An interview with Italians under quarantine in Milan, Florence, and Rome, completed on March 8-9, 2020
la Zona Rossa: Italian Life Under Quarantine
On March 9, 2020, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced a new round of restrictions for the country of 60 million people, in the latest wave of efforts to curb the spread of pandemic viral infection COVID-19/”Coronavirus”. In recent weeks, public sentiment outside of China has pivoted from ignorance, to cautious skepticism, and finally to a combination of institutional panic and inefficiency, as world leaders struggle to maintain global economic viability at the cost of workers, prisoners, and the houseless, while also attempting to mitigate widespread shortages and failures in the official healthcare system.
At the time of publication, current policy has banned congregation in public space, closed down all schools and universities, closed shops, cafes, and restaurants, and restricted movement between municipalities and regions of the country. Even sporting events, religious ceremonies, cinema, and tourist attractions are closed, let alone protests and musical events. Amidst all of this, unprecedented riots and protests broke out in prisons and jails across the country, as those locked inside fought for more information, visitation, and care.
After I saw a video from Naples of police rolling down the street commanding everyone to stay inside, I texted some friends of mine in Milan, Florence, and Rome, to get a picture of the situation and what they thought about it all.
“Normally the ‘red zone’ is somewhere we can’t approach. Now, the ‘red zone’ is just where we live.”
-- “Red Zone: Prison Revolts Across Italy in the Wake of COVID-19”, Kite Line Radio
What is “the red zone”? What does it mean that all of these security measures have been taken now, measures that are catastrophic for the economy, to stop the spread of COVID-19?
Francois, Milan: At first, the “red zone” meant we couldn’t leave Lombardia. But now it’s different because all of Italy has become a red zone. At first they said the virus was just concentrated in these little villages, Cremona and Lodi, and that they were being placed under restricted movement. And then, in practically no time, it was extended to Milan and all of Lombardia, and then to Reggio Emilia and Piedmont. So you cannot leave the region without an important excuse such as work and you have have a written document to present to the police or military. Then last week they closed the schools, theaters, cinemas, everything. So it’s everything except for bars or supermarkets or restaurants but they can’t be opened past 6pm [Editor's note: as of March 9, this is no longer permitted for bars and restaurants]. The death count in the last few days has strongly augmented the situation. Hospitals are full. It’s important to understand this. There is no way to heal people. They take people and put them on a respirator so they can breathe, but this can take weeks to stabilize. The doctors are saying that they are starting to do triage – a war selection. If you are more than 17 years old and have a severe case, it is hard for them to help you. So they don’t want to take young people. What is happening now is they are saying “OK, no bullshit. Everybody stay home. It’s not that you can’t go out at all, but you really shouldn’t. Avoid meeting up with people, avoid groups, avoid crowds. If not, there will be a big collapse in the healthcare system.”
Nicola, Rome: We passed through at least 3 phases. At the beginning, the zone considered a hotbed became a red zone (Codogno, Vo Euganeo, Lodi province etc.) and the nearby areas were orange and the rest of Italy green. This is how the national territory was arranged. Then all of Lombardia and some areas became orange. Now, since march 9th, the entire national territory is a “protected zone”. This means no movement is allowed through the country except for work or urgent health reasons. It is very vague. If cops stop you, you have to show certification. If it is a false statement or document, it is a felony. It is an unprecedented situation and still nobody knows how it will work. Today [March 9), there was a protest in front of the Ministry of Justice to support prisoners in revolt, and it was attacked by police. We will see what happens because it is totally illegal.
How has the spread of coronavirus, and the new security decrees affected your life and how have they affected the city where you live?
Francois: One week ago we didn’t really understand the situation. The mayor and administration of the city was really saying “Ok, you can go to the bar. Go take an aperitivo, go out to eat.” Because they were afraid of an economic collapse. But now it’s really changed. Now they really are just saying “don’t go out”. Until last week I was in Bologna with a friend. I came to Milan and my girlfriend from Germany was supposed to come but decided not to. Now, we feel like this is not a game. It’s not just like us being controlled by the government. Now we all feel a real need to understand and study the situation. We have many reports from doctors. My father is a doctor, he is friends with doctors. They all say “Stop the bullshit. Do not meet crowds. We are not able to deal with all of the cases.” So the problem is not just about people with fevers, it’s all of the older people – Italy is the second oldest country in the world. An incredible number of people are very sick. My parents are older, my father is 70 years old. He stays home. My brother and I go to the shop for our parents now. If you go around Milan, “the city that keeps going”, for the last few days, there is nobody out. Milan is empty. It’s a bit strange but you feel as if you must be a part of the situation. Everyone is trying to do what they have to do to avoid spreading the virus. Schools are closed and they will stay closed, until April 3 but I think nothing will have changed by then. Coordination will be better maybe by then but not results. For example, at the beginning people were going on vacation because schools were canceled. But now there is serious talk saying “don’t do this. We cannot do the Italian thing like going on vacation every chance we get”. Thank goodness, finally, that this is in the north. Lombardia spends the most on public healthcare. If this was in the south, it would be much more problematic. I don’t know what would have happened.
Nicola: Everything is closed. Even soccer is canceled which, aside from Italian stereotypes, represents a major source of income for the country. Rome is not one of the areas hit majorly by the virus yet, but it will be in a few days. As the biggest city in Italy, it will be very difficult to strictly apply all security measures.
The grocery stores only allow 40 people in at a time, everyone with a mask. The shelves are still stocked but I have only gone once since this all began because it is so depressing. Today, I walked by an abandoned field in my neighborhood. It is full of trash and abandoned cars, the grass is tall and the sky is unexpectedly gray for a March day. As a matter of fact, it was beautiful.
C81, Florence: First of all, speaking of our specific example, we are a community of twenty squatters. Considering the amount of people we contact everyday, we are doing our best to be intentional about how we spend our time. Since we share most aspects of our lives, we had to take drastic measures, and find safe places in case someone got sick. For sure the impossibility to have any public meeting puts us in a strange position: how can we continue our struggles without meeting up? How can we support the struggles in the prisons? How could we move around the city without being stopped by police?
We concluded that many of these questions should take precedence over the virus. Of course, we take precautions with our movements, but we consider it fundamental to expose the contradictions within the political system now more than ever: we are prevented from leaving our homes but we need to go to the factories and to work where there’s little to no measures to contain the virus. They think that freezing taxes for a couple of months will save the economy when most of the population is working precariously or under the table.
In Florence, the economy has really suffered because tourism is a major industry here. That’s why we are determined more than ever to show the stupidity of gentrification and globalization. New decrees and protocols are added every day, so producing a coherent analysis of what is happening is a bit difficult.
What is clear is that people are willing to accept whatever decrees are rolled out, even if they are skeptical of these policies or of the government in general, because they are afraid. And naturally, there is an increase in snitching and shame among normal people, who sometimes react with hostility to people who are unwilling or unable to stay inside all day.
Is there a political continuity between policy and discourse about immigration, terrorism, and coronavirus? How are the different political camps responding to this, or is a new consensus emerging around the infection?
Francois: I don’t think there is an especially racist discourse around this, actually. At the beginning there was incidents of racism against Chinese people in Verona, but the media immediately condemned this. Veneto is a far right region, the most openly reactionary in all of Italy perhaps, so that’s where the violence happened but it wasn’t so big or widespread. But now that it’s gotten real, even Salvini is saying “see we should have closed the borders because immigrants bring disease”, but very few people buy this. People do not believe this. I am starting to believe that this kind of ideological perspective that the virus is only a repressive operation is bullshit. Something serious is happening. If you are in Milan you take this seriously. It’s not bullshit. On the contrary, it’s interesting. Coronavirus is a big spoonful of reality for all individualistic people, left or right. You can be rich, poor, black, white, a celebrity, or even a politician: it affects us all. The chief of the Partito Democratico has Coronavirus. So we need a collective response. The people we must listen to, the only people we are all listening to, are the doctors and the medics. So it’s interesting because it is destroying individualism somehow.
Nicola: Pungent racism did emerge at the beginning of the episode. Some people blame migrants who have crossed the Mediterranean. But it seems to not be a widely held position. Migrant communities are very afraid of the virus because they think in terms of what such a disease would mean for them where they came from. My migrant friends are freaking out.
C81: It’s difficult to think that this is purely a security operation of the state, but there surely is a risk that new security measures will not go away after the situation stabilizes. I don’t think there is a discursive continuity about terrorism, immigration and coronavirus but there are practical changes that overlap: if Italian citizens have great difficulty moving around freely, for migrants it is especially true.
What is happening in the prisons, in Modena and elsewhere, and how is it related to coronavirus?
Nicola: There are riots in over 27 prisons. They had their visitation suspended and there is no clear strategy against the virus except to cut off the prisoners. It seems clear that these revolts are bigger than whatever happened in the 70s. Today (3.10), it is confirmed that a prisoner in Modena has the disease. Prisoners are dying from the repression, and authorities are saying they have overdosed, but families and protesters deny these claims. Italian prisons are notoriously overcrowded and have faced international condemnation for this in the past.
Francois: The situation is developing quickly in the prisons. The media is talking about it all of the time. They talk about the economic situation and the prisons. They told the prisoners that they could not see their families for 15 days. I imagine because of a lot of problems, misunderstandings, language breakdowns etc., it became chaos immediately in Modena, Milan, Bari, Napoli, everywhere. I don’t have fresh information but people are dying. The prisons say that it is from drug overdose. If it isn’t true, it’s because of tear gas, beatings, repression. We don’t know really what’s happening. It’s a huge mess. Of course, it’s difficult because you have to think and act and imagine something because all of these prisoners have died and for an Italian this is terrible and unprecedented but it’s the same time as coronavirus. So all of the elements are mixing and it’s hard to focus on everything happening.
C81: The revolts have their own and different characteristics. In Bologna, Modena, Milano and Foggia the impact has been gigantic, but everywhere the tension is still strong: more than seventy jailbreaks, fourteen deaths, almost all of them investigated on as overdose, even if some died during the transport from a prison to another.
Obviously it’s very important to support all the struggles that are going on in the prisons around Italy despite the new decrees that drastically change the way we could impact these revolts. For us, just speaking with the families of prisoners in Sollicciano prison meant getting identified very quickly by the cops. Considering that now most of the streets are completely empty, it’s very easy to get identified. We think people want to support the prisoners and we do our best in Florence, where prisoners have set fires, but it’s hard because of the security measures.
How should people with emancipatory cultural, social, and political aspirations be thinking about COVID-19?
Francois: My personal opinion is that coronavirus is an occasion. It is a material realization of why individualism cannot work. For the US, this will be clear soon, but also here. The idea of privatized healthcare that is spreading everywhere, even here, has been crushed by this. I don’t know how the United States plans to deal with this at all. Secondly, I believe that there are two ways people are thinking about this: first, this is a conspiracy test of preventative power and control for governance and this virus was invented by evil pharamaceutical companies etc. This could be true or false. It doesn’t matter. But the main point, the second way we can think about this, is that this virus affects everyone. It’s a collective problem we are facing. Only a collective exit from this scenario is possible. And we should spread this idea by helping each other. By taking care of ourselves and of the whole people. Bringing food to people. Spreading this idea around the world that all of humanity has to solve this problem ourselves. The state can’t meaningfully address this issue because they are too connected to nationalist and corporate perspectives. The entire population must exit together on common rules of helping one another no matter what. We can’t just be afraid. Some people have the idea of establishing mutual aid networks to connect people to public resources but also of helping people to get food, to get medicine, or whatever we all need. I think this is a very important idea right now.
At first people were going on vacation, going to the beaches. But now it’s serious. Either we help each other, or we die.
Nicola: The government claims that the world is not ending, but they are wrong. The world is ending. We will find a way, to live, and to persist, but the world as we know it is in fact falling apart.
C81: We must find ways to act inside of this situation with determination and with a collective mentality. A good example we can draw from is the climate mobilization of the COP21 that took place just a few days after the Bataclan attacks. Protesters descended on the streets during the state of emergency and chanted “climate change is the real emergency”. So the virus is real, questions of public health are real, but also we cannot allow ourselves to be battered by the government who hopes to capitalize on this situation.
Since 1997, budget cuts have badly damaged the Italian healtchare system, which is still free, but which reduced the amount of available beds by 51%. So we all need to push to expand and take over the healthcare systems, to run them in a free and intelligent way, to run them in a collective way without worrying about mismanagement and budget cuts.
In any case the main thing that everyone needs to understand, is that this virus, even with a low mortality rate, is scaring the shit out of people. Next to no one is willing to accept the lack of precaution measures, and going against the population will not only win you nothing, but will risk your integrity, because nobody wants someone they love to die.