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With Christmas lights dimmed this year, Italy looks to the future for hope

Devastated nation placing all its faith in vaccination roll-out

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A Christmas tree in Milan provides a welcome distraction to locals. Italy is in the grip of a devastating second wave of Covid-19. Photo: Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

A Christmas tree in Milan provides a welcome distraction to locals. Italy is in the grip of a devastating second wave of Covid-19. Photo: Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

A Christmas tree in Milan provides a welcome distraction to locals. Italy is in the grip of a devastating second wave of Covid-19. Photo: Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

Most regions in Italy were downgraded from status red to orange in early December, which saw some life returning to the streets. However, a stubbornly high Covid-19 death rate and a healthcare system in crisis forced the government to impose status red on the whole of Italy over the Christmas period.

Christmas is not exactly cancelled, but it is severely restricted. Two adults from one household were permitted to visit another house yesterday.

However, with bars and restaurants and non-essential shops closed over the period, the chance to see people and celebrate has been taken off the table until January 6 at least, and probably well beyond that.

In an ordinary year, the season would have been in full flow weeks ago. The feast of Saint Ambroggio, Milan’s patron saint, on December 7, usually marks the start of festivities. Christmas lights are switched on, trees go up and the Milanese head for the slopes for the first ski of the year. This year is different, though, and Christmas has been a subdued affair.

In Milan, the characteristic small shops, the boutiques, tailors and jewellers, were open in the lead-up to Christmas Day. They even put up decorations and lights, more in hope of attracting shoppers than anything else.

Shop owners sat behind counters waiting for customers to arrive, but business is scarce this year and the New Year will be filled with uncertainty.

Italy is in the grip of a second wave that has already surpassed the first. The country recorded its highest ever number of deaths in a single day, 993 in early December, and there are between 600 and 800 fatalities daily.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte remained steadfast in his assertion that this needed to be a ‘sober Christmas’ and resisted heavy pressure from regional governments to relax restrictions further.

Travel between regions is not permitted. That means Italians are not allowed to travel to holiday homes and, indeed, many will not be able to visit their families this Christmas. International travel will be permitted, but a mandatory 14-day quarantine for those entering the country means thousands of Italians in Dublin did not come home.

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With deaths from Covid-19 quickly approaching 70,000 in Italy, there are very few families who have not in some way been affected. For so many in Italy, the loss of a loved one will be more keenly felt at this time of year. Nearly 2 million people have been infected with the virus and many who survived are living and struggling with its debilitating long-term effects.

But Italians are nothing if not resilient, and even with the Christmas lights dimmed this year, many are looking for hope.

Chiara Frigerio is nursing coordinator in the cardiovascular department of Manzoni Hospital in Lecco, about 50km north of Milan, and has been through a lot this year.

“For us, this is a Christmas of hope,” she says. “In general, the feeling of hope is felt more at Christmas. But it will have even more significance as we will be approaching almost a year of this Covid situation, where we health workers, but also us as a family, were really tested.

“We witnessed the whole pandemic unfold in front of our eyes. We saw the first period of the unknown, which turned to fear – fear of becoming sick and making our loved ones sick – but also the fear of what could happen to society and for the future.

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Chiara Frigerio, a nursing coordinator in the cardiovascular department of Manzoni Hospital in Lecco, about 50km north of Milan, Italy, with her husband and three children.

Chiara Frigerio, a nursing coordinator in the cardiovascular department of Manzoni Hospital in Lecco, about 50km north of Milan, Italy, with her husband and three children.

Chiara Frigerio, a nursing coordinator in the cardiovascular department of Manzoni Hospital in Lecco, about 50km north of Milan, Italy, with her husband and three children.

“We experienced many different emotions in the past year: fear, anger, powerlessness and frustration of not being able to see our families. We saw the devastating effects on families.

“So, for us, it’s a Christmas of hope and rebirth. Also, according to our Catholicism, it’s a time to share some normality with our children, because there was no normality for us this year.

“It will be a strange Christmas, because we can’t have our usual Christmas lunch with 20 people. We will look to limit our contact with people as much as possible because we are exposed daily to people with the virus. We would never risk infecting anyone else.”

Ms Frigerio has prioritised the little things this Christmas, such as spending time with her three children, who range in age between three and six, who she couldn’t see at times during the year.

Many will be frantically worried about a relative in hospital, and there will have been empty places at the Christmas dinner table all over the country yesterday.

News of effective vaccines is, of course, the greatest Christmas gift Italians could hope for. The government is betting on the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, but the vaccination drive will not be completed until autumn of next year.

In the meantime, the government is determined to avoid a third wave and not repeat the errors of opening up too soon in the summer.

That means the first half of 2021 will see ongoing restrictions and uncertainty, both for individuals and for businesses. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) predicts economic recovery next year will be slow and uneven.

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Marco Valsecchi of the Shamrock Bar in Lecco, Italy

Marco Valsecchi of the Shamrock Bar in Lecco, Italy

Marco Valsecchi of the Shamrock Bar in Lecco, Italy

Marco Valsecchi owns the popular Irish pub, The Shamrock, in Lecco. Like all bars, the shutters have been down since October.

“The second lockdown was much worse than the first one,” he says. “In the first lockdown it was new for everybody, people were waiting for one or two months, we all thought that we would reopen for summer.

“Now it’s hard because we don’t know when this will be over. Some say 2022.

“Of course it was difficult for me to turn off all the taps in The Shamrock. My fear is that in the New Year the vaccine will not arrive soon.

“I’m worried, but I think I will open again when this is all over because I can just about survive in this situation.”

Visit our Covid-19 vaccine dashboard for updates on the roll out of the vaccination program and the rate of Coronavirus cases Ireland


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