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A lone person crosses Piazza del Popolo in Rome. A lone person crosses Piazza del Popolo in Rome, March 19, 2020 (AP photo by Andrew Medichini).

A Rough Guide to Getting a COVID-19 Lockdown Right

Friday, March 20, 2020

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PISA, Italy—In Pisa, we are entering our 11th day of full lockdown, following a couple of weeks during which normal life, and the economy, was progressively shut down.

While China and some other Asian countries are loosening restrictions on movement, most of the world is now following Italy’s path. That offers national governments and local authorities an opportunity to learn from Italy’s successes and failures in designing a lockdown that is well-understood and observed, and which maintains popular support.

Here is my rough guide to what works and what doesn’t.

Rules should be universal. Italy made the mistake of initially imposing compulsory restrictions only in the north of the country, while exhorting the rest of the population to stay inside on a voluntary basis. This encouraged a mass exodus from Milan and other northern cities, spreading the virus from existing hot spots to regions with relatively few reported infections. It also fueled popular anger. In the Tuscany region, where I live, it is widely believed that a spike in the epidemic on the coast was caused by rich people fleeing to their holiday homes.

So authorities should only lock down one place before the rest if they are sure they have absolute control of the border where freedom of movement ends.

Communicate clearly. Governments are asking people to sacrifice their freedom to make their own decisions, in order to get the entire population to adopt the same behaviors. This makes gray areas where the rules are not easily and immediately understood infuriating.

The basic rules here in Italy, for instance, are simple: Stay in your house unless you have urgent work that cannot be done remotely, or if you need food or other necessities.

But then come the caveats. Exercise is allowed but discouraged; it may soon be entirely banned. The Italian rite of passeggiata, the leisurely evening stroll that doubles as a social mixer, is definitely illegal. But a brisk walk might be allowed.

Every day, our local newspaper publishes a double-page spread answering readers’ questions on the lockdown rules. I read it assiduously, and even now I am discovering new nuances. That should not be the case.

Visible and fair enforcement is essential. Especially in the early days, there will need to be police officers or other authority figures out in the streets telling people to go back home. The Italian police now stop over 200,000 people every day, with more than 50,000 already facing charges that incur a fine or up to three months in prison—and a criminal record.

But the aim should be to issue as few sanctions as possible. Authorities are trying rapidly to create a new social norm and may find that community leaders are more effective in persuading people to stick to the rules than people in uniform.

The police also need to be rapidly coached to adopt approaches that are better suited to the hardships people face. Enforcement can strengthen the bond between citizen and government, but only if police are open, courteous and use discretion. A nurse here in Pisa, for instance, could face punishment for taking a short detour to stretch his legs on the way back to his car after another long shift on duty. This is not the kind of story the authorities want the media to seize on.

Law and order matters. As Pisa emptied, there was widespread fear that the only people left on the streets were up to no good. People were genuinely frightened to walk home from the vegetable stalls that are right in the center of the old town.

Like most people in Pisa these days, I spend quite a lot of time looking out my window, which in my case looks down over the little square below our apartment. The square is now occupied by a drug dealer who presumably finds himself less exposed there than in his old perch in front of the station.

The challenges facing the world’s governments will only be more daunting if we fail to learn from the experiences of those further down the path of the pandemic’s spread.

This is not a huge concern in a city with a relatively low crime rate, but insecurity could be a serious problem in communities that already suffer high levels of street violence. In parts of some cities, the authorities could rapidly lose control.

Protect the vulnerable. This pandemic is already having a disastrous impact on the homeless, undocumented migrants and others who scrape by on the margins of society. They are susceptible to being hassled by the police for paperwork they don’t possess or for failing to return to homes that don’t exist. Outside the supermarket, I have seen police moving beggars along, relatively sympathetically. But it’s not clear where the police want them to go, how they might get enough to eat, or whether the officers’ approach is more coercive when there are no witnesses around.

In the worst cases, the conditions will be right for the police and other security forces to commit severe human rights abuses, especially in countries where large numbers of people do not have legal identity or secure status. Remember that the Arab Spring was triggered by a fruit vendor who snapped after he was repeatedly harassed by the police because he didn’t have the permit needed to legally work. It is in everyone’s interest that this sort of fuse is not lit now.

Communicate honestly with people about what comes next. It is important not to overpromise. Governments don’t know how long this shutdown will last and shouldn’t pretend they do.

In Italy, we were initially told we would be required to stay home for three weeks. I knew it was likely to be longer—I am not sure others saw that as clearly. An extension is likely to be announced soon. I would not be surprised if the public mood then suddenly dips.

Governments should also give people as much insight as possible into the decision-making process. What threshold needs to be passed before an easing of restrictions is considered? What restrictions are most likely to then replace a blanket lockdown? These are questions on everyone’s mind. To the extent possible, authorities should answer them.

Encourage solidarity. This has obviously been an unforgettable time to be in Italy, but not just for negative reasons. By now, the entire world has seen the footage of Italians singing to their neighbors from balconies each evening, or the Italian air force painting the sky with the colors of the national flag.

My spirits lift every time I hear my neighbors calling out to each other from their windows. It makes me realize the city is still alive.

Less visibly, we have tapped into deeper sources of resilience. Small food shops are an essential, if underappreciated, source of Italy’s critical national infrastructure. Unlike elsewhere, we have seen little panic buying in our city because customers believe these shopkeepers will keep their shelves full. And old people are, I think, still eating well because these shops deliver and do so with a familiar face.

Listen to people’s experiences. I have seen some polling that shows high levels of popular support for the Italian lockdown. But I worry that no one in government is charged with gaining a deep understanding of how people are being affected by this unprecedented set of measures.

A significant investment is needed in regular surveys and remotely conducted focus groups. Perhaps a citizens’ panel could be consulted before major changes in the rules are announced.

Whatever measures are taken to ensure communication runs in both directions, any government running a lockdown and not listening to young people is running a big risk. Yesterday was a beautiful spring day in Pisa, and I saw a small group of 20-somethings sharing a bottle of wine and a sandwich in one of our squares.

It says something that this is now a shocking sight. It could also be an early sign of a fading willingness to live cooped up with their families or in crowded, shared houses.

The challenges facing the world’s governments, but also their populations, in the coming weeks are unprecedented. These challenges will only be more daunting if we fail to learn from the experiences of those further down the path of the pandemic’s spread. Hopefully our experiences here in Italy will help others who now follow closely behind.

David Steven is the founding director of the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies and a senior fellow at the New York University Center on International Cooperation.