Italian social-distancing ordinances are more confusing than helpful

Italians are not taking social distancing seriously because there are simply too many government communications that are inordinately confusing.

Julian Vigo Italy

Witnessing the response to COVID-19 from northern Italy has been like watching a slow motion car wreck—from the initial reactions of the Italian government to those who are not taking the government ordinances of social distancing seriously. Italians are not taking social distancing seriously because there are simply too many government communications that are inordinately confusing. This has has led many people to have no understanding what the laws are regarding the current COVID-19 lockdown.

On 23 February, the national government issued a decree which included imposing fines on anyone caught entering or leaving the outbreak areas in the region of Lombardy and Veneto (Decreto-Legge 23 February 2020, n. 6). This was amended by other regions such as Emilia-Romagna which closed down similarly nurseries, schools, universities and all forms of public and private gatherings of “any nature” to include those “of a cultural, recreational, sporting nature, carried out both in closed places and open to the public.”

On 1 March, there was a presidential decree, on 2 March another decree, on 5 March a government circular (letter) which also sets out information about the public restrictions, an 8 March ministerial directive of 45 pages, a 9 March ministerial decree and yet another presidential decree on 11 March. Are you with me so far?

I am pausing here so you understand the enormous amount of information that is being put out by various national and regional administrations with the 9 March (Dpcm 9) decree as the order which shut down the entire country of Italy on a quasi-quarantine of sorts. Much of what is contained within this and other decrees rely upon people having already read the previous decrees, circulars and directives of well over 100 pages of an incredibly mind-numbing and confusing legal style.

I traced all these directives and laws because the town where I live failed to put them on the city hall website and they are simply not readily visible on the national government’s website. So when you do read just the 9 March and 11 March decrees, which is what many Italians today use as guidance, each decree opens with a list of the preceding decrees and directives by number and date, to include the 23 February decree which only applied to a few areas in the north.

The assumption of the government is that everyone has read and understood the reams of information while also applying the preceding decrees and directives in addition to the new legislation.

The density of legal language of these decrees has also meant that Italians tend to learn of the these ever-changing ordinances from television and print news. Yet the media further complicates these legal interpretation since La Repubblica and Corriere della sera, Italy’s top two papers of the center-left and center respectively, have likewise interpreted these decrees in vastly different ways.

Take for instance, the ability to go jogging. Remember that the national law currently says one can only move about for work, shopping for food or medicine, or for reasons of health. La Repubblica has published various articles stating that Italians can go jogging and so too has the Italian government’s FAQ on this which states that jogging and exercise are permitted.

But the specific action of taking a walk, according to the Italian government’s website, is limited to walking to work, shopping, and so forth—not for exercise. According to La Repubblica walking is permitted but within this same article is a link to another article that states that everyone is advised to not go for walks.

Then regional governments step in, such as the government of Emilia Romagna, and issue an ordinance that is more restrictive than Rome’s which spells out that walking and bicycle riding is only permitted to go to work, shopping, and medical necessity. The media turned around and ran an article that read “Emilia Romagna, A Stop to Bicycles and Walks” which entirely confused the decree yet again.

Even the government is evolving its bureaucracy to accommodate these changes, now on its third version of auto-certification forms that we must fill out to leave our homes. Yet, the government’s own website has an outdated and no longer valid version of this form. Most bizarrely of all: we are now limited to going out with no more than two people per car with the passenger who must be positioned in the back seat, right-hand side. This update in the decree is written specifically for families who live together.

Not only does this put the single parents with two children in the awkward position of having to leave one child at home alone or simply to forego shopping, but it creates greater confusion. For instance, CNN field producer, Antonia Mortensen, was recently pulled over by the police in Milan in order to instruct her fellow passenger to sit in the back of the car and to check that both were wearing face masks.

The only problem with this rule is that Mortensen was traveling with her husband, not a stranger. Similar confusions also abound from those who are legally allowed to travel by bicycle to their private office space but not allowed to use the bicycle for exercise. However, if anyone wants to exercise they must partake in running, not walking or cycling, depending on what paper you read. The series of decrees and ordinances in Italy almost read as a Monty Python sketch!

Recently, 300 doctors from China arrived in Italy bringing  breathing machinery, anti-contagion suits, antivirus masks and other protections, as well as with medicines and plasma samples to be used in research. Primarily, these doctors bring us the needed critical view in dealing with this virus. Their initial observations: “There are too many people on the street and too many irresponsible behaviors.” Too many people, yes, and way too many ordinances that are not clearly spelled out to people across the country in clearly worded, non-academic Italian.

While governments need to learn the art of clear communications to the people, we too must learn to follow sensible guidance in the fight for our survival. Parsing the orders is one thing, doing what's right is another. Otherwise, there will be no return to normal. We are in this together. Let us not die in this together.


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