CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) — Italy took the extraordinary step on Monday evening to place the entire country under quarantine, a far-reaching and historic move to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced the nationwide measures on Monday evening, just a day after he imposed a quarantine on Milan and much of northern Italy. Now, instead of 16 million people under quarantine, Italy’s population of about 60 million people are under orders to not leave their homes unless it is necessary.
All of Italy is a “zona rossa,” a red zone, until at least April 3, the government said. This means that the entire country is under a state of emergency where every school, gym, cinema and museum is ordered to close. People are being told to stay home even in places where the virus has not yet arrived and authorities will monitor travelers throughout the country. People are being told they can move from home only to go to work, for health reasons, for emergencies and necessity.
“Unfortunately, there is no more time. The numbers of [infected people] are getting worse,” Conte said in televised remarks. “There will no longer be a red zone, but instead all of Italy will be a protected zone.”
Italy’s decision to impose a nationwide quarantine is a drastic turn of events in Europe’s fight to contain the coronavirus. Italian media said Italian armed forces may be marshaled to enforce the quarantine.
Initially on Sunday, Italy took the dramatic step to quarantine about 16 million people in the country’s financial and economic nerve center of Milan and surrounding provinces because the numbers of infected and dying people continued to grow.
The shutdown of northern Italy and a precipitous fall in oil prices and financial markets on Monday highlighted how serious this global disease outbreak has become. The virus is sparking fears of a global economic recession as the number of cases worldwide surges past 111,000. Financial markets around the world were hit with massive sell-offs, and the price of oil hit a low not seen since 1991 during the Gulf War. Wall Street opened on Monday down 7%.
The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned on Monday that the risk of a pandemic was “very real.”
“Now that the virus has a foothold in so many countries, the threat of a pandemic has become very real,” Ghebreyesus said at a news conference at the WHO headquarters in Geneva.
Many scientists, meanwhile, say the disease should already be described as a pandemic because of its global spread. The virus was first reported in December in China, where most of the infections and deaths have occurred. But Iran, South Korea and Italy are now fighting their own major outbreaks, and more cases are showing up around the globe.
Italy’s regional quarantine was put into effect Sunday after the country reported a steep rise in the number of infected people and deaths. The effects of the quarantine went far beyond the outbreak zone and left Italy’s historic piazzas, cathedrals and boulevards eerily empty as Italians and tourists disappeared. Following Monday’s nationwide quarantine, the country was set to become even more ghostly.
Italian authorities on Sunday reported that 133 more people had died in the previous 24 hours, bringing the total number of deaths to 366. By Monday, the country saw another spike in confirmed infections and deaths with officials reporting 463 deaths and 1,598 new confirmed cases. Many more people showing few symptoms are likely carrying the virus without knowing it.
“These numbers are similar to those of a war,” Emanuele Catena, a doctor at the Sacco hospital in Milan, told RAI television, an Italian broadcaster. “These are numbers that we couldn’t have imagined just a few days ago. There are people who were fine just a few days ago who are today very sick and on ventilators.”
The restrictions were first imposed on Milan, Italy’s financial capital of 1.3 million inhabitants, and the surrounding Lombardy region and several nearby provinces, including Venice and Parma.
It was not a complete lockdown. People were allowed to leave and enter the quarantine zones for health, work and other urgent reasons, and people continued to move in and out of Milan’s train stations and airports Monday, albeit under the scrutiny of Italian police and authorities. On Saturday, as news of the quarantine was leaked to the press, people rushed to leave northern Italy, raising concerns that infected people will spread the virus in more places. Southern Italy is poorer and its health system is considered less equipped to handle a major outbreak.
The move in Italy mirrors a quarantine Chinese authorities have imposed on about 56 million people in Hubei province since late January to stop the spread of this new virus, known as COVID-19. The tough measures in China appear to be paying off, with the country reporting a decline in new infections and deaths.
“Everyone has to do their part, which can be summed up in three words: Stay at home,” said Giorgio Gori, the mayor of Bergamo, a city in Lombardy at the center of the outbreak.
In an interview on RAI, Gori said hospitals were strained by the number of sick people, and he urged everyone to obey the quarantine to prevent the health system from reaching a breaking point.
Businesses were asked to let people work from home or shut down. Everyone was told to stay indoors as much as possible and venture outside only for necessities.
“This year, March is like Ferragosto,” the mayor said, referring to an Italian holiday in August when many companies close down for an extended summer break. “Instead, this year in August we will work.”
Nightclubs, gymnasiums, cinemas and other communal places in the quarantine zone were told to close. Bars and restaurants were allowed to stay open, but people are required to stay at least three feet away from each other to avoid contagion.
Schools across the country were already closed, and now theaters, cinemas, casinos, nightclubs and many other venues nationwide were also told to close. Sporting events across Italy have been canceled. The country’s premier soccer league, Serie A, may shut down too. Games have been played in empty stadiums because fans are not allowed in. Pope Francis delivered his weekly Sunday address, the Angelus, via video instead of in person from a Vatican window to prevent people gathering as they usually do to hear his prayer.
The worsening situation in Italy also sparked about two dozen prison riots throughout Italy that left six inmates dead, Italian media reported. Inmates apparently began rioting because of restrictions placed on visits from family members. There are also fears the virus may spread within Italy’s overcrowded prison system. In Milan, prisoners were able to climb onto the roof of a prison and hold up a painted bedsheet with the Italian word for “pardon” written on it. At a prison riot in Foggia in southern Italy, authorities said about 20 inmates were able to escape.
The virus continues to spread elsewhere in Europe with several countries reporting alarming spikes in recent days.
Over the weekend, France banned gatherings of more than 1,000 people. It already has closed schools in the hardest-hit areas. On Monday, France reported 21 deaths and more than 1,190 cases.
Worldwide, more than 3,500 people have died from the disease in 106 nations and territories.
With the spread of the virus causing so much disruption, European leaders are considering a number of measures to stave off economic recession.
Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said the virus was having a “vast impact” on Europe’s economy and that the EU was looking at “everything we can do.”
Since the 2008 financial crisis, the EU has imposed strict limits on deficit spending and forced many countries to adopt cost-cutting budgets. But many economists argue that these tight fiscal rules have been a drag on European economies and caused stagnation.
The European Central Bank is scheduled to meet on Thursday, and it could take measures to cushion an economic slump caused by the virus and stave off potential bankruptcies. Other central banks – the Bank of Japan and the Bank of England – are signaling they are ready to step in with stimulus packages and the U.S. Federal Reserve issued a rate cut last week.
But with Europe’s central bank already offering historically low interest rates on deposits it holds, it remains uncertain how much more it can do. The bank may call on national governments in the EU to do more to kickstart economies.
Italy’s government says it will introduce a number of measures to help boost its economy, which was sluggish and on the verge of recession even before the coronavirus outbreak. Italy is struggling under a heavy public debt and fiscal constraints on new borrowing imposed by the EU. Last week, the country pledged to inject $8.5 billion to help withstand the damage caused by the epidemic. The EU has said it will come to Italy’s economic aid too.
Germany, Europe’s economic engine, is taking action too as the number of infections rise there. On Monday, Germany reported more than 1,100 people were infected and the country saw its first death. German leaders are putting together a $14.2 billion aid package to help businesses and workers.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)