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Delays and doubts: The spreading of COVID-19 in Italy

By: Fabio Cresto Aleína

It all started sometime after mid-February, and while I rationally know that it wasn’t so long ago, it feels like geological eras have passed. I remember memes and jokes on social media, as nobody could understand how serious it would have all become and how much our lives would have changed. I even remember some horrible racist comments towards innocent Chinese tourists. And then I remember the chaos in the weeks that followed, the inadequate response of a government in front of a crisis which it was not able to control.

At the beginning not even the experts and the local doctors were able to understand the virus and they interpreted it like a seasonal flu that killed only elderly people, so they focused on reassuring the population. When the epidemics started in Val Seriana, near Bergamo in the North of Italy, the local and national authorities extremely underestimated the gravity of the situation, and it took not days but weeks for the government to order a local lockdown. The problem was the fear to slow down too much the activities of one of the driving regions for the Italian economy. The consequences of this slow response are heavily felt now, when the Bergamo region is one of the worst-hit areas in the world and the whole country has to report more than 27,000 deaths to date. The world saw the images of military trucks transporting hundreds of coffins outside the Bergamo cemetery, and the images of exhausted doctors and nurses in hospitals fighting with the lack of respiratory systems, despite the Italian public healthcare system being an excellent one.

In China the government acted swiftly, employing hard measures to contain the first outbreak happened and building new hospitals specialized to treat the infected people. Nothing of the sort happened in the north of Italy, where the spread of the epidemics started in the regular hospitals, one of the worst places to happen. During the first weeks of the outbreak the mayor of the largest city in the area, Milan, launched the campaign “Milano doesn’t stop”, announcing that bars and shops will be kept open to keep up the spirits of the citizens and to avoid the spread of panic. Around 20 days after the first cases were identified, Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte proposed a new legislation to lock down the whole north of Italy, basically admitting the failure in containing the outbreak in first clusters of the epidemics. Unfortunately, the news of the new legislation leaked to the press before it became effective and in panic many fled to the south of Italy, spreading the infection throughout the whole country. This event forced the Italian government to ban all the unnecessary travel on March 10. Nowadays, the containment measures are even stricter, as nobody is allowed to leave home, and everyone must seek and show a special permission slip even for doing the groceries. People are either forced to work from home, or simply to stop working, except from a short list of “essential” activities selected by the central government.

In Guatemala, the government was able to act rapidly enough, but without implementing even harder measures, the country will face a path even harder than Italy’s one, where only now the extremely strict laws enforced in the past weeks are showing the first results, as the spreading of the epidemics is slowing down. When will this all end, and how? We will likely develop a vaccine, but in the meantime the world has to stop, we have to stop. And start to think about what will happen after.

Note of the author: During these days it seems like everyone is an improvised virologist or an epidemiologist. I want to be completely honest: I have zero competency to talk about pandemics. I’m a climate scientist, and it is very hard for anyone to reconstruct what happened in Italy in the first weeks of the epidemics and how it got out of control, so I based this article on a recent reportage by Davide Maria de Luca from the Italian magazine Il Post and on interviews to Ernesto Burgio (president of the Italian Society for Environmental Medicine) and Gianfranco Pacino (director to the National Healthcare and Medicine Research Institute). A nice timeline of the contagion spread in Italy has been also showed by The New York Times.