In Depth

Coronavirus lockdown: will Italy’s new policy work?

As more countries face large-scale outbreaks, stringent quarantines enforced in Italy and China might be used more widely

Italy is placing drastic restrictions on a quarter of its population, mostly in the country’s northern economic heartland, to combat the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus.

With 366 deaths from Covid-19 - a rise of 56 per cent in a single day - and 7,375 confirmed cases, Italy is the hardest-hit nation outside China. The country, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said, was in a state of “national emergency.”

What do the new measures involve?

The lockdown, announced yesterday by Conte, means a strict quarantine for around 16 million people, as the government in Rome follows China’s lead in taking extreme steps in response to the outbreak.

Cultural events and funerals are banned, bars and restaurants can open only between 6am and 6pm, and in many public spaces people are required to keep a distance of at least one metre from each other. Travel in and out of designated areas must be approved by authorities, and will be subject to police checks.

There are growing concerns, says The Financial Times, that the tough restrictions “could push the country into recession.”

How have people reacted?

News of the government’s plans leaked on Saturday, causing panic among local authorities and a rush of thousands of Italians southwards as they attempted to avoid the quarantine.

“On Sunday morning dozens of police officers and medics wearing masks and hazmat suits waited in Salerno, in Campania, for passengers who had boarded overnight trains from Lombardy,” The Guardian reports. “The passengers will be registered and obliged to self-quarantine as fears mount over the virus’s spread in the south.”

Roberto Burioni, a professor of microbiology and virology at the Vita-Salute San Raffaele University in Milan, cautioned against this kind of reaction to travel restrictions.

“What happened with the news leak has caused many people to try to escape, causing the opposite effect of what the decree is trying to achieve,” he said. “Unfortunately some of those who fled will be infected with the disease.”

Are lockdowns the best policy?

Italy’s case will be watched closely by governments across the world who are balancing public health, economics and politics as they combat Covid 19. More extreme measures do greater damage to the economy, but late or ineffective action could let the virus run rampant.

Regional lockdowns are known to slow the spread of outbreaks. These techniques were learnt, the BBC says, during 1918’s Spanish flu pandemic: the draconian “public health measures we see being enacted today across the world as efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus are one of the Spanish flu’s most enduring effects,” it says.

In China, where strict quarantines have been in place for weeks, the coronavirus outbreak seems to be under control. A week ago, new cases in China were being reported at roughly 2000 per day, but on Saturday only 99 new infections were confirmed. Some deny the numbers can be trusted, but the WHO has praised authorities’ response.

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Why aren’t we all in lockdown?

Despite the growing alarm, governments are wary of subjecting their citizens to authoritarian conditions, or of compromising their economies with restrictions that could bankrupt vulnerable, particularly small, businesses. Most are reluctant to go as far as Beijing.

“China’s blunt force strategy poses deep questions for other countries. Its campaign has come at great cost to people’s livelihoods and personal liberties,” says The New York Times. “Even countries that could copy China still have to ask whether the cure is worse than the disease.”

In Iran, a more limited action than in China and Italy was taken, partly because the regime was reluctant to damage its standing with a population already discontented by economic stagnation, political repression and the accidental shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger jet in January. This approach, however, has backfired spectacularly.

“By downplaying the crisis, Iranian officials have actually managed to aggravate the public panic they wanted to avoid - and have undermined their own legitimacy in the process,” The Washington Post reports.

How will other countries react?

The examples provided by China and Iran point to stringent quarantine measures being the most effective strategy for governments as the coronavirus takes hold around the world.

Despite China’s success, however, there is no guarantee that the disease will not proliferate again when the quarantine measures abate - and the same applies in Italy. No economy can afford total lockdown indefinitely, and it remains to be seen how long Covid-19 circulates. 

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