Coronavirus: 'Matter of time' before Italy faces a social emergency as tension starts to rise

Sally Lockwood, news correspondent in Rome

Exactly a month ago Italy ground to a halt.

It feels like it froze in time.

Through the windows of closed businesses you see signs of a life that stopped four weeks ago and has yet to resume.

I've been in Rome with my colleague, Lex Ramsay, for the same duration as this lockdown.

By this point, many here imagined there would be an end in sight - yet it is also now hard to imagine it ending.

It has become a new reality. It was a tough decision for the first country in Europe to make. A tough reckoning for its people, who saw a human catastrophe unfolding before their eyes.

The gravity of the situation was understood fast. As it worsened, the conditions tightened further still. In this lockdown, there are no joggers and cyclists on streets anymore.

In the early days, some people left their homes to go running or take long dog walks. It caused tension among citizens, fraction between friends on social media, although it breached no rules.

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Now, you see far fewer people. No one is allowed to exercise away from the vicinity of their homes. It is normal to see a street totally deserted - and almost everyone you pass is wearing a face mask.

The lockdown extension is until 13 April. Few are under any illusion it will end then. The clarity though is limited. There are now reports the government is considering reopening a few factory sites before the end of the month if health conditions allow.

That news is as good as it gets so far. The health emergency that has consumed Italy like a dark fog since 21 February is slowly lifting. Behind it trails an economic worry and anxiety about what happens next.

The worst-hit area of Lombardy is Italy's wealthiest region, its industrial heartland. Its capital, Milan, is also the country's financial centre.

From this area of the affluent north to the much more deprived south, Italy is at a standstill.

The CEO of political risk think tank Policy Sonar, Francesco Galietti, told Sky News: "The fear of job losses ranks equal to the fear of COVID-19 contagion."

Asked if he thought a social emergency would follow, he said: "It's just a matter of time. There are so many businesses not getting money, not being able to pay their salaries, not having any revenue. We're speaking of millions of people."

There have been scenes of tension emerging from the south. Police descending on supermarkets after reports of looting.

Videos emerging that reflect a growing desperation, of people worried about not having money to buy food.

In the southern region of Campania, a fight broke out in a supermarket, apparently because someone refused to wear a face mask.

Another incident in the same region showed someone telling a checkout assistant they couldn't pay them but that they needed the food. These may be isolated incidents, but this is the reality of people's lives in this crisis.

The health emergency in the south of Italy is far less severe than in the north, but the economic impact could be far greater.

"We were already the most unequal country in Europe before this crisis" Giuseppe Provenzano, Italy's minister for the south told Sky News.

"The lockdown concerns the whole country, therefore also the south, where the health emergency is less concentrated at the moment. In the south the concern is greater because this crisis is combined with a fragility of the economic and social fabric. In the south the wounds of the previous crisis of 2008-09 have not yet healed."

Mr Provenzano also revealed he had received reports of the mafia using the crisis to exploit the poor and vulnerable.

He said: "Every time there's a crisis, it's a window of opportunity for the mafia.

"The south is the place where the mafia was born, but also the place where the anti-mafia was born."

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The Italian government is mobilising billions of euros it can ill afford to help businesses and families through this crisis.

But there's no more clarity on how or when this lockdown will end.

The country is now living a way of life few could have imagined. As I write I can hear someone playing the guitar and singing from a window.

Moments like this become a highlight in a day. Sounds we may otherwise have barely noticed.

A neighbour I may otherwise have never met spoke to me from her balcony and described Rome as looking like a chemical bomb had been dropped.

"Everything looks perfect. But everyone's disappeared."