GP Insights # 310, 29 March 2020
On 27 March, Italy recorded 919 new coronavirus deaths in a day which is the highest daily figure in the outbreak, surpassing China. The deaths recorded on 27 March have brought the total number of deaths from the pandemic to 9,134 in the country. The authorities have warned of an extension in the restrictions beyond 3 April as 5,959 new cases are registered nationwide bringing the total number of affected to 86,500. As the number keeps increasing in Italy, 100,00 infected cases are reported every day in Europe. The impact of the pandemic has reached its peak as higher government officials test positive for the virus. This includes the Prime Minister of UK, Boris Johnson, Prince Charles of the British Royal Family followed by Michel Barnier, the chief EU Brexit negotiator and UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock. In the UK, the total number of deaths is 759, with 14,543 confirmed cases. As of 27 March, France reported 299 coronavirus deaths over the past 24 hours and the total death toll stands at 1,995.
What is the background?
Five weeks after the virus took root in Italy, the country's recorded cases rose to nearly 86,500, which is more than the United States, or China. The northern region of Lombardy is the hardest hit in the country and saw a sharp increase in deaths from Covid-19. This followed a decline on 26 March that raised hopes that the curve might be flattening in the trajectory of the outbreak. However, the progress of containment is slow, and the number of deaths is staggering. The country has been suffering from a flu-like disease before the coronavirus infections started spreading in the country, making it difficult for an already overloaded hospital to detect early infections or the government to impose an early lockdown. Since the outbreak, 46 doctors have died and nearly 6,500 health workers infected. In all likelihood, the containment measures will be extended. The lockdown has been crushing the tourism-dependent Italian economy and the increase in deaths in Italy will be a caution for the other European countries who are behind in the progression of the virus and the lockdown.
What does it mean?
First, the increasing number of deaths bring to light the spotty response by Italy since the beginning. In a matter of weeks (from February 21 to March 27), Italy went from the reporting its first official Covid-19 case to a government decree that essentially prohibited all movements of people within the few territories to complete lockdown. The government has been reluctant in listening to the experts and the tall figures as the country was already experiencing flu-like symptoms. They never anticipated the cost of the coronavirus on the already ailing population. In addition, the people, in general, have been figuring out how to act in dire situations where there is no easy solution.
Second, the lesson that can be drawn from the Italian experience is the perils of partial solutions. The Italian government dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic by issuing a series of decrees that gradually became stricter and expanded from the affected provinces to the entire country. This strategy particularly backfired as it was clearly inconsistent with the rapid spread of the virus. Thus, in the end, Italy ended up mitigating or following the health disaster rather than preventing it.
Third, the experience in Italy also brings out the fact that similar approaches of social distancing and retail closure will not translate to uniform containment of the virus spread. This was visible in the contrasting cases of Lombardy and Veneto, the two neighbouring regions and the epicentre of the outbreak. While Lombardy recorded 5000 deaths, Veneto recorded 287 (increasing) deaths; this was due to the decentralised nature of the Italian health care system and the differences in policy response adopted by these provinces.
Last, Italy provides an important background to what could be foreseen in Europe in the coming weeks. With an already delayed effort at COVID-19 containment, the policymakers will be struggling to keep up with the spreading pandemic. The pandemic has taught Europe the truth about meeting the human security issues and also the dependency on Asia with regards to crucial supply chains (apart from virus) that binds the continents together. For example, Europe should take this moment to realise its excessive dependence on China for pharmaceuticals, medical supplies and high tech medical equipment in times of crisis.