‘Afraid this won’t end’: Italy in grips of fresh COVID crisis

As country mourns virus victims, a rising death rate and fresh lockdown measures further darken the national mood.

Cavour Square in Ancona’s city centre, in one of the 11 Italian regions declared a red zone [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]

Ancona, Italy – The hilly avenues in Ancona, an Italian port city on the Adriatic coast, are eerily devoid of traffic.

On an ordinary sunny day, the city centre would be buzzing with people. But with a “red zone” declared on Monday across half of Italy’s 20 regions, there are just a few lone strollers around.

On Thursday, Italy is marking a day of remembrance for COVID-19 victims, a year after the world watched in horror as a line of army trucks transported coffins out of the city of Bergamo for cremation.

While that was the peak of the Italian tragedy, the pandemic is far from a distant memory.

Under the strictest COVID-19 restrictions again, non-essential shops are shut and citizens are barred from meeting friends and family from outside their household bubble.

Measures remain severe in the other half of the country too, with the island of Sardinia the only exception.

‘Pressure same as a year ago’

Ancona, the capital of the Le Marche region, has been coloured in red in the alert map for nearly two weeks as new variants of the virus, more infectious and increasingly affecting younger patients, put pressure on hospitals.

The local administration here issued a lockdown before the government’s nationwide orders.

Last week, ambulances waited for up to 14 hours in the parking lot of the emergency wing at Torrette, Ancona’s largest hospital, to deliver patients.

Italy has recorded the world’s sixth-worst COVID-19 death toll [File: Remo Casilli/Reuters]

According to Michele Caporossi, director of the local hospital network, the emergency service had run out of beds to accommodate patients.

At the time of writing, 31 out of 36 intensive care beds were occupied at Torrette.

“For us, the pressure is the same as a year ago,” Andrea Sbaffo, the regional president of ANPAS, the National Association of Public Rescue, a network of emergency organisations, told Al Jazeera.

“The only difference is that we know the emergency, and we are more used to using PPE. But from the point of view of the pressure on transport, we’re at the same levels. And perhaps even more,” Sbaffo said.

He said the province had been relatively spared in the first wave, but this year many people were recovering at home – and require additional transport.

Stuttering vaccination drive

Italy recently passed the grim threshold of 100,000 COVID-19 victims, second only to the United Kingdom in Europe.

For weeks, the vaccination campaign has been held back by delivery delays. Now, the fears and furore over the AstraZeneca vaccine – Italy is among the countries which have suspended its use – also threaten to slow the inoculation rate.

Italy’s vaccination drive has been held back by cuts to the delivery of doses to the entire European Union [File: Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters]

“The fear is there will be a boomerang effect on adherence to the entire vaccination campaign,” said leading expert Nino Cartabellotta, the president of the GIMBE foundation, a public health think tank.

“First of all due to poor communication from the authorities and alarmist media headlines,” Cartabellotta told Al Jazeera.

Meanwhile, the death rate has risen again. There were 502 recorded victims on Tuesday, the highest since December.

Economic toll looms large

Staff shortages continue to plague public hospitals.

It is estimated that Italy’s public health sector lost about 37 billion euros (about $44bn) from 2010 to 2019 in budget cuts and lost revenue.

But unlike last year, when Italians sang from balconies, told each other it was all going to go well, and celebrated its health workers as heroes, the struggle of those working on the front lines seems far removed from common citizens, exhausted by a year of continued restrictions of varying intensity, and by their economic consequences.

Life has not stopped altogether as it did back then – factories and construction sites, for instance, remain open.

But Stefano Paolinelli, 60, who runs a takeaway pizzeria in Ancona’s main square, told Al Jazeera his business is struggling. “These days, it takes me eight hours to earn what I used to in three,” he said.

Pizzeria owner Paolinelli said his earnings had plunged amid strict lockdowns rolled out to curtail the pandemic [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]

The pizzeria has been closing early at 4pm, when bank employees and the few visitors doing “essential business” in the city tend to head home.

“There’s no one around these days. People can’t afford to live in the city centre, particularly the young,” Paolinelli said.

Sales resumed back in the summer, he said, but then there was another round of restrictions in October, and another collapse.

“Every time you finish to pick yourself up, you fall again.”

‘I don’t see anything happening’

Mario Draghi, Italy’s new prime minister, has yet to announce new financial measures for businesses to help stem their losses.

The prime minister has kept a low profile and has barely appeared to the Italian public since taking office.

“This government? I don’t believe anything any more,” said Susi de Bernardo, 44, while making one-euro espressos in takeaway cups for a few builders working nearby.

She also occasionally works at her sister’s bar, having closed her own two businesses.

“Everyone’s talking about vaccinations now. They say those getting the vaccine are falling ill … but I don’t see anything that’s actually happening.”

Under Italy’s highest level of COVID-19 restrictions, bars and restaurants are permitted to offer a takeaway service, but some have opted to remain shut altogether [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]

The central square empties as two police officers check anyone in it has a valid reason to be there.

Gatherings lead to fines, so most walk down the nearby high street alone or with their dogs.

The new rules forbid people from meeting together inside or outside the home, but allow citizens to practise sports outdoors.

Occasionally, people can be seen walking in pairs wearing sports clothes.

“I’m afraid this won’t end before 2023,” Susi says.

Source: Al Jazeera