveillance of hot-spot neighborhoods and workplaces, at the first beginning of the uptick.
Crisanti said Italy should have been testing 400,000 people per day at the end of the summer when it was instead testing 75,000.
The summer heightened the dangers for what Italians call the “rientro” — the post-holiday return to city life. That’s when, all of a sudden, movement in Rome was nearly back to pre-pandemic levels, when schools were restarting, and remote work tapered off.
That’s also when the photos of the buses and metro cars started to go viral.
The crammed public transit has become symbolic of how political squabbles and pushback on scientific advice have added to the risks facing everyday Italians. Conte, the prime minister, recently said there were “criticalities” stemming from transit crowding.
The scientific committee advising the Italian government had warned months earlier that transit would be highly risky during peak hours, and the Health Ministry had called it “absolutely necessary” to reorganize the network of buses and trains. But into the summer, regions successfully pressured the government to raise the maximum capacity for public transit, from 60 percent to 80 percent.
The center-left government and right-leaning regions argued about how to pay for revamped bus and train lines, and little was done. Idled tour buses — rather than being brought into circulation for commuters — instead went largely unused.
A group of scientists and health experts wrote in a recent open letter that the 80 percent capacity “does not allow for adequate distancing.”
And in any case, drivers and passengers say the buses are sometimes filled well beyond that.
“We had deluded ourselves into thinking we could be dealing with this second wave the Italian way, without a grand plan — with some improvisation, without thinking things through,” said Stefano Malorgio, secretary general of a national transportation union, who said local and national leaders should have consulted with workplaces to stagger start times.
One Roman bus driver, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of being disciplined or losing his job, said he sometimes feels a sense of “danger” aboard and worries about bringing an infection home to his children. He said buses have become far more of a free-for-all than supermarkets, where people stay in orderly lines. Commuters, he said, sometimes cram for space, pushing themselves through the door — leaving the driver feeling powerless to regulate capacity.
“Do I just stop the bus?” he said. “How can I jeopardize my safety telling someone he cannot get in? What does he care, if he needs to go to work?”
He said he and his colleagues share photos of packed buses on a WhatsApp group.
The government recently seemed to acknowledge that the situation had gotten out of hand. Its latest round of restrictions, which included the ordering of a nationwide curfew, also lowered the public transit capacity — to 50 percent.
The driver was skeptical. There was no system in place to count, he said.