Coronavirus: Italy faces unprecedented emergency

March 18, 2020
Milan airport authorities test people's temperatures on February 6. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

A spectre is haunting Europe. Not the spectre of communism, but of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.

At the time of writing (March 18), Italy has the largest number of confirmed COVID-19 infections in Europe, with 31,506 cases, including 2941 recovered patients and 2503 deaths. These alarming numbers are undoubtedly indicators of a fully-fledged and unprecedented health emergency, which is putting a huge strain on the healthcare system.

The most affected region is Lombardy, with more than 16,000 cases, but all of northern Italy is taking the brunt in terms of infected people and deaths.

To tackle the emergency, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte extended nationwide restrictive measures first adopted in Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia-Romagna, on March 9. These include travel restrictions, a ban on public gatherings (including sporting events) and closure of all shops — except those selling necessities, such as grocery stores, supermarkets and pharmacies.

Such restrictions will remain in place until April 3, when it is hoped the emergency will be over. The government is advising people not to leave their homes and only go out for work, to buy groceries and for medical reasons.

Being stuck at home in precautionary quarantine, lots of people are organising flash mobs and virtual gatherings by simply going out on their balconies and singing songs (such as the national anthem or other popular Italian tunes) to prevent isolation and maintain a sense of community.

However, the adoption of such measures has also led to some negative consequences, including riots in several Italian prisons, where detainees have been demanding an amnesty to avoid contracting the virus. In these incidents, 12 detainees have lost their lives and 16 escaped.

In the past few days, about 8000 people have been reported to authorities for violating restrictions with no valid reason, jeopardising public health.

Hospitals in northern Italy are overwhelmed, forcing all healthcare professionals to work extra hours under enormous pressure. If the spread of the virus does not slow, it is very likely that the healthcare system in the region will no longer be able to provide the necessary treatment to all infected patients, hitting a point of no return.

Even now, there is no room in intensive care units and patients who are not in a critical condition are being sent home for self-isolation.

Undoubtedly, Italian people at first underestimated the risks associated with the spread of COVID-19 — continuing their lives as if nothing was happening, even after the first confirmed cases of infection.

However, most of the responsibility for this health emergency belongs to those who adopted and implemented neoliberal policies of welfare and healthcare cutbacks while favouring private enterprise in these crucial sectors.

The effects of such policies are now clearly visible in the public eye. The healthcare system is still public (for the most part), however, because of private interests, the quality and efficiency of healthcare has dropped significantly in the past 20 years.

The government has just approved additional financial resources for public healthcare (estimated at €3 billion), plus €10 billion to support families and workers on forced leave, as well as other expenses totalling €25 billion. On top of that, China, Cuba and Venezuela have sent doctors to help fight the outbreak.

The government is also trying to increase the readiness of medical structures by asking private hospitals and facilities to make staff and equipment available to fight the emergency. However, private structures are already playing their part. If the situation worsens, Italy could run out of resources, creating chaos.

Even though the World Health Organisation (WHO) praised the actions taken by Italy to fight the outbreak, both Italy and Europe need to remain vigilant to contain the virus and bring the situation back under control.

The virus is now spreading across Europe, and should it get to the border between Greece and Turkey, where there is a big encampment of Syrian refugees, it would trigger an unprecedented catastrophe. Europe needs to do everything possible to avoid this scenario.

If there is one lesson we can learn from the Italian situation, it is that healthcare should be public. Such an unprecedented and unforeseen outbreak also reminds us that healthcare is a human right.

COVID-19 is a global issue that needs to be fought globally and collectively. Indeed, as shown by China, but also Vietnam and Italy (at least in part), it is now more clear than ever that this kind of pandemic can only be fought and eradicated through an effective and fully-functional public healthcare system. A system aimed at global prevention and granting every single person their right to be cured, regardless of their wealth and nationality.

The virus makes no distinction of race, religion, gender or wealth; so why should we make such distinctions when fighting it?

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