In locked-down Milan, lives that always spilled joyously into the piazzas have moved almost entirely online, and texting has become the primary link to the outside world. It’s where silly coronavirus memes spread, like the one of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco showing God giving Adam hand sanitizer. It’s the only way families can communicate with ailing loved ones sequestered in crowded hospital wards. And it’s how you learn of death’s relentless march: a neighbor, the grandfather of one of your kids’ schoolmates, a friend of a friend.

For almost a month, the 10 million people in Milan and the surrounding Lombardy region have been under forced quarantine, measures that have been extended nationwide and will likely continue for several more weeks. The place is deserted as anyone able to do so works from home with a laptop and AirPods, waiting for the 6 p.m. daily bulletin to glean any signs of hope in the mortality and infection statistics from the past 24 hours.

At Saturday’s briefing, Italians may have been given reason for cautious optimism. The daily fatality number for Italy fell to 681, the fewest since March  26.  Still, more than half of those were in Lombardy.

This is what’s become of the engine of the Italian economy, the heart of a region that accounts for almost half of the country’s output. Milan is Italy’s financial and business capital, a global fashion hub, a manufacturing powerhouse, encircled by rich agricultural land, a destination for millions of tourists every year. So, in a very real sense, the fate of Milan is the fate of Italy.

The last time Italy was truly on its knees, after World War II, it was Milan and nearby areas that lifted the country back to its feet. “Italians were at their best during the reconstruction, and they will do it again,” President Sergio Mattarella said in a prime-time speech.

The industries in the Milan-Turin-Genoa triangle fueled the “economic miracle” of the 1950s and ‘60s, when Italy grew more than 5% a year and its factories gave the world icons such as the Fiat 500, the Piaggio Vespa scooter, and the Pirelli tires used on both. “Milan won’t give up,” says Marco Tronchetti Provera, chief executive officer of Pirelli & C. SpA, whose son has tested positive for the virus. “Giving up isn’t part of its DNA.”

Yet it will take a mighty effort from Milan’s banks, factories, and farms to pull Italy out of this crisis. With business investment falling more than 10%, the economy is headed toward a 6% contraction this year, and the outlook could be even grimmer if the worst of the health emergency isn’t over by May, manufacturing lobby Confindustria predicts. The government is deploying at least 50 billion euros ($55 billion) in economic aid, which will add to borrowings already totaling 135% of GDP, more than twice the ratio of Germany.  That growing debt load threatens to leave Italy dependent on the European Union to maintain financial stability—and could put it at the mercy of its EU partners to keep investment flowing.

“Italy came to the coronavirus pandemic in the worst possible shape, and the effects will be dramatic,” says Giuseppe Berta, a history professor at Bocconi University. “It’s a dangerous situation.”

With so much at stake and so much effort being put into solutions, many Italians say the crisis, as painful as it is, presents an opportunity to enact long-overdue changes after a decade of stagnation. While there’s a risk that the country will become permanently hooked on emergency funding from the EU or the European Central Bank, some business leaders say the time is ripe for transforming the way Italians approach their lives and businesses.

“It’s difficult to estimate how severe the consequences will be for the country, but this could also become an opportunity to reform the system,” says Riccardo Mulone, country head for UBS Group AG in Italy. “This is a war, with doctors and nurses on the front line instead of soldiers, and in post-war periods Italians give their best.”

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