Ferdinando Giugliano: Italy ratcheting up lockdown, with lessons for rest of Europe

The country should have acted sooner to stop the coronavirus spreading, but restrictions since March 10 may finally be working, says Ferdinando Giugliano.
Ferdinando Giugliano: Italy ratcheting up lockdown, with lessons for rest of Europe

Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte.
Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte.

The country should have acted sooner to stop the coronavirus spreading, but restrictions since March 10 may finally be working, says Ferdinando Giugliano.

Italy is doubling down on its lockdown to stop the spread of coronavirus.

The country is halting all non-essential economic activities for two weeks.

There are early signs that these draconian steps are paying off, but the human and economic costs will be steep.

The government made mistakes, which the rest of the Western world should have learned from, but didn’t.

Italy has surpassed China as the country with the most deaths, 5,500, from Covid-19, even though Italy’s population is barely 4% that of China’s. (3,300 Chinese died.)

Almost 60,000 Italians have tested positive for the virus, more than double the number in Spain and Germany.

Italy was the first European country to discover a serious domestic outbreak, which partly explains why it is now so widespread.

Other Western countries — including France, the UK, and even the US — appear to be merely tracking Italy, with just a few weeks of delay.

And because it faced the beginning of the epidemic before others, Italy was caught off-guard.

There are several plausible reasons for the severity of Italy’s outbreak.

The country has a very old population, with a median age of 45 years. Covid-19 hits the elderly particularly hard, and tends to spare younger people.

The median age of those who have died from the virus in Italy is just short of 80.

Cultural factors may have also played a role: In Italy, different generations often live together, which may have facilitated contagion to the elderly.

Japan also has an ageing population, but people engage routinely in social distancing, a possible reason for that country’s successful containment of the epidemic.

In Italy, the northern region of Lombardy has been hit hardest.

Nearly half of all registered cases and two-thirds of official deaths have come from this area, which has a sixth of Italy’s population.

The region is the country’s economic powerhouse and has strong commercial links with other countries, including China.

This may explain why Italy’s outbreak originated here, spreading uncontained for some time.

A few smaller hospitals may have mishandled some of the first cases, contributing to hospital outbreaks. (Hospital outbreaks spread quickly across the most vulnerable part of the population.)

The government and political leaders were initially complacent.

At the end of January, prime minister Giuseppe Conte said on TV that the country was prepared for the epidemic and taking the most severe containment measures in Europe.

As the first cases emerged in southern Lombardy, several politicians said that people should get on with their lives.

Milan, the main city in Lombardy and the country’s financial capital, was at the centre of a motivational video, spread by the political class, with the slogan ‘Milan does not stop’.

Some tough actions followed quickly, however.

The government first forced a full lockdown for 50,000 people, in 11 towns in southern Lombardy and in one in Veneto.

Then, schools were shut, and public gatherings were banned.

On March 10, a national lockdown was put in place.

Bars, restaurants, and shops were closed, and people were told not to leave their homes, except to go to work or buy food.

The government has now shut down all non-essential economic activities, such as many factories, until April 3.

Italy deserves credit for being the first Western country to enforce such tough measures.

These measures appear to be working: On Sunday, the daily growth rate of the number of people tested positive for the virus slowed to just above 10%, and the number of new deaths fell.

These figures bring hope.

However, the government has often acted erratically.

At first, it failed to enforce a full lockdown in another area of Lombardy, the province of Bergamo, which now has the most cases in Italy.

A decision to close several areas of northern Italy was leaked to the press before its approval, sparking a rush to escape to the south, which may have helped spread the virus.

And it is struggling to define which factories it would consider essential.

Some 4,000 healthcare workers have tested positive for the virus — indicating that doctors and nurses are overly exposed and may act as transmission channels.

While Italy has performed 230,000 tests, it has not put together a comprehensive strategy of testing, tracking, and self-isolation, a system that has saved lives in South Korea and Singapore.

France and Spain also waited far too long before enforcing a lockdown.

The UK has made a dramatic U-turn on an initial plan to pursue a soft containment strategy, but is still struggling to take measures to enforce social distancing.

The US has only recently ramped up testing, and is struggling to catch up with growing demand for it.

Italy has limited the freedom of its citizens, which seemed impossible for a Western country.

These steps have been used as a model elsewhere.

However, they offer no guidance over how to handle the epidemic in the long run, since it is impossible to shut the economy for months.

Many countries in Asia have done a better job at combining these different priorities.

That’s where the West should look for long-term answers — and do it soon.

Ferdinando Giugliano writes about European economics for Bloomberg View and for La Repubblica.


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