Maine Voices: When it comes to coronavirus safety, Italy is in another world

Last year, my wife and I rented a house for four months in a small town in the Marche region of Italy, where we lived while I applied for and obtained my Italian citizenship. While we were there, we observed closely how the Italians were dealing with the pandemic, and I can tell we felt many times safer than in Maine. Contrast appears everywhere you look.

People stroll along Via del Corso in Rome on Wednesday. Mask-wearing has not been politicized in Italy. Gregorio Borgia / The Associated Press

The big difference stems from the fact that the national government is really responsible, and once the policies and actions at this level are fragmented, they are handed over to the regions (our country’s equivalent) for implementation. Thus, there is no need for individual business owners and local government officials – anyone, for that matter – to decide what to do in terms of mask-wearing and many other precautions. We in the United States still hear our government “suggest” and “recommend” measures to protect ourselves from infection. This is not the case in Italy. Italians may grumble at times, but they usually follow the rules and don’t make a fuss.

Giovanni Sebastiani, a researcher and member of the National Research Council in Italy, told journalist Eric G. Lehmann in 2020.

If you want to shop indoors or take the train or bus, you must wear a mask. If you want to eat indoors at a restaurant or visit a museum, you must first provide proof of vaccination. No evidence, no entry. Violators, both sponsors and business owners, face heavy fines for violations that are imposed.

Also, providing this evidence is easier and more verifiable than here, because vaccination records are kept in a national database. People carry a digital “Green Pass” with them on their phones, which contains a QR code that is scanned by the validator’s phone. If a green check mark appears, the verification is confirmed and the customer enters. It takes 15 seconds, tops. If someone ate food in a crowded restaurant and later learned that someone there tested positive for COVID, the contact tracing list has already been compiled and is ready to use due to the check history. When I submitted proof of vaccination via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention card, people often didn’t know what to do with it because it’s low-tech compared to their digital version. One auditor told me, “This is the best Americans can do?” Seemingly.

They even remain cognizant of social distancing guidelines. I was in the checkout line at the supermarket once, and the woman behind me approached me a little. I didn’t notice it, but the cashier did. I stopped working and quickly asked her to come back.

Italians shake their heads at news reports from the United States describing the politicization of mask-wearing, and the ways the coronavirus imposes – if enacted at all – varies from country to country. We once asked some locals if they knew what percentage of people in Italy would refuse to be vaccinated. They paused before answering, apparently not understanding the question. “You mean if you offered them? Nothing we know.”

The bottom line is that all of the above has contributed to Italians going about their daily lives as much as they did before the pandemic. Not only are the additional facilities necessary, but they are also relatively minor modifications. When Italians show solidarity, many Americans choose to protest the infringement of their freedom, holding on to ridiculous false medical statements as reasons not to heed government advice regarding COVID.

I feel sad, because I have experienced how another country has handled the pandemic better than ours, in large part thanks to people’s cooperation simply.

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