The two cities in question are Genoa and Maribor and they are, respectively, in Italy and Slovenia. I have reported from Genoa in these pages before, once in November 2021 at the height of the Covid madness and twice thereafter as things began to ease, once in May 2022 when I concluded that Italy wore its Covid scars like a badge of honour and then in August 2022 when things were more or less back to normal. I also visited Maribor in December 2021 when travel restrictions were especially tight across Europe and I had to transit with whatever was available. I recall deserted airports and being challenged about my reluctance to wear a mask on flights in both directions.
I left Genoa on a Friday and after a brief visit home, arrived in Maribor on a Sunday and the contrast between the two cities with regard to Covid is palpable, undoubtedly reflecting the difference in the two countries. In Italy, masks are still very much in evidence with, I reckon, about a quarter of people in the streets still wearing them and another quarter doing that uniquely Italian thing of having a mask permanently fixed by the ear straps to their wrists.
Conversations with colleagues about Covid are hard as eyes are lowered as are voices almost in reverence to the pandemic and never a critical word about mask mandates, lockdowns or vaccine policies is uttered. As if to convince me, one very irritated colleague brought up all sorts of graphs and data on his phone and thrust them in my face: the numbers of people who had been infected with Covid (completely decontextualised from a denominator); the numbers of people who died during 2020-21 (without any consideration of whether this was ‘with’ ‘of’ or unrelated); and the number of people who had been on ventilators. I reminded him that in the U.K. we had stopped routinely ventilating people within weeks of the onset of Covid in 2020 as it was killing them. He did have the grace to admit that he knew that but, nevertheless, he had tried his best to use the figures to convince me how bad things had been in Italy and mainly for our nursing colleagues.
I questioned the doctoral students I was teaching about masks as only a few months earlier they had all been wearing them. Silence. I asked if they were aware of the evidence about the effectiveness of masks. Silence. Finally I asked if any of them had bothered to look at any of the evidence, for instance the Cochrane Review on masks prior to Covid and, more importantly, the more recent updated review. I got a response from one student this time which was to the effect that masks must work otherwise the university would not tell them to use them and also teach them about the use of face masks in their undergraduate degrees. Mere words are insufficient to convey my response. I still despair.
My conclusion is that the Italians, with few exceptions, ‘got it bad’ during Covid. I have previously described their obsession with illness and with hospitals but it is abundantly clear that they believed whatever their Government, or anyone in authority, told them and fell in line accordingly. They are also suffering from a long Covid hangover and seem unable to let go of the mindset developed and habits acquired during the Covid years. Needless to say, all the colleagues I spoke to were up to date with their Covid vaccines and boosters.
It was a considerable relief to spend a night in the U.K. and then a joy to arrive in Slovenia where, in 48 hours, I have not seen a single person wearing a mask. All signage related to Covid such as social distancing stickers and other posters has gone. All that remains, at least in my hotel, were some hand sanitising gels but, I imagine, such stocks of these were purchased that they must get rid of them somehow. Otherwise, where I gave a lecture to the health faculty, a large Perspex screen remained affixed to the front of the lectern. But it was much to the embarrassment of my hosts. Contrast that with Italy where they point proudly to the vestiges of the Covid years.
I asked a colleague over dinner about Covid and face masks to which the reply indicated that it was all well behind them, nobody wore face masks, and I did not sense any great enthusiasm for the Covid vaccines either. I shared some of what was happening in the U.K. now and the revelations about Government stupidity and the lies and deliberate use of fear to which I was assured that this did not only happen in the U.K.
One especially knowledgeable colleague, a health information scientists and complete Covid sceptic told me that the public in Maribor were beginning to ask questions about the number of local doctors buying up properties in the city. Apparently doctors, and presumably other health professionals, were paid eye-watering bonuses — mainly for doing nothing — and have made their fortunes. Another fine example of Covid profligacy.
The same colleague told me about how, across the border in Croatia, one of his colleagues who ran a large PCR laboratory was offered €200 (£177) per test. While his other Croatian PCR colleagues raked in the cash he refused to participate as he was clear that the tests were not intended to be diagnostic. He not only missed out on making a fortune, he is now a pariah in the PCR world. Another fine example of Covid tyranny.
I conclude that Slovenia is further down the road of Covid recovery than even the U.K., where masks and other signs of the Covid years persist. Whether or not we will ever completely shake this off I can only hope. Italy, on the other hand, has barely started to recover. When we say that this must never happen again, we have to mean it.
Dr. Roger Watson is Academic Dean of Nursing at Southwest Medical University, China. He has a PhD in biochemistry.