A year after Italy became the first European country to impose a national lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the nation has fallen eerily quiet once again, with new restrictions imposed Monday in an effort to stop a third wave of infections that is threatening to wash over Europe and overwhelm its halting mass inoculation program.
As he explained the measures Friday, Prime Minister Mario Draghi warned that Italy was facing a “new wave of contagion,” driven by more infectious variants of the coronavirus.
Just as before, Italy was not alone.
“We have clear signs: The third wave in Germany has already begun,” Lothar Wieler, head of the Robert Koch Institute for Infectious Diseases, said during a news conference Friday.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary predicted that this week would be the most difficult since the start of the pandemic in terms of allocating hospital beds and breathing machines, as well as mobilizing nurses and doctors. Hospitalizations in France are at their highest levels since November, prompting authorities to consider a third national lockdown.
Across Europe, cases are spiking. Supply shortages and vaccine skepticism, as well as bureaucracy and logistical obstacles, have slowed the pace of inoculations. Governments are putting exhausted populations under lockdown. Street protests are turning violent. A year after the virus began spreading in Europe, things feel unnervingly the same.
In Rome, the empty streets, closed schools, shuttered restaurants and canceled Easter holidays came as a relief to some residents after months of climbing infections, choked hospitals and deaths.
“It’s a liberation to return to lockdown, because for months, after everything that happened, people of every age were going out acting like there was no problem,” Annarita Santini, 57, said as she rode her bike in front of the Trevi Fountain, a popular site that had no visitors except for three police officers. “At least like this, the air can be cleared and people will be scared again.”
For months, Italy had relied on a color-coded system of restrictions that, unlike the blanket lockdown of last year, sought to surgically smother emerging outbreaks in order to keep much of the country open and running. It does not seem to have worked.
“History repeats itself,” Massimo Galli, one of Italy’s top virus experts, told the daily Corriere della Sera on Monday. “The third wave started, and the variants are running.”
“Unfortunately we all got the illusion that the arrival of the vaccines would reduce the necessity of more drastic closures,” he said. “But the vaccines did not arrive in sufficient quantities.”