Bengaluru: There was a sigh of relief in Italy this weekend as its daily Covid-19 toll fell to its lowest in two weeks, leading the authorities in Rome to declare that the containment restrictions in place might be eased soon.
There have been over 15,000 Covid-19 deaths in Italy so far, a number second only to that of China, where the pandemic originated. The situation was so grave at one point that medical staff were reportedly prioritising treatment for those with better odds of survival.
Struggling against the pandemic, Italy announced a series of stringent measures aimed at controlling the spread of Covid-19. The national lockdown announced on 9 March banned everything from shops (except pharmacies and food markets) to strolls in the parks and all non-essential economic activity. Violators faced jail time of up to three months and heavy fines.
Its response to the pandemic was praised by many as being the most aggressive after China’s, and it seems to have worked.
“The curve has started its descent and the number of deaths has started to drop,” Italy’s ISS (National Institute of Health, overseen by the Ministry of Health) director Silvio Brusaferro told the media Sunday.
“If these data are confirmed (in the coming days), we will have to start thinking about phase two,” he said in reference to a potential easing of the month-long national lockdown.
The lockdown currently in place in Italy is scheduled to last until 13 April, but is expected to be extended.
Italy’s first Covid-19 death was recorded on 22 February. The country accounts for less than 1 per cent of the world’s population but its Covid-19 toll at 15,887 is almost a quarter of global fatalities.
However, the number of deaths recorded Sunday, 525, is the lowest the country has seen since 19 March. The number of new cases recorded Sunday, 4,316, was a decline too from around 6,000/day in the days before.
The number of ICU beds occupied by Covid-19 patients has also seen a decrease over the past few days, especially in the northern region of Lombardy, which has been the country’s worst affected.
Officials estimate that Italy’s R0, the basic reproduction rate of the virus or the number of people a single infected individual can pass the disease on to, has dropped from 2-3 to one.
Strict measures introduced
The first few days of the outbreak in the Lombardy region allegedly saw the misdiagnosis of some patients since Covid-19 manifests in pneumonia-like symptoms.
This is believed to have led some hospitals and clinics becoming hotspots for the spread of the disease.
The country declared a six-month state of emergency on 31 January, also suspending travel with China after two tourists tested positive for Covid-19.
In February, outbreak clusters were identified and quarantine imposed in parts of northern Italy. Dividing the country in accordance with intensity of the outbreak, Italy outlined zones of complete quarantine (red zone, which covered parts of northern Italy, to begin with) surrounded by buffer zones (yellow zone) and the rest of the national territory, where sanitation measures were performed but there weren’t any restrictions as such.
Over a week later, on 9 March, the whole of Italy was declared a red zone.
Additional measures included a helpline people with symptoms could call, so they didn’t have to visit hospitals. By February end, additional police personnel were assigned on patrol duties to enforce social distancing.
On 1 March, Italy began to prepare a plan to contain the outbreak, with guidelines similar to those released by the Indian government last week for the next stage of containment.
On 11 March, 25 billion euros were allocated for emergency response and by 19 March, the army was being deployed to the worst-hit regions to transport bodies to crematoriums after cemeteries became full.
Meanwhile, the army and police continued to enforce the lockdown. People were issued fines for travelling without a permit or gathering in public, or violating the lockdown in any way. Individuals who violated the rules faced arrest for up to three months, and the country charged thousands of violators.
Italy also disallowed conjugal visits for prison inmates or day releases. To make the measures even stricter, freedom of movement was restricted more with every passing week, as the fines climbed up.
On 1 April, the government extended the lockdown until 13 April.
Despite the stringent action, Italy’s seeming recovery has come at a heavy price.
The country has over 91,000 active cases, with around 21,000 discharged. Covid-19 is believed to be more lethal for the elderly and those with comorbidities like diabetes and hypertension, and Italy’s demography is seen as one of the prime reasons for its high toll — 23 per cent of the country’s population is aged 65 or above and the median age in the country is 47.
People aged 70 and older make up 37 per cent of Italy’s coronavirus cases as opposed to 12 per cent in China.
Most of Italy’s deaths are among people in the 80s and 90s, besides those with comorbidities, consistent with what has been observed around the world.
The country also lost several healthcare workers, with 80 doctors and 21 nurses believed to have died of Covid-19 since February.
Italy is also reportedly heading towards one of the worst recessions in modern history in the wake of the economic slowdown as well as stigmatisation.
For the next phase of dealing with Covid-19, Health Minister Roberto Speranza has outlined a series of measures for the gradual easing of restrictions until a vaccine is developed.
He said social distancing will continue to hold, as well as the use of masks. The health system will be strengthened to allow faster and more efficient treatment of suspected Covid-19 infections, and testing and contact-tracing will be in place as well, including through the use of smartphone apps.