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Life under lockdown

Fabio Turone reports from Milan as Italy’s universities struggle through a nationwide coronavirus curfew

Isolation is not good for science. All over the world, research leaders plead for collaboration, and universities fight tooth and claw for the best international talent.

But what if isolation is imposed from the outside? Italy’s academic and research community is faced with just this challenge. On 10 March, the government declared a lockdown for the whole country, effectively shutting down universities, curtailing travel and telling people to stay at home.

The lockdown follows the adoption of more and more stringent measures to contain the spread of coronavirus, first just in Lombardy and a few provinces in Northern Italy. The decision to roll out measures to restrict gatherings and movement nationwide—except for health reasons, work or subsistence—came at the end of a few days of confusion on the extent of the epidemic.

The measures are sensible. The spread of the virus must be curtailed before intensive care units are unable to cope with the number of patients requiring a ventilator and, in the worst cases, artificial circulation. But they are also disruptive. All schools are closed and universities have stopped teaching in person. They are considering the possibility to do exams via video conference and hold graduation ceremonies remotely.

Some confusion, however, has arisen concerning the status of research fellows and PhD students. They have (and need) access to research laboratories and research groups, but are currently not allowed to make use of these facilities due to uncertainty about whether they are students or staff.

“The National Research Council now prevents all students, including PhD students, from accessing the premises, while institute directors were asked to the keep the presence of research staff—including postdocs—as limited as possible,” Giovanni Maga, director of the Institute of Molecular Genetics of the National Research Council (CRN) in Pavia, told Research Professional News.

Maga is a member of the council’s task force set up to deal with the emergency. The CNR has a staff of over 8,000 researchers, distributed all over the country.

As disrupting as the lockdown may be, universities are doing their best to keep work ticking along—especially in laboratories where staff presence is essential. At Università di Milano, for example, two campuses where veterinary research was taking place were closed on 3 March after two people tested positive for coronavirus. But the head of the animal care unit, Giuliano Grignaschi, said none of the university’s five animal houses would ever be at risk of closing. The presence of staff would be reduced, but continuous, he said.

While in the early days of the emergency the goal was to keep research activities as unaffected as possible, the latest recommendations made it clear that the top priority is to limit movement and social contacts. This is supposed to happen while ensuring ongoing experiments are concluded and the infrastructure is safely guarded and maintained.

Researchers find it hard to estimate the impact these restrictions will have on their work. While laboratory-based research will most certainly be affected, some fields may be able to keep their studies going at the usual pace, including the social sciences and some computing research.

“We discovered with pleasure that many activities can be performed as effectively from home,” Giorgio Metta, scientific director of Genoa’s Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) told Research Professional News. The Institute, with its staff of more than 1,700 coming from 60 countries, was already relying a lot on working remotely. Metta envisages a modest impact on scientific productivity, with a likely shift from experimental work to other kinds of activities until the coronavirus abates.

Researchers are affected in other ways. Big meetings and conferences are currently forbidden in Italy, and even the need for small meetings in person must be carefully evaluated. Access to common areas such as university cafeterias is governed by a strict schedule to ensure they are never crowded, and enough distance between tables is granted.

The lockdown is to remain in place until 3 April, for now, but those affected are not ruling out an extension. “These restrictions are fully justified, but they will certainly have consequences on research activities,” said Daniela Corda, director of CNR’s Institute of Protein Biochemistry in Naples and Italian delegate for EU Horizon 2020 programmes.

In the rest of Italy, the impact on car traffic—much reduced—has become a topic of jokes, and the morale of Italians seems to oscillate between worry and the disbelief that such a dystopian scenario could be real. Families stranded at home are reorganising their daily lives around internet access, trying to combine remote working and the care of children with no schools and kindergartens to go to. Older students enjoy the unusual experience of having more knowledge and familiarity with online communication tools than their teachers. 

In chatrooms and at the family dining table, another topic makes the rounds. How can our European neighbours still waste precious time, hoping they can get away with the pandemic without having to adopt similar measures?

The crisis shows no signs of abating. Yesterday, 11 March, prime minister Giuseppe Conte announced even stricter measures. For the next two weeks, all commercial and productive activities deemed non-essential will remain closed. Those shops allowed to remain open, such as supermarkets, must enforce a one-meter distance between customers. Restaurants may only be open for delivery.

The Italian government is trying to find extra money for those affected by the crisis. Surprisingly—but not so for Italian scientists who are accustomed to chronic underfunding of research—there is no mention of science or R&D in the government’s initial emergency funding pot worth €7.5 billion. More funding was promised for the coming weeks, but scientists have only modest expectations that their work will be covered by such measures.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe