From Matthew Bell in Tuscany
The Daily Mail
March 10, 2020
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As cases soar, Italy puts 16 million people in quarantine to fight spread of coronavirus—with checkpoints to stop anybody going into or coming out of the most infected areas in northern Italy in the region of Lombardy, the epicentre of Italy’s outbreak.
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Confusion and panic gripped the country after authorities placed a quarter of the population under the most draconian measures seen since the Second World War. Italy’s death toll soared to 366 last night, making it the second worst-affected country outside China. The quarantine plan places huge swathes of Italy in a so-called “red zone”, with two major cities near collapse: Milan, Italy’s financial hub, and Venice, Italy’s most picturesque tourist attraction.
The article below, however, deals with conditions in Florence, Tuscany, which is outside the dangerous “red zone”. You would therefore expect more people to be moving about more freely here. You’d be wrong. Even Florence is deserted and the great art galleries are empty. The entire Italian peninsula is in a state bordering on panic, with even the Pope remaining incommunicado within the gloomy recesses of the Vatican.
As I walked into Florence’s grand Uffizi gallery on Saturday, I braced myself for the inevitable throng of tourists scrambling past each other to get a glimpse of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Primavera.
After all, the Uffizi receives about 5, 500 visitors every day – each of them desperate to jostle to the front of the ten-deep crowd that normally stands in front of the Renaissance masterpieces.
Imagine my surprise, therefore, on being met with a completely empty room and an eerie silence interrupted only by the echoing of my footsteps. During my entire visit, I only spotted 10 other people – even though the city council has made entry to every museum in the city free in an attempt to overcome a climate of fear.
Uffizi Gallery, Florence . . . deserted.
Usually there is a ten-deep crowd in front of every picture.
Meanwhile, in the streets surrounding the cathedral, bus-loads of iPad-clutching tourists had been replaced by … nothing. Even though it is 150 miles away from Italy’s outbreak of coronavirus, and isn’t in the quarantined northern zone, Florence has morphed into a ghost town.
Indeed, the gallery’s muted atmosphere couldn’t have been more different to the frenzied scene playing out in Milan, just under 200 miles north. There, the city’s railway stations had descended into sheer panic, as thousands of Italians scrambled to move south ahead of Saturday’s state-imposed lockdown.
Florence has a population of 350, 000, but is visited annually by 16 million people. Overnight, they have evaporated, returning the city to the genteel pace reminiscent of 1908, when E.M. Forster set his famous novel, ‘A Room With A View’, there.
For intrepid visitors like me and my wife (who works for Ortigia, a soap company based there), it’s an unexpected bonus to a grim global situation. But for the taxi drivers and hoteliers, who rely on tourism to feed their children, it’s a nightmare with no end in sight.
One sandwich vendor said business was down 85 per cent on last year, while a taxi driver told me he is getting just one job every two hours. At Cammillo, the most fashionable restaurant in town, where booking is essential, they aren’t even bothering to run the reservations ledger.
Meanwhile, in the 80-bedroom hotel near to where we’re staying, there was only one resident over the weekend, leaving the 150 staff to twiddle their thumbs. And with Italy now in lockdown, one hotelier told me that 120 hotels across the city will have to close.
To say the impact on Italy’s economy could be devastating is an understatement. It is hugely dependent on tourism, which contributes roughly 13 percent to its GDP. But speak to any travel agent in Florence and the outlook is desperate – cancellation after cancellation, stretching across the spring and into the crucial summer months.
Late last week, the government ordered restaurants to be closed by 6pm and to ensure diners sit one metre apart – a farcical situation for smaller traditional “trattorias” where you sit hugger-mugger with strangers.
While public areas like cinemas, gyms, nightclubs and ski resorts have been closed in quarantined zones, at the Odeon in Florence, housed in the Palazzo Strozzi, you can only see a film if you leave one seat empty between you and the next person.
Plenty of room in eerie Florence . . . a ghost town.
Under the terracotta roofs of Florence’s houses, a wartime spirit descends.
Housewives stockpile dry pasta and olive oil. At the bar where we get our morning coffee, there are so few patrons that the baristas turn up the music and dance to stave off the boredom.
We go to a different gallery every day, astonished to find ourselves alone with Michelangelo’s David and countless Renaissance masterpieces.
While the number of Italian cases leapt from 5,883 to 7,375 in a single day yesterday, Tuscany, of which Florence is the capital, has recorded about 20, making it no more dangerous than Scotland.
That may change, but for now we’re making the most of Italy’s empty jewel.
— Italy has now extended its lockdown to the ENTIRE COUNTRY, with people’s movements severely restricted unless it’s an emergency.
— Financial meltdown. The virus has sparked a £7 ($9.4) TRILLION stock market plunge in U.K., the biggest plunge since the financial crash in 2008. Stock markets all over the world have seen similar plunges.
On Monday, after a crash in the oil price, almost £125bn was wiped off the value of the FTSE 100 in the fifth-worst day in history for the index of leading UK company shares, as it plummeted by 7.7% to finish the day below 6,000 points, its lowest level since straight after the Brexit vote in 2016.
Trading on Wall Street was frozen within minutes of the market opening as the system to buy and sell shares failed to keep pace with events. (Based on up-to-the-minute news reports). The Dow Jones closed down by more than 2,000 points for the first time ever, a decline of almost 8%. However, Tuesday ended with the NY stock market rallying sharply, up almost 5% after Monday’s near-8% slump. This was because of a surprise announcement by Donald Trump of payroll tax cuts.
Needless to say, insiders aware of what Trump was about to do, could have made a killing in 24 hours by going short. Someone is certainly making vast sums of money out this coronavirus crisis, as they did in the run-up to 9/11.
— All public gatherings in Italy have been outlawed, meaning cinemas, theaters, gyms, discos and pubs. There is no longer a “red zone” in the North—the whole country is now a red zone with universal quarantine. Every city is in lockdown, and prisoners in Italy’s jails have run riot with six already dead. Funerals and weddings have had to be postponed. Courting couples and honeymooners have been advised not to kiss and to practise “restraint”. A sharp drop in population is expected to show up by Christmas time.
— Italy is now the “leper” of Europe, the worst affected country after China. There have been almost 10,000 confirmed cases, leading to almost 500 deaths so far. These figures are expected to rise … and keep rising by the day. Panic has gripped the entire nation and there has been a huge demand for antidepressants and anxiety drugs. For some reason, Italy has the oldest population in the world after Japan, with almost one in four people being old age pensioners. It is these older people, particularly men over 60, who are the most vulnerable.
— Conspiracy theories are rife, proliferating by the day so that it is impossible to keep track of them all. However far-fetched some of these theories may be, we have reason to believe that something sinister is going on and that the truth has been carefully concealed from us. Speculation is rife precisely because facts have been deliberately suppressed, or false ideas have spread in order to create an atmosphere of impenetrable fog.