Italy Closes Schools as Panic Spreads Along With Misinformation and Death

(CN) — Europe is bracing for more coronavirus outbreaks similar to Italy’s to spring up elsewhere, raising the likelihood other countries may be forced to follow Italy’s example and close schools nationwide and impose lockdowns on entire cities to fight the epidemic.

Friday was another day of grim news in Europe: Germany was dealing with a serious outbreak, the first cases were popping up in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, the first person in Vatican City fell ill and Europe’s financial markets nosedived, along with markets around the world.

The spread of coronavirus also produced reports of racism against Asians and Italians, profiteering and scams and a flood of misinformation on the internet.

Countries and territories with COVID-19 cases directly linked to Italian cluster.

Fears are growing that the outbreak will throttle Europe’s economy, as tourism drops, exports decline, large numbers of workers fall sick and companies cut back production.

At a meeting of EU health ministers in Brussels on Friday, ministers from the 27 member states called for more coordination to fight the new coronavirus and share resources across borders.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn said all of Europe needs to prepare for outbreaks. He said Germany, like Italy, has so many infected people that new cases are no longer linked to outbreaks outside of Germany.

“We have clusters [of sick people] that are not linked to another country, but they are coming from within Germany,” he said. “So we are in a different phase.”

He said other countries face similar outbreaks. “You have to expect that other countries in a week’s time or in three months’ time will end up in the same situation,” Spahn said.

The numbers of people infected and dying from the novel COVID-19 virus continue to climb in Europe. As of Friday evening, there were more than 5,700 cases in the EU, with most in Northern Italy.

On Friday, Germany said 639 people have been infected there, more than a tripling of cases in the past three days. The focal point is in the country’s most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Germany has not reported any deaths.

France also reported a big spike in cases on Thursday and Friday and had 577 cases and nine deaths as of Friday evening.

“We expect this trend and a rapid increase will continue in the next days and weeks,” said Andrea Ammon, director of the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.

“Currently it is essential that countries try to further control” the spread of the virus, she said. “This is our best chance of slowing own the transmission chains.”

Since late February, Europe’s epicenter has been Italy, where more than 3,916 cases were reported by Friday and 197 deaths. As elsewhere, the respiratory disease is killing mostly older people with underlying health problems.

Italians are among those with the longest life expectancy, and the country’s large elderly population may be contributing to the high number of deaths.

A recent genome study found the outbreak in Italy may be traced to a Chinese woman who arrived in January for a business meeting in Munich, Germany.

Italy took the extraordinary step of closing all schools and universities nationwide on Thursday. It also has stopped sporting events, told people to stop shaking hands, and placed a number of towns in Lombardy and Veneto under lockdown.

Roberto Speranza, Italy’s health minister, called for “maximum solidarity” among EU states.

“This is a major problem that involves all of us,” he said at the meeting of ministers.

He called for more coordination at the European level to ensure there are no shortages of protective gear, such as masks and safety goggles, and medicine for those places that need them the most. The EU is being asked to trigger emergency measures to allow it to do just that.

There is some consternation in Europe over possible shortages of protective gear and medicine if the situation worsens. Several health ministers said Europe needs to be less reliant on China for its supplies of protective equipment and leveled criticism at Germany for banning the export of protective gear on Wednesday. Germany, the economic powerhouse of Europe, is a major manufacturer of medical goods.

Spahn, the German health minister, denied that it was a ban on exporting the gear, but said Germany wants to make sure protective gear isn’t snapped up by people who are not in the most need.

“What we have all seen is that the market is such that masks and protective gear are not going to where they are most urgently needed but going to those who have the resources to pay for them,” he said.

He said the new measures will ensure the equipment is not wasted.

At the meeting, a European Commission member said European companies “have a good production capacity to cope with” the outbreak and supply the protective gear and medicine needed.

Hans Kluge, regional director in Europe for the World Health Organization, said it was important to combat misinformation about the disease, which he called an “infodemic.” He said health authorities must provide clear information to the public.

“It is important that we all keep commonsense and avoid panic,” he said.

The epidemic is bringing with it racism against Asian and Italians. In Sheffield, in northern England, the windows of Italian restaurants were smashed. A student from Singapore was beaten up in London and there have been reports on social media of Asians being shouted at in Italy and Germany.

Luigi Di Maio, Italy’s foreign affairs minister, took aim at CNN, the U.S. cable news giant, for a graphic it displayed showing numerous red lines designating virus-carrying people who’d left Italy and carried the virus around the world.

Di Maio said the map made it seem Italy was where the virus had started.

“This is a distorted picture of the reality,” Di Maio complained on Facebook, saying the virus had begun in China and that Italy was doing all it could to deal with the emergency. He accused media outlets of distorting the truth and purposefully making Italy’s public health care system look bad.

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

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