supermarket panic buying italy coronavirus
Supermarket shelves in Bergamo, Italy (Image: Wikimedia/Nick.mon)

“There is no more time,” Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told the people of Italy in a TV address on Tuesday.

Italy has been the worst hit of any country outside of China. The virus has killed 168 people in the country in the past 24 hours, putting the total fatalities at 631. Cases have been recorded in 20 Italian regions.

Australia is among several countries to have enacted bans or suspensions on travellers from the country.

The emergency response now spans the country, with strict travel restrictions and public events cancelled. The country is now subjected to its most restrictive limits on movement since World War II.

Rome, Venice and Milan, usually bustling tourist spots, are deserted. Soldiers and police patrol empty streets.

Life under lockdown

Carla* is from the outskirts of Milan. Her family home is 30 kilometres from the city centre, where a deadly prison riot killed six people over the weekend after visitations were cancelled.

While Carla is working in Australia, her parents have been quarantined in their home.

“They can’t leave the house except for necessities, like to get groceries. Police can stop and ask you for a receipt, and stores have to issue a receipt for everything,” she told Crikey.

“Otherwise, you can’t leave your house. Gyms, libraries, theatres are closed… my friend went to work until the shutdown a few days ago and said the trains were empty. There’s no one around.”

While visiting elderly relatives counts as a necessity, getting around is a problem.

“No one can take trains except for an emergency,” she said. It’s unclear how often public transportation is running.

Her parents — a psychologist and a high school teacher — haven’t been able to work since the shutdown. “The schools are closed, they’re trying to do online teaching,” she said.

How did it get so bad?

Health officials in the country believe the virus (which officially came to notice on February 20) had most likely been circulating undetected much longer, the symptoms masked by an expected flu outbreak.

“The virus had probably been circulating for quite some time,” Flavia Riccardo, a researcher in the Department of Infectious Diseases at the Italian National Institute of Health told TIME. “This happened right when we were having our peak of influenza and people were presenting with influenza symptoms.”

The first patient presented to his local hospital and GP several times over several days before he was tested — during which time he had infected a number of medical workers and personal contacts.

At the same time, northern Italy, where the country’s outbreak originated, is a tourist hub that borders several countries.

Further, the reason the disease has claimed so many lives in the country (the fatality rate in Italy has been 5% compared to 3.4% worldwide) may be down to Italy’s demographics, which skew old. Around 23% of the country is over 65.

The disease has now spread to every facet of Italian life.


Those stuck in isolation in the football-mad nation will not even have the comfort of being able to catch up on the latest Serie A action. After several surreal matches in front of empty stadiums, all sporting events in the country have been suspended until at least April 3.


Delicatessens in Rome have lanes taped into their floors, indicating how far apart people are required to stand from one another. Cafes put up signs asking customers to remain at least one metre from staff at all times.


Italy’s first reported coronavirus death, occurring February 22, coincided with Milan Fashion Week. Worries about the close crowds during the shows had already become a major topic at the event.

Armani held its Milan show without an audience. Vanity Fair reports that many fashion editors have self-quarantined since returning from Europe. At least one attendee at the Milan fashion week has since tested positive for coronavirus.


Unsurprisingly, this is extremely bad for Italy’s economy. The locked-down Lombardy region, the centre of the outbreak, is responsible for one-fifth of Italy’s GDP. The country’s tourism industry is expected to lose €7.4 billion (AU$12.1 billion) and 32 million international travellers.

Italy’s government has pledged to increase spending to offset the economic impact of the outbreak, and has suspended mortgage payments across the country.

*Name changed for privacy

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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