CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) – Italy’s attempt to carry out a self-imposed nationwide quarantine began Tuesday but many Italian politicians are already pushing for even tougher restrictions, including shutting down most commercial activity, to rein in a coronavirus outbreak that’s brought the country to its knees.
Italy is struggling to contain an outbreak of the COVID-19 disease that has killed 631 people and swamped hospitals in Milan, northern Italy’s major city, and surrounding cities with thousands of patients, many of them old and fragile.
On Tuesday evening, Italian officials reported 168 more people had died from the virus, the largest rise since the outbreak began. The number of confirmed cases jumped by 10.7% from 9,172 to 10,149.
The virus is new to humans and it attacks the respiratory system. Grim stories of overwhelmed Italian medical staff warning against complacency are beginning to emerge that portray the severity of the outbreak. Their accounts echo harrowing stories from Wuhan, China, where the virus was first discovered in December and quickly led to tens of thousands of infections.
“One after another, poor unfortunate people are showing up at the emergency room,” Dr. Daniele Macchini, a doctor at the Humanitas Gavezzeni hospital in Bergamo, wrote on Facebook. “They are suffering from anything but flu symptoms. Stop saying this is just a bad flu.”
He described his hospital filling to capacity with incredible speed as more and more sick people, who’d lasted as long as they could at home, arrive. Many of them are older and struggling to breathe when they show up, he said. Exhausted medical staff are working around the clock. There are hardly enough hospital beds and respirators and the sick keep arriving, he said.
“The diagnosis is the same every time: the cursed bilateral interstitial pneumonia,” Macchini wrote. “Now, tell me which flu virus causes such a drama so fast?”
Across Europe, the number of infections is increasing and other countries are closing schools, banning large gatherings and ramping up preparations for similar outbreaks. Italy is becoming increasingly isolated too after Austria and Slovenia closed their borders with Italy and airlines and countries stop flights to and from Italy.
Italy took the momentous step to impose a nationwide quarantine after the number of infections continued to rise dramatically. On Feb. 21, Italy reported its first death linked to coronavirus. A week later, it reported 29 deaths; seven days later, March 7, deaths surged to 233. On Monday, Italy reported 463 deaths.
A slate of restrictions went into effect Tuesday that order Italy’s 60 million people to stay at home unless they have a good reason to leave, such as to go to work, buy food or seek medical attention. The quarantine forces bars and restaurants to close at 6 p.m. and it has shut down many public indoor spaces, such as gyms, schools and cinemas. People are also being told to maintain a 3-foot distance from each other while in public to avoid spreading the virus.
Largely, it seems Italians are paying heed to the government’s instructions, but still life is carrying on in most towns and cities as people go about shopping and working, and this is prompting calls for an even stricter quarantine.
On Tuesday, politicians affiliated with Italy’s right-wing parties called on the left-leaning government led by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to impose more restrictions.
“What’s been announced by the government is a first step,” said Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League, a popular right-wing party and the largest opposition force. “We must do more and quickly, without hesitations. Close down everything now.”
Attilio Fontana, the governor of Lombardy, the hardest-hit region, also asked Conte to clamp down more severely. “It’s time for firmness,” he said.
Salvini called for massive government spending of up to $79 billion to cover losses to people and businesses, and he suggested the European Union should foot much of the bill.
The European Central Bank is expected to meet on Thursday to outline what measures it will take to help Europe overcome the economic damage the outbreak is causing.
The Italian government is seeking $11.3 billion or more in aid funds. The European Commission has approved Italy’s request to spend more than strict deficit guidelines in the EU allow. The government also has announced mortgage payments have been suspended. Banks are saying they will be offering debt payment holidays for small businesses and families.
Conte, the Italian prime minister, met with right-wing parties to discuss imposing more restrictions, but as of late Tuesday he had not announced any new measures. Earlier on Tuesday, however, he signed a decree suspending football matches for Italy’s top league, the beloved Serie A. Some games had been played in empty stadiums after fans were barred from games.
For now, the main message is for people to do the right thing and stay home.
“Now is the moment to stay home,” said Nicola Zingaretti, the leader of the Democratic Party, a center-left party in government.
“It is time for unity,” Zingaretti said on a video shot from inside his home, where he has been self-isolating after he announced he too had been infected by the virus.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)