Italy has reached a grim milestone, surpassing China and logging 7,503 deaths due to the coronavirus pandemic. Even still, it is believed that Italy’s real toll is in fact much higher, as rampant deaths in nursing homes due to the virus are going unmarked, with no one at these institutions being tested.
The virus, SARS-CoV-2, causes respiratory illness Covid-19, and the elderly are especially vulnerable. In February, visitor access to elderly care was curtailed. But due to shortages, staff was not able to get protective gear, with equipment such as masks going to hospitals instead. This has likely increased the rate of transmission, and isolation has been difficult for seniors – especially for those who suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s. Those who pass away are often unable to receive burials, and families must do with just a quick blessing from a priest before the deceased are quickly buried or cremated, while the entire country is overwhelmed by the growing death toll.
Currently, only patients with severe symptoms in hospitals are being tested. Even under a nationwide quarantine, Italy has failed to replicate China’s successes in limiting transmission and controlling the virus. This does not bode well for the rest of Europe, where many nations have not yet instituted full-on lockdowns. And though Italy has received aid from both China and Cuba, it has received less assistance from the EU itself.
Despite the support coming in, Italy’s situation is poised to get worse. While so far the worst of the cases have been in the north, hospitals in the south are bracing for a sudden spike due to the amount of people fleeing the regional quarantine that was enacted on March 9. Hospitals in central and southern Italy are generally less equipped than those located in the richer north, a region that is home to Milan’s financial hub and serves as the heart of Italy’s manufacturing centre.
“Looking at the situation in central and southern Italy, you see cases increasing, especially over the last few days”, said Giorgio Sestili, a physicist who is collating studies from Italian scientists and sharing them on the Facebook page Coronavirus – Data and Scientific Analysis. “We think this could be due to the many people from the north who travelled south after the March 9 lockdown, and who might have transferred the virus.”
Governors of several southern regions have sought to seal their borders, and soldiers will patrol the streets in Sicily and Naples to enforce the local quarantine. In Campania, where there are only 600 intensive care beds, authorities have converted two hospitals to treat patients with Covid-19. “But the problem is that Campania could become a point of reference for other regions in the south that don’t have much capacity”, said Dr Serena Masino, a lecturer in economics and international development at the University of Westminster in London. “Doctors there are very concerned about a lack of equipment. As of Wednesday, we still had doctors in the main Covid-19 hospitals in Naples without face masks. One doctor had been using the same one for three days. The other concern is family doctors. In Calabria they received masks and goggles last week, but in Campania, as of Wednesday, they had nothing.”
Meanwhile, Italy has closed all essential businesses until April 3 to slow the spread of the virus. “It is the most difficult crisis in our post-war period“, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said in a video posted to Facebook. “Only production activities deemed vital for national production will be allowed.”
In order to enforce the quarantine, Italy has charged more than 400,000 individuals for violating the lockdown. Most people are abiding by the rules, but the minority flouting them are poised to do a lot of damage. Due to the ambiguity in the lockdown decree, many claim they didn’t realise they were breaking measures. Some individuals are forced out due to conflict or tension at home, while others appear to simply not care at all. Local mayors have posted messages about the issue on social media. “I hear it’ll all be OK. But how can that be if every day we continue to leave our homes to do our grocery shopping, fill up our cars or go for a run?”, said Gianfilippo Bancheri, the mayor of Delia, a small village in central Sicily. “[On] Sunday there were people having parties, barbecues. Are they serious? That’s how you transmit the disease! Apparently, some people still cannot engage their brain.” To force a halt to the virus spread, the government is now mulling over a decision to ban outdoor activity.
Despite these hardships, all is not lost for Italy. Vò, a small town in the north, successfully managed to choke out the contagion with extensive and repeated testing of each one of the town’s 3,300 people. In this way, those infected – or those that had been in contact with the infected – were able to be quarantined. Aggressive testing and isolation are methods that can be applied to the rest of the country, provided Italy has the tests and staff to mount such an expedition. And while testing all citizens seems as though it would be an impossible feat, it is possible to test those who are exposed to asymptomatic, but confirmed, cases.
Italian electricity usage has dropped a full 11 per cent as factories and shops remain shuttered. A recession is all but inevitable, and Morgan Stanley predicts a 19 percent drop in GDP this quarter on an annualised basis, and 33 percent in the next three months. Italy’s economy is literally switching off, and many believe it won’t be long before the rest of the continent follows suit.
Other European states are tracking Italy’s trajectory with a keen eye. How the country recovers from the pandemic will likely be a bellwether for how the rest of the EU does so too. Italy spends about the same ratio of its GDP on healthcare as its neighbours, but has a generally worse economy that features high debt, unemployment, and a GDP that sits only 5 percent higher than it did twenty years ago. Government investment is also lower than the rest of the eurozone, meaning that Italian financial recovery remains in jeopardy even after the pandemic has passed.
Guy Ryder, Director-General of the International Labour Organization, said that the coronavirus outbreak was no longer only a “global health crisis, it is also a major labour market and economic crisis”. Without government intervention and strong worker protections, the UN estimates that 25 million jobs across the globe may be lost.
“In 2008, the world presented a united front to address the consequences of the global financial crisis, and the worst was averted. We need that kind of leadership and resolve now”, Ryder said.
Even if the immediate shocks from the all-but-certain recession are contained, the loss of summer tourism revenue for Italy could have lasting ramifications. In Southern Europe, the banks may soon face another wave of loan defaults, an increase in the burden of non-performing loans, and reduced tax income. There is concern that this may wipe out the gains made since the sovereign debt crisis ten years ago.
At first the European Central Bank policy was criticised for not going far enough to prevent catastrophe. But the ECB has since expanded the size of its quantitative easing programme and is now allowing banks to borrow money at lower rates, hoping that this will reduce borrowing costs for governments, households, and companies, thereby permitting a stronger, quicker recovery. Policymakers across the EU are experimenting with postponing tax collection, delaying mortgage and loan repayments, deferring debt interest, and floating emergency loans to help their economies through the worst of this disaster.
In 2012, Mario Draghi, former President of the ECB, made the controversial rallying cry to support the stricken governments of Southern Europe, saying “Whatever it takes.” At the time, many thought Draghi was over-stepping the bounds of the ECB to keep their economies afloat. Today, Europe is better served by keeping every government and bank committed to this ideal.