Italy could be facing a significant loss of jobs, business closures and international isolation.
Milan, Italy – “It is the time for national unity, the situation should not be used for political gains,” is tirelessly repeated by Giuseppe Conte, the prime minister of the nation with the highest number of coronavirus cases outside of Asia and the highest in the West.
The call for unity in such a time of crisis hides the widespread feeling that something better could have probably been done to reduce the risk of contagion.
To date, 455 people have been infected with the coronavirus, or COVID-19, in Italy. Of these, 12 people died, 116 patients are hospitalised with symptoms, 36 are in intensive care and 209 are in home-isolation, mainly in the northern regions. These were the latest figures released yesterday by the Commissioner for the Civil Protection Emergency, Angelo Borrelli.
The count rises daily. The statistics speak of one death in every 50 cases, mostly elderly with compromised medical histories.
Over half of the people who had tested positive to the swab, do not need hospital treatment: they have no symptoms but they could become a “plague spreader” and have to stay quarantined.
The government’s decision at the end of January to stop all flights from China was met with criticism.
“The only questionable measure was stopping only direct flights while neglecting those with an intermediate stopover,” says Maria Triassi, a hygiene professor at Federico II University of Naples and Director of the of University Department for Public Health.
“More airport transits meant more exposure to the flu hence the virus was allowed to travel. Besides, not much could be done. The weakest links are now the overcrowded emergency rooms, while quarantine measures are indeed effective”.
Based on Italian television and news reports however, it seems an apocalypse is approaching: supermarket shelves have been ransacked, half of Italy closed down museums, theatres and schools as a precautionary measure.
“I have the feeling that some institutions humour the emotional wave imposed by media rather than scientific opinions, " Triassi tells TRT World, "schools have been closed down in cities with one million inhabitants where not even one infection was registered. It is never a good idea to juxtapose health and culture.
In the municipalities where the outbreak started - such as Codogno, a town in Lombardy region from which the contagion was believed to have spread in Italy - drastic measures have been imposed in an attempt to contain the spread of the disease.
Residents cannot leave, cultural, recreational, sports and religious events - both in public and private places - have been suspended, as well as classes in schools and universities (online schooling continues), museums, clubs and theatres are closed, competitions and exams are postponed.
Public offices have been shut down, except those providing essential services, while some companies let staff work from home. Guarded quarantines have been imposed on individuals who had contact with confirmed cases.
The inability to find “patient zero” - the first infected person who brought the virus to Italy - is making the national health system go nuts.
For a few days, officials in Italy believed the “patient zero” could be a man who had just returned from China, a friend of the 38-year-old man who was infected together with his pregnant wife. But apparently this is not the case and “patient zero” is yet to be pinpointed. That fact, or the lack of it, has instilled and exacerbated a feeling of vulnerability in the population.
To date, it is not known from whom and where the virus had spread in the country. What we do know is that some infections contracted by elderly people took place in a bar in Vo’, a small town in North-east Italy, on the evening of February 9. The bar was crowded thanks to the broadcasting of the Milan-Inter football derby.
Will Italy become isolated?
The Coronavirus has so far struck mainly in the north of the country, with only three cases in Sicily, one in the Marche region and one in Puglia, while two cases have just been confirmed in Naples. Perhaps the reason for this initial gap is a reflection of the economic divide between northern and southern Italy.
Italy’s economic engine is in the north, where contacts and exchanges with China are more frequent, while they are more sporadic in the south, where the Chinese migrant population is also more sedentary.
These days most Italian TV broadcasts consist of a doctor as a guest, often dispensing advice on hygiene, evaluating the work of authorities, or predicting the duration of the infection. It feels as if the scientific debate has moved from academia to the small screen.
Among these, Fabrizio Pregliasco, medical director of a Milan hospital and professor at the Faculty of Medicine of Milan University, has gained quite a lot of popularity.
“Government decisions are political and based on the principle of social distance, the objective is curbing a substantial share of contacts between people. In these cases, there is no right recipe on which type of activity to close or not, the aim is reducing an excessive concentration of people so to reduce also the share of seriously ill people,” the professor told TRT World over the phone.
“When the World Health Organization (WHO) issues a global alarm, countries must adopt measures according to scientific guidelines and Italy has taken them,” claims Walter Ricciardi, WHO member and recently appointed consultant to the Minister of Health, Roberto Speranza, in an attempt to reassure those countries in Europe that were beginning to dread travel restrictions on Italian citizens.
“Italians can travel. Conditions on travelling abroad have not changed," Speranza reiterated yesterday, at the end of a meeting with his counterparts from France, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Switzerland and Croatia as authorities scrambled to contain Europe’s biggest outbreak.
Meanwhile, with the contagion spreading to Europe, the Middle East and Asia, Beijing is strengthening measures against the “return contagion” announcing that people arriving from coronavirus-affected countries are required to stay in a 14-day self-quarantine.
Unlike other European countries, at the end of January, Italy closed direct flights to and from China. Like China, Italy is now also being increasingly isolated from other countries: British Airways has drastically reduced its connections to Milan.
According to Pregliasco, “It is difficult to say whether it is right or not to halt domestic and international connections, yet this allows reducing the chance of contagion. We are faced with two possible scenarios – he continues - either the measures taken prove to be useful and therefore we will move on to mitigate the phenomenon or we will have to deal with a widespread contagion, yet reduced for the natural course of the disease.”
The debate within the Italian scientific community is particularly lively these days. According to Maria Triassi, everything could end with the end of the winter, like the normal flu.
Fabrizio Pregliasco, on the other hand, believes the outcome may not be so linear and warns that the heat does not help respiratory diseases and open-air activities increase the chances of infection.
The virus infects the economy
Meanwhile, in many northern Italian cities, including Milan, fear has taken over the population. “Since the news of the first contagion came out, panic has spread among people. They wear masks and gloves. On the streets, in the metro or at bus stops the topic is just one: the virus. Everyone agrees that it is only a tougher flu but in fact, everything has stopped in the city, nobody goes out. In Navigli [the bars and nightclubs’ area of Milan] everything is closed, it looks like a zombie city,” says Aleko Carola, a guitarist who lives and works in Milan.
“All concerts and private lessons have a been cancelled, our sector is stuck and Milan is an expensive city to live in.” Via Paolo Sarpi, the Milanese Chinatown is deserted, Chinese shops and restaurants are closed, the street is a streak of lowered shutters, hotel face cancellations.
“The measures taken in Lombardy have made panic spread over the past weekend. There is no one around, the streets are empty, it is almost scary. Supermarkets have been stormed,” claims Mimosa Milano, a young entrepreneur who runs a catering business for major fashion events in Milan.
“Italian and international customers and brands have cancelled all the events booked from here to April. I’m thinking about how to reinvent myself in these three months, I can’t stand still, but nobody wants contacts with other people. Fear prevails - the fear of others - it is difficult to discern.”
Media too have played their role in spreading a feeling of panic. The Council of the Order of Journalists of Lombardy yesterday said it cannot avoid calling on directors, editors-in-chief and editors to maintain “scrupulous and careful compliance with the ethical duties imposed by law and by the ethical charts in health matters, in particular, in order to avoid a sensationalism that could give rise to unfounded fears or hopes.”
That the Italian economy is under heavy stress due to the coronavirus outbreak and the restrictions imposed, is a fact.
If the lockdown lasts until May, experts foresee the closure of 15,000 companies and the loss of 60,000 jobs. In the south, the contagion would put in crisis the only surplus sector - tourism - in one of EU’s poorest regions.
To date, the spectre of recession in Italy no longer seems to be a bugbear but a concrete risk. Shops have recorded a surge in sales of masks and sanitising products, which are nowhere to be found these days.
In a bookshop in Milan, a clerk shares that today’s best-selling books nationwide are “Spillover. The evolution of Pandemics,” a 2017 text by David Quammen, and “Blindness” by Jose Saramago, published in 1997. These two books best reflect the mood and atmosphere in Italy today.