As Global Death Toll Passes 10,000, Italy Clamps Down Harder

People stand apart as they line up to enter a supermarket in Rome on Friday. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

(CN) – With the pandemic’s death toll passing 10,000 people worldwide, the head of the World Health Organization on Friday pointed to China’s draconian quarantine measures as a way to stop the deadly coronavirus and issued a warning to young people, saying they are not invincible against the disease.

The statements of Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus, the WHO director-general, were directed at Italy and other countries struggling to both stop the spread of the disease and convince their citizens – especially younger people – to heed orders to stay home and avoid physical contact.

Friday marked the heaviest death toll yet for Italy with officials reporting 627 more victims and 4,670 new confirmed cases of Covid-19, a novel coronavirus that causes respiratory disease. Spain, the second-hardest hit European country, reported more than 1,000 deaths.

“Every day Covid-19 seems to reach a new tragic milestone,” Tedros said in a news conference in Geneva.

But he said the lack of new cases in Wuhan proves that the disease can be held in check. “Wuhan provides hope for the rest of the world. Even the most serious situation can be turned around,” he said.

He had a message for young people too.

“You are not invincible. This virus can put you into hospitals for weeks and even kill you,” he warned.

“One of the things we are learning is that although older people are the hardest hit, younger people are also hurt,” Tedros said, referring to the growing data on the disease.

Many political leaders and health officials around the world, including U.S. President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have downplayed the severity of the disease and said young people are not at risk. Both Trump and Johnson now are talking about the virus as a serious threat. Schools are now closed in the United Kingdom and Johnson on Friday ordered pubs, restaurants and gyms to shut their doors.

On Thursday, Italy’s death toll overtook that of China, where no new cases were reported for a second straight day on Friday. Italy’s death toll now stands at 4,032.

To stop the spread of the disease, Italy is seeking to follow the example of China, which imposed a total lockdown on Wuhan, an industrial city of more than 11 million people where the disease emerged in December. The outbreak in Italy is concentrated in Lombardy, the wealthy and heavily industrialized region of Milan.

But a major concern is that massive outbreaks will hit other parts of Italy unless people are forced into an even tougher lockdown.

To clamp down even harder, Italy on Friday began mobilizing its military and police to stop people from going out for such simple things as jogging, visiting a country house, enjoying parks and taking dogs out for long walks. Italy is also forcing food stores to close on Sundays.

These new measures come after a visiting Chinese Red Cross official said on Thursday he was shocked to see so many people walking around, using public transportation and eating out in hotels in Milan.

“Right now we need to stop all economic activity, and we need to stop the mobility of people,” Sun Shuopeng said. “All people should be staying at home in quarantine.”

It’s not as though Italian officials haven’t enforced the lockdown.

Police are patrolling cities and towns and conducting hundreds of thousands of police checks, resulting in more than 53,000 fines. Violating the lockdown is a criminal offense and can even land someone in prison for up to three months. To leave home, residents are required to make a sworn statement saying they have a legitimate reason to be outside, such as to go to work, buy food or fetch medicine.

To reinforce the message to stay at home, the government has pushed a media campaign involving celebrities using the slogan: “Io resto a casa” (“I’m staying home”).

This slogan pops up on television, on social media and is written in big letters on the Pirellone, a famous skyscraper in Milan. In one television ad, popular comedian Fiorello is seen lying on a red sofa and asking: “Why don’t we stay at home?”

“What’s all this about going out and getting a drink? What a lousy thing,” he says. “Stay at home, it’s better. It’s so nice on the couch!”

In some places, drones are being sent out to spy on popular spots where people walk and gather.

“I still see too many people who don’t respect the decree,” Fabio Chies, the mayor of Conegliano in Veneto, told the ANSA news agency. He signed a contract with a private company to begin flying drones on the hills around his town covered in vineyards.

“Around our municipality there is a 25 square kilometer area of hills that we can’t patrol,” he said.

Parks and public gardens are being closed in several cities, including Milan, Naples and Rome.

Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi posted an outraged video Friday on Facebook about people in La Caffarella park who she said acted as if they were not under lockdown.
“People are sunbathing, walking with friends,” she said. “Either we all understand that we have to control ourselves, or the army will have to intervene… because we have to stop this pandemic.”

In fact, most Italians, even in those places where the disease hasn’t shown up, are staying home and venturing out only with valid reasons.

Tedros, the WHO head, said he understood the frustration and strains people under lockdown feel. He advised everyone stuck at home to look after their health.

He said people stuck on computers should get up and move every 30 minutes. He said adults and children need to exercise, even if they can’t go outside.

“If you can’t go outside, do some yoga, do some dancing or walk up and down stairs,” he said.

For those feeling anxiety about the pandemic, he said it is best to stop watching and reading the news. “Listen to music, read a book,” he said.

“Look after your mental health,” he added advising those in lockdown to talk with neighbors, family and friends and to help each other cope.

“Covid-19 is taking so much from us, but it is giving us something special, the opportunity to come together as one humanity,” Tedros said.

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Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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