In Depth

Coronavirus hits Italy as fears of global pandemic rise

Eleven towns in northern Italy are on lockdown, as experts warn the window to prevent a pandemic is narrowing

The Italian authorities have put strict measures in place, putting towns across the country’s North on lockdown and closing the Venice Carnival early, as cases of the Wuhan coronavirus disease – Covid-19 – spiked from three reported on Friday to 150 yesterday.

This is the first major European outbreak. Six people are known to have died, and police are patrolling 11 towns, imposing fines on anyone travelling to or from “hotspot” areas.

Emergency measures now apply throughout the country, but the the strictest quarantines have been placed on municipalities in Veneto and Lombardy, where 50,000 people are now locked down.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced the implementation of “extraordinary measures” in a bid to counter the outbreak. The quarantine restrictions, he said, could last for weeks.

“We have adopted a decree to protect the health of Italians, which is our priority and which ranks first in the list of constitutional values,” he said, adding that people should “have faith in the political and scientific institutions, which are doing everything possible”.

“We still cannot identify patient zero, so it’s difficult to forecast possible new cases,” said Angelo Borrelli, head of the country’s Civil Protection agency, at a press conference on Sunday. “We are asking basically that everyone who has come from areas stricken by the epidemic to remain under a mandatory house stay.”

As well as the Venice Carnival, locked down areas have seen schools, universities, trade fairs, shops, opera performances, and Serie A football matches closed and cancelled, in what The New York Times calls a “test of whether the virus can be successfully contained in relatively open European societies.”

In these “hotspot” areas, only pharmacies have been allowed to stay open.

“Lombardy is home to Italy’s financial capital Milan, and together with Veneto the two regions account for 30 per cent of the country’s gross domestic output,” notes the Financial Times, pointing out that “any prolonged disruption there is likely to affect the national economy, which is already on the brink of recession.”

The ongoing fashion week in Milan was also affected, with Giorgio Armani showing new designs without a live audience on Sunday - streaming the show on social media instead.

“The decision was taken to safeguard the wellbeing of all his [Armani’s] invited guests by not having them attend crowded spaces,” said event organisers.

The six dead include a 78-year-old man, who died in the Veneto region on Friday, and a 77-year-old woman, who is thought to have pneumonia. The third death was confirmed yesterday - an elderly woman who was suffering from cancer, says the BBC.

The Daily Telegraph adds that the fourth death was a man in his 80s, while Italian media is reporting that the fifth victim was 88-years-old and from the northern Lombardy region. The state broadacaster reported the sixth death, but did not add any details about the victim. 

The global outlook

Almost 78,000 cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed now globally, and Iran was also struggling to cope with an outbreak over the weekend, enacting many of the same measures seen in Italy.

On Saturday, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, said that there was a rapidly narrowing “window of opportunity” to prevent the outbreak becoming a pandemic. Given the news in Italy, some analysts are speculating that the window is now much narrower.

“The tipping point after which our ability to prevent a global pandemic ends seems a lot closer after the past 24 hours,” said Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia.

The virus has been notably more lethal to the elderly, with a 15% mortality rate in those infected over 80, and to those with chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, chronic lung disease, or cancer. In the second group the mortality rate is somewhere between 5% and 10%, says Forbes.

There is also a notable difference in how lethal Covid-19 is to men and women. Women fare much better on average, with a 2.8% death rate in males, and 1.7% in females.

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Xi admits shortcomings

At a Communist Party meeting on Sunday, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, acknowledged “obvious shortcomings in the response to the epidemic.” Covid-19 was “a crisis and a big test,” he said, and would have a “relatively big impact on the economy and society” in China.

“The epidemic situation is still severe and complex, and prevention and control work is in the most difficult and critical stage,” he said.

Echoing his call for decisive action, on Sunday President Moon Jae-in of South Korea reacted to news of 256 new cases in his country, bringing the total to 602 with five deaths. The outbreak had reached a “crucial watershed,” he said, and “the next few days will be a very important critical moment”.

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