GP Insights # 290, 14 March 2020
In an attempt to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Italy has declared to close all shops except food stores and pharmacies in Europe's toughest shutdown yet. In a televised address on 12 March, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said the tightened restriction would be in force from until 25 March, and the impact will be felt on the rate of new cases in a couple of weeks.
Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump has suspended all travel from Europe for 30 days. It joins Austria in restricting the travel and its border movement of people and goods with Italy.
Sixty million Italians can now move around the country only for work and health, with written permission. Also on 14 March, Spain declared a state of emergency for the next 15 days to better combat the coronavirus. The state of emergency remains to be formally approved by a cabinet meeting which will give the government power to take wide-ranging measures deemed fit to battle the spread of the virus.
What is the background?
Conte introduced the country-wide lockdown by quoting it as the "I'm staying home" decree, after a regional quarantine in the most severely affected northern part of the country, was seen as inadequate. The regional authorities of Lombardy and Veneto have asked for a complete full shutdown (including factories) for two weeks, just like in Wuhan, in order to prevent a collapse of the health system overloaded by the number of infected cases.
Italy has now seen 1,016 deaths, amid a total number of 15,113 infections. The civil protection officials say 1,258 have recovered, although the number of cases has simultaneously increased by 2,651 since 11 March. Italy is the world's worst-hit country after China. Spain has now recorded the second-highest number of coronavirus cases in Europe after Italy. The current reported cases in Spain stands at 4,209, up by about 1,000 cases from 12 March. In Spain, about 120 people have died.
What does it mean?
First, the maximum impact of the shutdown in Italy was felt in its tourism sector that has put a strain on its economy. The government has pledged to spend €25bn in health care which is three times more than estimated. This might result in a recession. The government has already tried to ease the burden on the people by relaxing the mortgage payments. The social distancing rules imposed on society have led the Italians to change their otherwise regular gestures and greetings towards each other. The government is exploring proposals to let people delay paying their bills. There has been unrest—some runs on supermarkets and riots at prisons after visits from relatives were banned.
Second, Italy has sought to follow a China-style lockdown as the response mechanism. In this regard, Italy has witnessed positive results on areas where the shutdown has been imposed. Two weeks after the first ten towns in northern Italy were declared a "red zone" and put under lockdown, no new infections have been reported. Italy which has chosen an intrastate lockdown, has been greeted with an interstate lockdown as well from Austria and Slovenia. Countries across the world have grounded flights to Italy or banned entry to Italians or anyone travelling from Italy. Italian nationals living in other countries have reported individual acts of hostility towards them.
Last, the lockdown response mechanism is testing how much restriction is possible in a democracy balancing public safety with freedom. Besides, the closing of borders along with the suspension of flights and discriminatory treatments to Italian citizens are also challenging the extent of integration that Europe has propagated to be. The countries have until now tried to balance protecting the health and welfare of citizens with protecting their integrated economy from facing a blown-out recession. While on the one hand, Europe is well-positioned to face this crisis with good universal public health care, it is also ill-equipped to contain without backtracking on its very principles of free movement of people, goods, and information. It is interesting to understand how the virus has created new borders of control.