To date, over 20,000 people have died from Coronavirus (COVID-19) in Italy, and this number is sadly expected to rise in the coming weeks. With over 159,000 confirmed cases, Italy is the second-worst affected country in Europe, and the third-worst affected country in the world.
So, just why did COVID-19 spread so violently through Italy, and what can Italy teach us about future pandemic management?
The First Cases
Italy identified its first COVID-19 cases on 30 January 2020. The first patients, Chinese tourists in Rome, were successfully isolated, and the Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, immediately blocked flights from China and declared a national state of emergency.
So, how did Italy go from successfully isolating two COVID-19 patients to collapsing under the weight of an outbreak?
It all came down to patient number three.
In Lombardy on 20 February, a man tested positive for COVID-19. He'd only experienced mild symptoms in the weeks prior to the test, which meant he spread the virus locally before isolating.
By 23 February, various nearby towns reported COVID-19 cases. Local sporting and recreational events were cancelled, but there was still no national lockdown policy.
By 8 March, many northern regions were placed under lockdown, but there was still no sign of restrictions in Southern regions.
Everything changed on 9 March — the Italian government declared a nationwide lockdown. By this point, there were almost 10,000 cases.
To control the virus spread, all nonessential shops closed and Italy entered its strictest lockdown on 22 March.
But why were so many people dying in Italy, and what did the authorities do wrong?
Key Factors Affecting Italy's Death Rate
Although Italy made some critical mistakes in containing COVID-19 — more on them below — there are two major reasons why Italy's death rate is so high.
Nearly 23% of Italy's population is over 65. Why is this important? Well, scientifically speaking, elderly people are more vulnerable to developing severe forms of COVID-19 and other viruses such as flu and pneumonia. Since Italy has a significant elderly population, it's unsurprising that the death rate is alarmingly high.
The mass migration of Chinese workers to northern Italy could have contributed to the Covid19 spread. This information was suggested by a few journalist but hasn't been confirmed!
Surge in Cases
So far, COVID-19 is proving to be far more infectious, and more deadly, than seasonal flu. If a large number of people become seriously ill at one time, hospitals simply can't cope. Although we can't know for sure until after the COVID-19 pandemic ends, it's likely that Italian hospitals couldn't cope with the surge in demand for medical care.
What Other Countries Can Learn From Italy's Experience With COVID-19
Italy's response to the COVID-19 outbreak was far from perfect, but there's a lot we can learn from it. Here are the four key takeaways.
Despite the first cases arriving in mid-February, Italy didn't contemplate even a partial lockdown of Northern regions until the 8th of March. By the time officials formally announced the lockdown, many people had already fled to the Southern areas.
COVID-19 spread throughout Italy because the Italian government didn't contain the virus effectively at the outset.
Avoid Partial Solutions
Partial solutions are no good against a rapid-spreading virus like COVID-19. Italy learned this the hard way by staggering its lockdowns and gradually tightening restrictions within affected zones.
What happened? It's simple. By the time Italy locked down its worst affected regions, the virus had already spread far and wide.
Veneto took a fairly aggressive approach to COVID-19 containment. From the moment the first cases emerged, Veneto restricted movement across the region and tested anyone in contact with COVID-19 patients. By late February, the town had tested over 3,000 residents, and they found out that over half of all positive cases were asymptomatic.
By isolating asymptomatic carriers, the town controlled the spread of COVID-19 throughout the community.
You can't effectively fight a virus unless you understand how it's moving. In the early days of the virus spread, the Italian government failed to document key medical data in a standardised, methodical way.
Essentially, this systematic failure made it impossible for policymakers or healthcare practitioners to understand which approaches worked and which ones did not.
The next pandemic will be contained more quickly and more effectively if other countries learn from Italy’s mistakes.
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