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14 May 2020

The World Under Lockdown. Voices of Bocconi Alumni

In the beginning it was China, which faced down viruses and lockdowns with absolute discipline. Then the pandemic hit Italy, Europe, North America, and a cascade of countries across the world, with different world regions benefiting from the lessons and the errors of those before them. From China to the United States, through New Zealand and South Africa: this is the story of the lockdown as our Alumni tell it.

China was the forerunner of an epoch-making disaster that has changed the world, and also paved the way for those who a few weeks later found themselves in the eye of the storm. A preview that in certain cases was decisive in spurring into action countries like New Zealand which has now zero infections and only 20 deaths, while Italy was overwhelmed at first in terms of victims and numbers of people infected.

We reached Alumni in their homes; they told us how the lockdown has unfolded in their countries, while offering some cautious though optimistic reflections on the future.

 

China keen on recreating the Chinese dream

Despite the various accusations for delays and omissions in communicating the star of the epidemic, alterations in the numbers of victims reported, and unproven allegations of a virus created in the labor, the China method has proved very effective. A complete and very strict lockdown until April 8, and then the subsequent move to free movement for residents with a green QR code: a change of pace that has so far been rather quick and painless.

Strict quarantines in special buildings and constant tracing, universal obligation to wear masks, and above all organization down to the smallest social unit: China has played ahead with respect to other world economy hubs, gradually becoming the thermometer of what could also happen in Europe in the upcoming weeks.

"Telling about an avant-garde city like Shanghai may not fully describe the general situation of this vast country. However Shanghai got restarted and this is evident for those living in China's business capital, because they are used to constant progress. The Chinese domestic market is recovering, shopping malls are peopled again, there is more caution on bars and restaurants, which have reopened but not 100%, while public transit is in full swing. Schools have guaranteed distance learning for the whole lockdown phase, but now they are also reopening physically," says Pierluigi Giraudi, Bocconi Alumni Chapter Leader in Shanghai.

 

Spending Revenge Is Real

"It's really like this. People want to go out and spend more than before. For now the tourism industry has yet to fully recover: during the national holiday of May Day, 115 million Chinese decided to fly with respect to 200 million last year, but it is still an encouraging sign, if we consider that the lockdown has only recently ended.", says Stefano Ortolina, Deputy Chapter Leader of Bocconi Alumni Community in Shanghai.

These early signs are boosting a sentiment of patriotism, which leads to a feeling of pride and a strong desire for going back to normality.

"Yes, it is really so: the general feeling is to go back to life as it was before the virus, and resurrect the Chinese dream based on steady growth over the past 30 years. China is ready and is doing its part to return to what was certainly not a perfect world, but which was at least moving in the right direction," concludes Ortolina.

New Zealand: a method that has become a case study

Premier Jacinta Arden, 39 years old and in office since 2017, has quickly made her country a benchmark reference for exemplary emergency management, certainly for minimizing the number of the infected. But despite this outstanding record, Arden has reopened social life only recently and with caution, and stated that the closure of national borders will last a long time.

Her strategy has been clear from the beginning: total suppression of the virus. Thanks to the advance warning given by the Chinese predicament, she severed international travel links to the archipelago early on, but her decisive move was to do carpet testing and trace contacts carefully. The result? The pandemic curve was flattened to zero in just two weeks.

“Certainly having 5 million inhabitants and an average of 18 inhabitants per square kilometer made the strategy easier to implement, in addition to the fact that islands are less amenable to trespassing, but the fact is that the Arden method has worked and that New Zealand's economy is intact,” says another alumna who lives in Auckland.

But the Arden method attracts praise also because it is an excellent example in political ethics: she cut her salary by 20% for the next six months, as well as all her ministers'. And in a country barely touched by the emergency, the gesture has an additional value.

 

Africa has learned the lesson

As recently as two months ago, the Southern hemisphere was only a distant spectator of what appeared to be the virus of the West. Yet, within a few days, Covid 19 also hit Sub-Saharan Africa, forcing the continent to deploy a rapid response: since the first cases of contagion - recorded in early March - the different states have implemented tough lockdown and border closure policies, focusing on the containment and prevention of contagion.

But let's take a step back. Due to conspiracy theories and misfortunes of past times, today South Africa has the highest rate of HIV infection in the world. But from that tragedy it has learned a lesson, and today it is one of the countries that are dealing well with the Covid epidemic.

Above all, South Africa has put boots on the ground: it has recruited 30,000 health workers who travel neighborhoods in search of infected people, a fundamental approach especially in townships and slums where people cannot live separated from others. A commendable management model, which calls for a comparison which is for our Lombardy, still inexplicably lagging behind from this point of view.

 

Benedetta Giugliano, an alumna residing in Johannesburg, offers us a detailed scenario of what is happening. "We are certainly dealing with complex countries, backward and underdeveloped in many ways, but used to having to face difficult health crises - from that of AIDS in the 1980s, to the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa, passing through the daily battle against malaria and tuberculosis, which spare very few areas of the continent. And it is thanks to the awareness of the logistical and structural limits of their own countries that African governments have reacted immediately with stringent measures,” she says. "There was no time for debate here: there are countries like Malawi, where more than half of the population lives without running water or soap and there are only 25 ICU beds, or Mali, where there is a doctor every 5,000 inhabitants and one respirator for every million people.. It goes without saying that either the pandemic was contained immediately, or total disaster would strike”.

South Africa reacted by immediately closing borders, prohibiting any internal movement and limiting as much as possible that of people traveling across different neighborhoods – save for the purchase of food, medicines and collection of social benefits.

"Our method – Benedetta says – has been defined one of the best models by countless international experts and the WHO itself, since it has led to the flattening of the contagion curve also thanks to a level 5 lockdown, the most severe there is, to the great surprise of experts and their models' forecasts, which expected 4,000 infections by April 2.

"Just think that here funerals are among the most characteristic and complex events in the lives of Africans: Now they can last no more than two days with no more than fifteen mourners. Traditionally, funerals are protracted affairs that can take weeks and usually involve thousands of participants, to give you an idea of the sudden rigidity of regulations" explains Benedetta.

 

The African reboot

Lower taxes, economic incentives for low-income households and the creation of a fund that will be used for the population in need, with the support also of private companies.

Plus, suspension of mortgage payment, access to credit even to those with a history of default: the central bank has asked banks and mobile money service providers to give up transaction and transfer fees, in order to discourage the use of cash. In contrast, the traditional lack of popular confidence over government transparency could, in the long run, jeopardize any attempt at cooperation.

"The real challenge for Africa will be to address the socio-economic impact of measures on the well-being of the poorest areas. A highly problematic challenge, since these are countries which have grown very rapidly in recent years, but where people still have a day-to-day mindset – waking up every day without knowing if there will be enough food – which goes against planning for future. The popular malaise is certainly exacerbated by the growing number of street blocks manned by the military, a growing sense of immobility and declining opportunities for employment, to the outright censorship of the opposition imposed by several governments. It should not be underestimated that many African states are only facade democracies, where governments are all too ready to deprive individuals of the personal freedoms in the name of the epidemic emergency. The real and imminent danger is that the growing unease will explode in protests and conflicts, leading to social breakdowns that could be far more dangerous than the virus itself, continues Benedetta.

Among the optimists, there are those who underline the historical significance of this historical moment, which could represent a real opportunity to accelerate the process of decolonization. What is certain is that for the first time in modern history, Africa finds itself having to rely on its own strengths and resources to deal with the unprecedented global health and economic crisis.

 

African's new foundations

“However, we should not take for granted that African states are doomed to collapse: despite their insurmountable difficulties and problems, African peoples have demonstrated commendable strength and resilience on countless occasions throughout history. It is not just a matter of facing a difficult challenge, but preparing to lay the foundations of a new world in many ways, so as to enable African populations to do it by themselves," says Benedetta.

On the other hand, the South African President also said: "We are determined in our resolve not to return the economy to where it was before the coronavirus, but to forge a new economy in a new global reality". And who knows: the winning factor could be the combination of elements such as a young population, close links to the land, relative absence of technology, and the pragmatic creativity of Africans.

 

The United States and Resilient New York

Trump's cockeyed theories have traveled across the world: he has openly taken sides against the lockdown and sent the country and his advisers reeling, first expressing his propensity for herd immunity, then retreating, so that the United States is experiencing a state of complete uncertainty.

If on the one hand the vastness of the country shelters the most remote communities from the health threat posed by large gatherings, on the other large cities are exposed to a general state of crisis, feeding the factions that want to sacrifice a certain number of deaths in order not to collapse economically.

In any case, the data are staggeringly clear: the United States has reached the threshold of 35 million unemployed, averages 2,500 deaths per day, an although the numbers are changing very quickly, they remain tragically high.

Seeing New York, the city that never sleeps where rivers of people always flow, completely turned off, was to be catapulted into a post-apocalyptic film. In fact, New York has been the epicenter of the pandemic, and despite harrowing phenomena such as the doubling of suicides in Queens, Governor Cuomo has extended the lockdown until May 15, despite Trump's constant pressures to reopen America's largest city.

 

The great sense of community of New Yorkers: Leila's optimism

“New York City has been hit particularly hard, also because there are many who cannot afford not to work. And here there are no laws that protect you on the job: if the company suffers from a drop in sales, they will give you the pink slip,” explains Leila Horn, of Friends of Bocconi, based in the city.

“People here have taken the pandemic very seriously and respect the rules. People work efficiently from home or invent creative ways to keep their businesses alive. But what is amazing is to see how much you can do from home with a computer and a phone: New Yorkers are the toughest people I have ever seen. Let's remember how they got up back on their feet after 9/11. They will also recover from this. They will rebuild the city better than it was before, because they have already done it. And they know how to do it together. No other community in the world is more united than New Yorkers," concludes Leila.