In Italian hospitals, schools, and within the police force, technology is being pioneered to face the COVID-19 emergency. But Italy’s public administration, typically resolutely paper-based, appears to be struggling to adapt to the digitized conditions. Now there are concerns as the Italian government pins hopes on technology for easing lockdown measures.
For several weeks, Italians under COVID-19 lockdown have had to print and complete a self-declaration form specifying a legitimate reason for each time they leave the house. The form has been altered and updated several times by the authorities, but a digital version is still being rejected on grounds of privacy and legitimacy.
Twitter comments about the regularly revised forms have ranged from an exasperated rant about the “byzantine idiocy” of Italian bureaucracy, to a humorous image of an “Italian encyclopedia of self-declaration forms, volume 1.”
In contrast, valiant efforts have been made in the world of academia to maintain some sense of normality through the use of technology. Teachers and university professors have been continuing with their curriculum using video calling platforms like Google Meet and Skype, despite the numerous challenges of online teaching.
Tracey Donalds, who teaches English in a high school in the Veneto region, now teaches classes of 25 students using Zoom. “First I had to get over my stage fright,” she says, “it’s so much more unnerving than in a physical classroom.”
She also explains, “material that could be covered in an hour in the classroom takes double the time online, and that’s without problems of internet connection.”
Some hospitals in the northern region of Lombardy have begun employing robots to monitor patients. The robots check COVID-19 sufferers’ temperatures and pulses, meaning medical staff reduce the time they are exposed to patients with the virus and precious time can be saved.
The Italian mayors and police forces have also been experimenting with technology to ensure lockdown rules are being obeyed. Drones with heat sensors have been used to take people’s temperatures while broadcasting the voices of local mayors telling residents to stay at home.
However, the question remains whether Italy’s public administration, notoriously retrograde, will cope with the new dependence on technology. The government recently announced a sum of 600 euros would be available to claim by self-employed workers by submitting a request through the website of the public pensions body INPS.
Unfortunately, the online system was woefully underprepared for the sudden surge of users, and most attempting to submit their form in the days after the announcement were faced with a constantly crashing website.
This doesn’t bode well for the Italian government’s plan for how to exit lockdown, which is currently extended to May 3. The government strategy includes using technology to track people’s movements, in a move similar to countries like South Korea and Singapore.
Last Thursday, Domenico Arcuri, the government’s special commissioner for the COVID-19 crisis, told Italian broadcaster RAI that a “contact-tracing app” was being developed.
The app would be able to monitor proximity of people and alert users if they had been in contact with someone that subsequently tests positive.
Arcuri described the app as, “a pillar of our strategy to deal with the post-emergency phase.”
Along with a plan for ambition mass testing, it looks like Italy’s public administration will have plenty of new technology to grapple with in the coming weeks.