A pedestrian wearing a protective face masks walks past the Colosseum in Rome, Italy, on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. Italy appears never far from a recession, and the spread of the coronavirus may just tip it back into the danger zone.
This week will be decisive to see if measures the Italian government has taken to tackle the new coronavirus — including the lockdown of entire towns, restrictions of movement and closure of public places — are working, as the government announces more money to tackle the virus.
“If the infections drop within the next seven days, it means that the closures and measures taken have worked,” the president of Italy’s National Institute of Health, Silvio Brusaferro, told La Repubblica newspaper Sunday.
“At the end of the week we will understand if and how much the containment measures put in place slowed the epidemic. We expect positive results, I am optimistic. We ask all citizens for collaboration. Their help is important for breaking the chain of infections,” he also told the Corriere della Sera newspaper in an interview published Monday.
The official’s comments come as Italy deals with its most major national public health disaster in modern times. Italy has seen the worst outbreak of the coronavirus, COVID-19, outside of Asia and the infections continue to rise.
As of Monday, over 1,600 cases of the virus have been confirmed in Italy and 34 people have died. On Friday, there had been just over 800 confirmed cases, up from only three cases registered a week earlier, on Friday February 21.
Many of the cases of the new coronavirus seen throughout Europe have also been traced to Italy with the worst affected regions being Lombardy and Veneto, whose capitals Milan and Venice are popular business and holiday destinations, respectively.
Brusaferro said the multiplication of coronavirus cases that Italy was currently witnessing were probably contracted before the authorities “got organized” and imposed emergency measures (on February 23) to stop the spread of the virus. He said he hoped the number of cases would drop after next weekend.
The flu-like virus, which originated in China, has an incubation period of 10-14 days and there is no known cure, as yet; the majority of deaths have been among the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.
A handful of countries, including the U.S., have advised their citizens against travel to Italy at the current time or to self-quarantine on return from Italy. Public Health England, for one, has advised anyone returning from northern Italy — an area defined as anywhere above the line of cities Pisa, Florence and Rimini, to self-isolate if they show symptoms.
With free movement between the 27 countries of the EU (and the U.K. while it remains tied to EU rules during a post-Brexit transition period), Europe is closely watching how Italy, a country with a fragile coalition government and weak economy, deals with the escalating outbreak.
A dozen towns in those regions were put in lockdown (and were made so-called “red zones” and quarantined) just over a week ago as the Italian government under Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte sought to halt the spread. The measures are due to be in place until at least March 8.
There are other “yellow zones” in Italy where schools are closed, and sports events and religious and cultural spaces have been postponed or canceled. In the rest of Italy, there are preventative measures (such as disinfectants in premises open to the public) aimed at preventing the spread of the virus. Even the Vatican has had to play down speculation that Pope Francis, who has a cold, has the virus, after he canceled his participation in a week-long spiritual retreat.
Italy’s health authorities on the front line are struggling to cope with the rapid increase in coronavirus cases. Last Friday, a virologist in Milan described hospitals in Lombardy, considered the epicenter of the outbreak, as being close to breaking point, in “severe crisis” and registering an “overload” of patients, Italian news agency ANSA reported.
Economy Minister Roberto Gualtieri announced Sunday that Italy will introduce measures worth 3.6 billion euros ($3.5 billion) to help the economy. These will include tax credits for companies that have suffered a 25% fall in revenues, as well as additional funds for the country’s health service, Reuters reported. The measures come on top of the government’s announcement on Friday of an aid package worth 900 million euros for the worst-affected regions.
Italy has signaled that it could ask the EU for leeway over its budget deficit, one of the biggest bugbears between Rome and Brussels with arguments over the level it should be. Italy has the second-largest debt pile in the euro zone after Greece, with its debt to GDP ratio at just over 136% in 2019.